As a Ph.D. candidate at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia and a lead researcher for the Dominica Sperm Whale Project, Shane Gero has spent thousands of hours at sea observing families of sperm whales off the coast of the Caribbean island of Dominica. His research marks the first time that scientists have tracked individual sperm whales from birth into maturity, and it provides insights into sperm whale society, diet, genetics, communication and culture.
How did you become interested in sperm whales?
They are the largest of the toothed whales, among the deepest divers, have the planet’s largest brain, and they can be found in every ocean and most coastal seas and gulfs on the planet, so as a result they are a significant part of the ocean ecosystem. They also live in complex multi-level societies, have a highly sophisticated communication system, and show signs of culture – so there are lots of interesting questions to explore.
During your research have you become attached to any of the individual whales?
I don’t pretend that the animals know who I am, but I have followed some of these whales since birth. I have been there as they have played with their siblings, nursed from their mothers and through the toils and troubles of growing up. As a result, I feel an obligation to them to share their stories in an effort to ensure they have a healthy ocean in which to raise the next generation.
What do you see as the biggest threats facing sperm whales?
While whaling for sperm whales has largely stopped, humans are still the sources of the major threats to sperm whales. Chemical and heavy metals are being found in the tissues of animals from around the world, including those as far away as Antarctica, and animals can become entangled in fishing gear including longline and gill nets. But ocean noise is increasingly being seen as a major threat to cetaceans around the world.
Close your eyes and imagine you’re a sperm whale. Your world is mostly darkness. In order to stay connected with your family you play a constant game of Marco Polo. You see with sound. Now imagine a constant background noise from all around blurring the echoes. As humans it might compare to living in a rock concert your whole life, just asking your neighbor a simple question would be difficult.
Why do you think sperm whale conservation is important?
On an evolutionary timeline, sperm whales are among the oldest of the toothed whales. They have lived in the oceans for longer than modern humans have walked upright. Both the whales and humanity depend on the ocean for survival, so in some ways, I am not asking people to care about sperm whales specifically, I am just asking them to care. If more people feel the shared burden we all have to protect the oceans then I will have done my job.
Anything else you want to share about sperm whales or your research?
Ultimately, what I have learnt from these families of sperm whales thus far is simple. Love your family. Learn from your grandmothers’ experience. Be a good neighbor. Share the burden of your responsibilities by working together. Spend time with your older brother because eventually he moves away. And most importantly, life, it seems, is about the relationships one builds with those around them.