Are Whales And Dolphins The Great Apes Of The Oceans?

New Zealand dolphin (Hector's dolphin)
Almost twenty years ago WDCS produced a report called, simply, Why Whales?. This report explored the ethical, conservation and welfare arguments for protecting whales; it asked the question Why? What is so special about this group of animals that inspires awe, appreciation and a desire to help and to protect? Since the publication of the report these arguments have evolved, along with the science that underpins them. The reasons to give this group of animals special consideration are more pressing today than they were even ten or twenty years ago.

The World's oceans continue to be negatively effected by human activities; from noise and chemical pollution, floating fishing nets and plastics, to climate change and ocean acidification, and, sadly, the slaughter of whales and dolphins continues unabated. 

Now is a good time to ask these questions again, to reassess what we know, and to ask ourselves Why Whales?

In the last two decades we have learnt a great deal more about the social complexities of the lives of many whale and dolphin species. We are only scratching the surface, but we now know, for example, that certain individual dolphins have a very specific role to play within their communities; also that information can be passed between individuals of the same species and sometimes between generations, in a transmission of knowledge that many scientists now recognise as non-human culture. We also know that some species possess special brain cells known as spindle neurons, believed to be associated with empathy and emotional intelligence. These cells were previously thought only to be found in the brains of humans and other primates.

These wondrous revelations about our ocean cousins bring with them a certain responsibility; we must reconsider the implications of our actions beyond the basic viewpoint of sustainable removals, or what a population can survive. These crude analyses will simply no longer suffice. We must challenge ourselves to develop more sophisticated orders of protection than the traditional levels currently defined by genetic or geographic boundaries. Instead, it is time to consider how we can protect these animals at the sub-population and individual level and develop ideas for how we can protect some of their unique cultures.

With our growing understanding of cetacean cognition we could ask ourselves, Are whales and dolphins the Great Apes of the oceans? But comparing any intelligent being with our closest terrestrial cousins reveals a certain human-centric approach to intelligence to which we are prone. Perpetual questions of how like us other species are demonstrate the elementary nature of our understanding of other species intelligence. Too often we view ourselves as the pinnacle of evolution; the yardstick of intelligence by which all other animals must be judged.

Extraordinary as it may be, and difficult as it often is for us to grasp, there are alternative types of intelligence to that of our own, often serving very specific biological functions. Indeed, some social species, possibly including cetaceans, may poses a form of collective intelligence which is difficult for us to envision, let alone to measure. But there may be some parallels that we could consider. Is it possible, for example, that human impacts on marine environments, such as habitat degradation, bring about their own kind of collective social malaise upon a whale or dolphin community? Effects similar to those in our own pressured societies?

Furthermore, understanding different sensory perception of the world also brings a new perspective. It may indeed be us that are blind as bats when we come to consider that some species, including certain cetacean species, visualise the world through rebounding sound.

At the inception of the Save the Whale campaigns of the 1970s, whales were seen as an environmental icon - after all, if we couldnt save the whales, what hope did other less obviously charismatic species have? Whales remain today as much an emblem of environmental issues as they did 40 years ago. But perhaps now there is also growing recognition that whales and dolphins, with their advanced cognition and complex societies, are also ambassadors for the wider animal welfare and animal protection movement.

What do we mean when we speak of animal protection? Is it a broader sense of protecting their interests in the physical world - such as ensuring they have healthy environments, enough food to eat, space and safety to exhibit their natural range of behaviours and freedom from hunting? If we acknowledge - as science is telling us that we should - that these are intelligent, sentient beings, often with complex social networks and interactions, that can transmit cultural knowledge, then we must also consider the broader short- and long-term psychological wellbeing of these individuals when we consider their welfare and their protection.

Dr Victor Scheffer, US marine mammal scientist, observed that ...as we reflect on mans maltreatment of whales we are moved to think about his maltreatment of other forms of wildlife and of domestic, laboratory and exhibit animals1. Perhaps then, our ability to connect with our oceanic mammalian cousins, our interest in their lives, their importance to so many of our human cultures, is of significance to a much wider movement towards enhanced levels of protection for other sentient beings.

There are undoubtedly many mysteries waiting to be unravelled in the frontiers of whale and dolphin science. The 21st Century is likely to provide some extraordinary insights and, sadly, some spectacular challenges, for ourselves and for our ocean going relatives. But now, more than ever, one thing is certain: whales need your consideration; they need your compassion; and they need your help.

Author: Philippa Brakes, WDCS Senior Biologist and Ethics Programme Leader, December 2009

1. Why Whales? A Special Publication. Published by The Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (1991).