The hidden world of whale culture

From singing competitions to food preferences, scientists are learning whales have cultural differences once thought to be unique to humans.

WHALE CULTURE

Nearly 2,000 belugas frolic each summer near Arctic Canada’s Somerset Island, nursing their young, chattering in squeaks and whistles, and swimming about in shifting networks of companions and family. Scientists suspect many whale species share cultural traditions, much as humans do.

John Ford wanted a whale’s-eye view. One summer day in 1978 a pod of killer whales raced toward a pebbled beach on British Columbia’s Vancouver Island. The young biologist was waiting in a wet suit and snorkel. The ghostly black-and-white procession steamed in like a team of U-boats, low and fast. Ford pressed on his face mask and slipped into the sea. In waters barely 10 feet deep, the creatures slowed and rolled to their sides. Bodies partially submerged, the fans at the end of their tails—their flukes—wagging, the whales began to twist and shimmy. One by one, each scuffed its side and belly on the stones, like grizzlies scratching against the pines.

Ford, age 66, has now studied killer whales, the largest dolphin and from the branch of the Cetacean order known as toothed whales, for more than 40 years. He’s seen this phenomenon, called beach rubbing, countless times since that first underwater glimpse. He can’t say for certain why the animals do it. He suspects it’s a form of social bonding. A larger question, though, has gnawed at him for much of his career: How come these killer whales, or orcas, do it, but not their nearly identical neighbors just to the south?

Beach rubbing is routine among this population, called northern residents because they ply inland seas during summer and fall between the Canadian mainland and Vancouver Island. Not so their neighbors to the south. The orcas around the border with Washington State, where I live, have never been documented performing this ritual.

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