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Q&A: Sperm Whale Researcher Shane Gero

A mother sperm whale nursing her calf. [Image courtesy Shane Gero.]

The spring issue of Oceana magazine is now available online! We are especially excited about the Q&A in this issue, which I did with sperm whale researcher Shane Gero.

Gero, who wrote an incredible guest blog post for us last year, is working on his PhD at Nova Scotia's Dalhousie University, and is the lead researcher for the Dominica Sperm Whale Project.

He has 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. Prepare to be amazed:

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.


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Guest Post: Following a Family of Sperm Whales

sperm whales

Sperm whale Fingers nurses her calf, Thumb. [Image courtesy Shane Gero.]

Editor’s Note: Guest blogger Shane Gero is a Ph.D. candidate at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia and a lead researcher for the Dominica Sperm Whale Project.

I met Enigma when he was only a few months old. He was about three meters long and probably weighed over a ton.

That’s about average for a newborn sperm whale. When he reaches full size, in about 25 years, Enigma might be as long as 18 meters and weigh over 50 tons.

I have been following Enigma’s family since before he was born. I have spent literally thousands of hours at sea following them and about 20 other families of sperm whales which live in the eastern Caribbean Sea.

It has really been the first time that anyone has come to know these leviathans from the deep as individuals with personalities, as brothers and sisters or as mothers and babysitters, and as a community of families each with their own ways of doing things, their own dialects, and their own cultures.

Sperm whale relationships are very much like our social lives -- more so than many might like to admit. The main difference is the most obvious, they live in the ocean. You see, most of the ocean is actually dark. Only a thin layer at the surface gets any light from the sun. For a sperm whale, life is really in the darkness of the deep.

I jokingly call them “surfacers” rather than “divers” because an adult female, like Enigma’s mother Mysterio, will spend over 80 percent of her life in the darkness of the deep ocean feeding. She will only spend about 10 to 15 minutes of every hour in the part of the ocean that sunlight touches and where I can observe her interacting with other members of her family.

As a result, while Mysterio’s eyesight is good both above and below the water, her world is dominated by sound. Just like bats, sperm whales have evolved a system of echolocation to “see” in the dark. Their unique nose, which houses the most powerful natural sonar system, has allowed them to exploit the deepest parts of the ocean that very few other mammals can, and as a result has made them a significant part of the ocean ecosystem. Globally, sperm whales can eat as much squid as all of humanity’s fisheries combined.


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