Whales have cultures capable of changing and growing, just as human societies do. Humpback whale songs are modified every year. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

Seems there’s a rising singing sensation who’s getting a lot of press lately. He hails from Australia. Well, actually, from off the coast of Australia—way off. From beneath the ocean. He’s a humpback whale.

Earlier this month, an article published in the journal Current Biology stated that after an 11-year study, researchers in Queensland found that the songs of male humpback whales change every year—much like the tunes on our Top 100 music charts. And for the past decade, the song that has hit the No. 1 spot every season has originated off the eastern coast of Australia.

These popular ballads then travel eastward across the South Pacific Ocean, from one whale to another, from Australia to French Polynesia. Genetically distinct groups of whales then all start singing the year’s big hit during breeding season.

Whales form their own societies, each with expectations for ways of behaving. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

This research indicates that whale communities have active, changing “cultures,” much like our human societies do. And if they’re making up new songs and spreading them by “word of mouth,” what else are the whales sharing and contemplating that we don’t have a clue about?

Culture club

This humpback whale research comes on the heels of recent findings regarding sperm whales. In January, the United Kingdom’s Guardian newspaper published an interview with biologist Hal Whitehead of Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia regarding his research with sperm whales. While studying a group of whales off the Galapagos Islands, Whitehead noticed two kinds of sperm whales who were behaving differently than the others in the area. They used different styles of communicating with each other and divergent ways of using the resources around the island. At first, it was thought that the whales were of two subspecies. However, no substantial genetic differences were found. So, something else had to be causing them to form radically different societies, with expectations for different ways of behaving. In other words, they had distinct “cultures” and were living in a multicultural society.

Whitehead believes that for whales, perhaps even more so than for humans, a social life is vital. Because whales are constantly on the move (they have no physical, stable structure they can call “home”) and they live in a very large, three-dimensional habitat—70 percent of the world’s surface is ocean—the most important part of their environment is probably other whales. Therefore, having a rich social life and possessing a social intelligence is of utmost importance to survive.


Because whales are constantly on the move and they live in the ocean—a vast, 3D habitat—the most important part of their environment is probably other whales. Therefore, having a rich social life is vital for them.

Cetacean contemplation

So, the next question becomes, other than song-filled, what are whale cultures like? Do whales have religions? Do they philosophize about their environment and their place in it? Do they adhere to certain social mores?

At least on that last question, Whitehead says he believes that whales do have a code of morality. In the Guardian interview, he states that sperm whales have the most powerful sonar in the natural world, and it’s very directional. It follows that if a sperm whale’s sonar system were directed at another whale’s ears, it would be very dangerous for the receiver. A deaf whale can soon become a dead whale.

Says Whitehead, “Imagine a group of 20 to 30 sperm whales feeding at depth, each making these dangerous clicks once a second. They are all in the same area so they need to be really careful [to protect their hearing]. To me it is like having a bunch of hunters with machine guns out in the forest; they are firing away pretty continuously, and they have got to have clear rules if they are all going to come out of the forest alive. So, I think there must be some conventions they abide by how you use these sonar systems. This, by some definitions at least, is morality.”

Do whales philosophize about their environment and their place in it? Do they wonder about the cultures we have created? ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

If these recent findings are any indication, it seems we may have a lot to learn about some of the largest mammals on Earth. I’ve often wondered, given our lack of knowledge about what nonhuman animals think and feel if it’s morally wrong for we humans to use them for our own purposes.

Animals may be contemplating us, too. With the noises we make underwater and the junk we throw in the oceans, do you think whales wonder just what kind of cultures we have created?

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,