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Gray whale © Lucy Molleson/WDC

Whale culture

What makes whales and dolphins so special?

Like us, whales and dolphins are intelligent beings capable of experiencing pleasure and suffering pain. And like us they have culture and societies all of their own.

Many live in complex social groups, communicate in different dialects, pass on culture through generations, engage in play and even grieve the loss of family and friends.

Understanding and appreciating this social complexity is essential to ensure that whale and dolphin populations not only survive, but thrive.

WDC believes whales and dolphins should have special recognition, and deserve the kind of protection that only comes with legal rights.

How much do we really know about them?

Scientists around the world are constantly surprised by whales and dolphins, the complexity of their social lives, and their incredible communication skills and intelligence.

We have so much to learn about these amazing individuals, and the more we learn the more we are amazed at what we find.

There is clear scientific evidence that, like humans, some whales and dolphins are highly intelligent:

  • Many socialize and live in complex societies
  • Some exhibit play behaviour, which may help them learn key skills, or may even just be fun
  • There is evidence that some species grieve for their dead
  • Some species have cultural ways of behaving, which they pass on to their offspring and their peers.

Some species possess brain cells known as spindle neurons, believed to be associated with empathy and emotional intelligence. People used to think that these cells were only found in the brains of humans and some other primates.

Some individuals have specific roles to play within their communities as leaders and innovators, just like us. And, like us, they have the right to live in a world where they are safe and free.

The more we discover, the more we are inspired and humbled. The more we learn, the more our human-centric view of the world is challenged as we realize our responsibilities towards other intelligent beings with whom we share our blue planet.

Sperm whales have the largest brain of any species.
Sperm whales have the largest brain of any species. Photo © Andrew Sutton

Whale and dolphin culture

What have scientists learnt so far about culture in whales and dolphins?

Humpback whale

Sentient and sapient whales and dolphins

Whales and dolphin have emotions and feelings and live complex, diverse lives.

Risso's dolphin

Scientific evidence for whale and dolphin rights

The science behind the argument for whale and dolphin rights.

Sperm whale © Tim Stenton

Personhood - who are whales and dolphins?

Whales and dolphins are a 'who' not a 'what'. So how should we treat them?

Orca spyhop

Latest news about whale culture

Rescuers find young girl’s body surrounded by dolphins

Reports from South Africa about a tragic drowning off Llandudno beach, Cape Town say that the body of a teenager was found surrounded by a pod of dolphins. Rescue services launched a search for the missing 15-year-old girl who is thought to have slipped off the rocks and been swept away by strong currents. Her body…

Sperm whale underwater

Did sperm whales learn how to avoid whaling ships?

Sperm whales only have one natural predator – the orca (killer whale) and will form tight circles when threatened with their tails facing outwards to defend themselves. This reaction to whalers simply made it easier for them to be hunted, however historical data shows that just a few years after their first encounters with whalers,…

Meet the brainiacs of the underwater world – deep thinkers with intricate emotional lives

Whales and dolphins have big brains, and large brained beings have a few things in common. We live long lives, we’re sociable and our behaviour is complex. Females give birth to just a few children and take extraordinary care of each baby, teaching them life skills and helping them to become independent. Whales and dolphins behave in ways…

We hope that one day we will celebrate whale and dolphin rights being recognised in law. When these rights are recognised; whaling will not be allowed, and no human will be able to own a whale or dolphin, or cause them deliberate harm.

Declaration of Rights for Cetaceans: Whales and Dolphins

To help us achieve our aim, WDC played a key role in developing a ‘declaration’, which you can sign to show your support.

Please help us protect whales and dolphins and their homes

Do you agree that whales and dolphins have a right to live free and healthy lives, safe from the threats of whaling, captivity, pollution and fishing fleets?

Help WDC establish the recognition of whale and dolphin cultures into global and local conservation policy.

Orca - Rob Lott


Adopt a whale or dolphin and help us end captivity.

Bottlenose dolphins leaping


Your gift will help us ensure the needs of whales and dolphins gain proper recognition.

Humpback whale spyhop


Run, bake, walk, cycle… what could you do to help?