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Home > Editorials > Dolphins & Whales’ High Intelligence: It’s not Rocket Science!

Dolphins & Whales’ High Intelligence: It’s not Rocket Science!

I was reading an online article about dolphins’ intelligence recently and dumbfounded by a posted comment. Smarty-pants had quipped: “Most intelligent? When have dolphins gone to space or constructed a skyscraper?” The comment is a perfect illustration of how ‘we’ often compare dolphins’ (and other aquatic mammals’) behaviours to human traits. And, believe you me, there are many more examples like it.

Hvaldimir: the escapee beluga whale who plays ball

Take escapee ‘Hvaldimir’, the beluga whale trained by the Russian army and found alone in Northern Norway’s fjords. Clips of Hvaldimir retrieving a kayaker’s GoPro from the bottom of a marina, catching a rugby ball and being petted didn’t only go viral: ‘shares’ were invariably accompanied by comments on Hvaldimir’s cleverness. This, in my humble opinion, is down to the fact that Hvaldimir’s actions are relatable and human-like. As entertaining and surprising as Hvaldimir’s antics may be, it doesn’t mean that a beluga who won’t play catch is any less intelligent than Hvaldimir.

Arguably the ocean’s most intelligent animals

Scientists agree that, on average, a bigger brain is associated with somewhat higher intelligence. The brain of a bottlenose dolphin is not only larger but also has more wrinkles than our human brain does (the amount of our brain’s wrinkles seems to have a lot to do with what makes us ‘smarter’ than other animals). This doesn’t mean that dolphins can design complicated skyscrapers or orchestrate moon missions (after all, they would never have a need to) but it could relate to the fact that bottlenose dolphins have developed intricate mental circuits that humans haven’t. One such skill is echolocation, the unique trait which allows dolphins to navigate, hunt and identify enemies in pitch darkness. Their sonar prowess is accomplished through the transmission of high frequency clicks which move through water in the shape of acoustic waves and are reflected back to the emitter by, for example, prey. 

There is also evidence that dolphins are conscious of their own feelings. Just ask Richard O’Barry, founder of the Dolphin Project and man behind “The Cove” documentary. After O’Barry experienced Kathy, one of the dolphins that starred in the 1960s television show Flipper, kill herself, it immediately transformed the dolphin trainer into an animal-rights activist. “The suicide was what turned me around,” says O’Barry. “The [animal entertainment] industry doesn’t want people to think dolphins are capable of suicide, but these are self-aware creatures with a brain larger than a human brain. If life becomes so unbearable, they just don’t take the next breath.” *

The secrets of Earth’s best divers

Equally as mind-bending are the abilities of the sperm whale, bonafide “dinosaur” of the deep and one of the ocean’s most incredible divers. Sperm whales are known to dive as deep as 1000 – 2500 meters in search of giant squid. Moreover, scientists discovered marine species in sperm whales’ stomachs which live at a depth of 2000-3000 meters. This suggests the great leviathans can dive equally as deep. Sonars and hydrophones have also tracked the clicks of sperm whales down to these same astonishing depths.

Scientists have long been baffled by the giant mammals’ diving capabilities and only recently learnt the secrets of their deep dives. Their heads hold large quantities of a wax-like liquid called spermaceti. When a whale wants to descend, it retracts blood from the spermaceti organ. The spermaceti fluid then cools, hardens to wax and transforms to a paraffin-like consistency which allows the whale to sink like a stone. To ascend, the whale gains buoyancy by pumping hot blood back into the spermaceti organ. The paraffin-like substance then melts, altering the whale’s buoyancy so it can rise again. Essentially, a built-in BCD!

Earth’s most extreme mammal has an equally extreme circulatory system. The sperm whale can lower their heartbeat to conserve oxygen and is able to avoid decompression illness. The latter is accomplished by stopping oxygen from penetrating their blood cells when they reach a depth of 100 meters.

Note: While this trance-like state means the whale won’t suffer from ‘the bends’, it creates a different, modern-day, risk. They are still in this kind of altered state when they resurface, which means they often can’t react quick enough when fast moving vessels cross their paths.

The great leviathans’ bragging rights

Another thing that gives the sperm whale bragging rights is its ability to produce sounds which clock in at an impressive 236 decibels. Its calls are claimed to sound like underwater explosions and to be louder than a jet engine at take-off. These powerful vocalisations are used to detect prey and (probably) pass information between each other. Scientist have been trying to decipher their messages for years, but progress is slow. There are only a handful of scientists studying sperm whales, gentle giants that are notoriously shy and elusive. What we do know is that they have the largest brain of any creature known to have lived on the planet. Their brain weighs 5 times as much as a human brain and includes a neocortex which is 6 times the size ours is. What will really blow you away is that sperm whales have spindle neurons – cells that are linked to love and the ability to suffer emotionally. In fact, spindle neurons were touted as the cells that differentiate humans and great apes from all other mammals. 

A unique example of sperm whales’ emotional intelligence is an experience firmmÒ’s (Foundation for Information and Research on Marine Mammals) founder Katharina Heyer had in Tarifa. I was working for Heyer’s foundation at the time and she recounted the story on her return from a whale watching expedition. They were heading out of Tarifa’s port, when several blows were seen through binoculars from the top deck. Naturally, the captain changed course and headed towards the blows. On arrival, the crew encountered 7 sperm whales gathered into a ‘marguerite formation’ – which means that all whales were positioned in a circle with their heads facing the centre and tails pointing outwards. When the vessel inched even closer, the crew spotted a pilot whale in the middle of the formation. She had just given birth and her new-born calf had died. Sperm whales group together in these unique formations to protect a weaker or threatened whale.

Over to you..

I believe the various discoveries of whales’ and dolphins’ capabilities certainly stimulate debate, both on the level of marine mammals’ non- terrestrial intelligence and on the ethics of comparing their skills and behaviours to ours. What do you think?

Wishing you a whale of a day,

Capt. Dominique Geysen


*Richard O’Barry’s quote originally appeared in a 2010 issue of Time magazine.

Special Thanks to firmmÒ for the photo credits.