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Feature Story
Deadly Sonar
Page 5

While Whitehead and I were speaking, Weilgart returned with the youngest of their three children, 12-year-old Sonja. After lunch the four of us took Balaena out for a sail. Weilgart took the helm as Whitehead raised the sails. Weilgart is a tall, slim woman with long, dark hair. As she steered us out of their cove, she told me that her parents were Austrian-German refugees, and that in Vienna her uncle’s family had picnicked with the Freuds. Her father had fled Vienna just before World War II and she herself had grown up in Iowa, where her father taught psychology and her mother German at Luther College in Decorah. Her father spoke 14 languages but had spent much of his career developing a single international lingua franca made of 20 symbols that he hoped would be less open to political manipulation than the German of his youth.

Because of her family’s experience, the funding issue has been particularly resonant for Weilgart. "As scientists," she said, "it affects us more because we see the chilling influence on our colleagues. It’s a difficult position to put scientists in. You want to believe what you read and -- imperfect as the whole process of science may be -- we don’t want scientists to lose their credibility. It’s central to the whole democratic process."

Weilgart and Whitehead have collaborated on studies of sperm whales off Sri Lanka, off the Galapagos, and in the South Pacific. Over time they have refined a model of sperm whale social structure using photo identifications of individual whales, DNA studies of sloughed skin, and acoustic recording, concluding that, much like elephants, sperm whales live in extended matrilineal groupings that persist for decades. They’ve also discovered a vocabulary of distinctive click-like "codas" with which whales in these groups communicate. Their breakthrough came during a sabbatical year in 1992–1993. They took their two children -- Benjamin, then age 5, and Stefanie, 6 months (Sonja had not yet been born) -- and sailed across the Pacific and back collecting data. They concluded that each sperm-whale population group not only had its own coda vocabulary -- taught to successive generations -- but also distinctive behavioral norms. It was the data from this trip that led Whitehead and Luke Rendell to make their whale culture argument.

As we sailed outside Halifax harbor, Whitehead alluded to something he’d brought up several times: that he’d grown up at a time when being a whale scientist meant cutting up carcasses on the deck of a whaling ship. When he’d proposed undertaking his first offshore studies of sperm whales from a sailboat near Sri Lanka, he’d been assured it couldn’t be done. He seems to have taken this as a challenge. Through the exercise of pure science, he and Weilgart have not only defied the strictures of their field but also inferred startlingly insightful conclusions.

Despite the end of the era of mass whale slaughter, the general degradation of the oceans has left whales under assault as never before. At a moment when scientists are, for the first time, becoming aware of the complexities of whale societies, those societies are being threatened by a growth of ocean noise that could prevent whales from locating one another and finding food. The point is that very little is known about the broader effects of sound on whales, and even as large amounts of research money are going toward fine-tuning the effects of sonar or, increasingly, conducting oil and gas seismic surveys, far too little is devoted to the kind of basic science in which Whitehead and Weilgart are engaged. As Sara Wan put it to me, "We have enough information to know we have a problem. We need to have a better understanding of whales to know what we’re doing, to know we’re not putting them at risk. Their numbers are still dangerously low."

The day after our sail, just before I left, Whitehead sat me down and seemed to want to be sure I was paying attention: "Our research," he said, "is not just intended to describe the biological processes of whales, or how what we do affects them, but also to affect the ways in which we view whales and to understand how that in turn affects the moral universe in which we live."

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Photo: Top Inset, Lee Rentz; Lower Inset, Gary Thain

OnEarth. Spring 2007
Copyright 2007 by the Natural Resources Defense Council