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Thursday, December 1, 2022

The Secret Lives of Sperm Whales

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Melville and bath toys aside, “for centuries, the only thing humans cared to understand about whales was how to kill them,” Carl Safina writes in his foreword to SPERM WHALES: The Gentle Goliaths of the Ocean (Rizzoli, $50). But after near-extinction in the 1970s, many species of whales — and thus our oceans — are slowly repopulating. “Almost too late we acquired a modicum of respect.”

With deep reverence and curiosity for the sperm whale’s existence, the author, marine scientist and photographer Gaelin Rosenwaks traveled to one of the few places where they can be seen by humans: the “Kool-Aid”-blue waters off of Dominica in the Caribbean.

Listening for the rhythmic sonar clicks (“codas”) with which these air-breathing mammals hunt and communicate — “the loudest sound in the living world,” Safina says — Rosenwaks witnessed them diving for squid a mile beneath the surface, sleeping (vertically!), grooming, nursing, at play.

Sperm whales are social beings; individuals associate in families, who then collect in clans. The males, who can reach 100,000 pounds to females’ 30,000, stay with their mothers for a decade until they “go off to roam the ocean.” But the females, Rosenwaks marvels, remain bonded for life: “grandmothers, mothers, daughters and aunts” cohabitating, co-parenting and communing with one another over an average life span of 70 years. Passing knowledge and practices through generations, sperm whales around the world “vary in behavior and can be distinguished by their language, traditions and codas.”

At one point, finding herself “locked in a gaze” with an adult female for half an hour, Rosenwaks feels less the observer than the observed. “There is nothing like looking into the eye of a sperm whale,” she says. “Their eyes are filled with wisdom that penetrates your soul.”


Lauren Christensen is an editor at the Book Review.



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