What Do Whales “See?”

I presented my program called “Whales: A World of Sound” last weekend at the Rey Center in Waterville Valley, New Hampshire. There are three components to the program, and unfortunately I only managed to cover two of the three: ocean acoustics and whale communication.

The third component I touched on, but only briefly. It could potentially be an entire presentation in itself: How does living in a sound world shape a whale’s consciousness and world view?

We will leave aside the question of whether whales have consciousness and world views. This has been for a long time the deadly third rail of animal science, because it is essentially impossible to verify the inner experience of any other creature, humans included. But I don’t have to be strictly scientific here or in my talks, so I take it as a given that whales are conscious and therefore have a world view (I assume that whales and other animals do have an experience of the world, as we do. I assume that conscious experience is a function of a reasonably complex nervous system. These are assumptions. No one has figured out what causes sensory stimuli to be experienced. But I am comfortable with the assumption that if it happens in the human nervous system, it is common to all complex nervous systems, perhaps even to all nervous systems, perhaps even to all complex systems. I will forever wonder in what ways the universe experiences itself, as a whole universe, not just through its individual parts, but that is another topic entirely).

While you and I live primarily by sight, and our sense of the world is shaped by the way light waves interact with solid surfaces, whales live primarily by sound, and their world is shaped by how sound waves interact in water.

Think about this for a moment. We know the world through our 5 senses, and through a myriad of other senses that we don’t often name (sense of location in space, sense of impending danger, sense of humor, gut feelings of many types), but especially through our sense of sight. We are heavily oriented toward the visual world. We also know the world through the way that our brain processes the raw sensory information it receives from the very specific structures of the eye, ear, nose, touch receptors, and tongue. One could say it is not the external world that we know. All we really know is an inner world of our particular sense receptors and the particular way that our brain processes the information from those receptors. This combination gives us our way of “seeing” and understanding the world.

So how do other creatures experience the world?

We know, for instance, that bats use sonar to create three-dimensional maps of the world, that they “see” through sonar much the way humans see through vision. We have no idea how a bat experiences that world, but we can imagine that it might be somewhat like how we see the world. Except that the physical properties of high-frequency sound are very different from the properties of the frequencies of light through which humans see the world. So what is “seen” by the bat is not the same as what is seen by the human.

We all know this most clearly through our familiarity with dogs. We know that they live in a world of smells that is beyond our capacity to experience. To some very significant degree, a dog’s world is a world of smells, and we can only imagine how a dog constructs its view of the world through this complex intertwining of many scents from all directions.

Whales primarily experience the world through sound. Vision is nearly useless in most oceans of the world. What is this sound world like? Furthermore, whales are essentially water bodies moving in a water world. Land animals are water bodies moving in a world of air. Sound waves move very easily from ocean-water to body-water. One possible consequence of this is that whales are essentially transparent to each other and seamless with the ocean, that the boundary between whale and ocean is blurry, not sharp the way the visual boundary is. Dolphins, porpoises and sperm whales, all of whom use high-frequency sonar, can probably “see” right through and into each other. A dolphin fetus is probably “visible” to other dolphins from the beginning. And that fetus is probably experiencing the mother’s sonar-illuminated world from the moment its nervous system is developed enough to process the information. All toothed whales are highly social creatures, and we can only begin to imagine the level of intimacy they experience and how that shapes their view of the world and each other.

Large baleen whales do not use high-frequency sonar, but rather use very low-frequency sounds for communication, probably for finding food, and probably for navigation. Low frequency sounds are not useful for creating a fine-scaled map of the world, but are excellent for finding large scale structures at great distances, like islands and coastlines. There is some evidence that large whales do indeed tend to swim long distances from one large structure to another. Possibly they find these structures using low-frequency sonar. Possibly they have a detailed map of the ocean in their memory. Possibly that map includes not only islands and seamounts and coastlines, but also the locations of all the other whales that they can hear across thousands of miles.

Try to imagine what it is like to live in a water world of sound in which boundaries are fluid or nearly transparent. I imagine a solid world of island and continents, and a diffuse, fluid world of echo and movement that is a nearly seamless life/water entity. The sound boundaries are very soft. I wonder if the whales experience themselves as the ocean itself, taking shape and making sound. They are that ocean.

When humans meet whales, one of the most common experiences we have is to feel a sense of deep commonality with the whale, a feeling of unity, of oneness, as if the boundary between human and whale melts away and we experience being one life movement together. As if we are members of one body. For that moment we feel more like the body as a whole, and less like one individual member of the body.

That whales are highly communicative animals is undeniable. Are they conveying to us their essential experience of the world? When we encounter them, are we briefly glimpsing the world as they experience it, as a nearly seamless whole? We with our vision-oriented world and a brain that tends to divide everything up into distinct categories and entities have a very fragmented worldview. The whales, I would guess, tend to experience the world and their place in it much more in its unity, as a seamless whole. When we meet them, we get this glimpse, but we have a very hard time holding onto that perception. It is not how our brains are set up.

This could explain why some people feel that whales are highly-evolved spiritually. I am not going to comment on that. I have no idea at all what the inner life of a whale is. They have been around a lot longer than we have so it does not seem unreasonable to me to imagine that they are more highly developed in many realms than we are, but I really do not know.

But based on trying to imagine myself into their sound-mediated world, based on having sat for many hours with eyes closed just listening to the world, including the groans and gurgles and thumps of my own body, and based on the fact that in water all those sounds would be clearer, more transparent, and would travel much greater distances more quickly, I can easily imagine that the whales hear the world in its essential wholeness.

And it seems to me that this sense of wholeness is somehow communicated when we meet. And since wholeness, or the essential unity of existence, is the central feature of what we call spirituality, it makes sense that we experience whales as highly-developed spiritual beings. That doesn’t mean they believe in God, or come from Alpha Centauri or came to earth to teach us how to live in harmony with each other. But it does mean that we have a lot to learn from them, if we can set aside for awhile our human way of seeing the world, separated into distinct things, and step, even for that one brief, indescribable moment, into their way of hearing the world as one unified body, from which nothing can be separated.

If this subject interests you, there is a new show from the Canadian Broadcast Company called Ocean Mind. It covers these same subjects from a similar perspective. Downloads are available here:

Listen at

https://www.cbc.ca/player/play/1524312099 (part 1)

https://www.cbc.ca/player/play/1524316864 (part 2)

Download here:

Ocean Mind

Note 6-26-2021: The links above are working as of this date, but previous links have disappeared. If you are interested, I recommend downloading the files at Jeff Warren’s site while they are available.

I was excited to hear this show, because it has been scientifically unacceptable to talk about these things for many decades. Between hard-core scientist and new-age seeker, there has been very little friendly ground for exploring these questions. I am happy to see it coming out once again. We humans have a lot to learn in a very short time if we are going to prevent making the world uninhabitable for us all, and whales do seem to be able to show us this essential thing: that we are all members of one body together. Whatever befalls one member of the body, befalls the whole body. Our fate and their fate are therefore inextricably intertwined.