By now, most of our blog readers have cottoned on to the fact that we have a serious penchant for watching whales and waxing lyrical about them whenever we get the chance. Of the three whale species that we are fortunate enough to observe along our Knysna coastline, it’s the humpback whales which have crept into our hearts the most. They somehow manage to evoke an emotional response that lingers long after the encounter is said and done.
I have pondered for some time over why this is, and I have come to the conclusion that perhaps the reason we feel so drawn to these leviathan beauties, is because they possess many of the same distinctive features and traits that we do.
To begin with, they are, like us, warm-blooded mammals that are fiercely protective of their young. Mother and calf pairs form incredibly close bonds and for at least a year or more, babies are doted upon and nourished by their mother’s rich, high-fat milk. They never venture far from mom and spend their early days discovering and learning the ways of their deep and vast ocean realm.
Humans and whales have very similar respiratory systems. Whales have two passages to their lungs just like our oral and nasal passages. The human and the whale’s respiratory system both have a diaphragm and our lungs are in the same place. The only difference is that it takes much longer for a whale’s respiratory system to do a cycle and their lungs use oxygen far more efficiently than we do and their blow-holes are at the top of their head.
We also really love them for their ability to seemingly dance both above and beneath the ocean’s surface. Of course, we humans also do so love to dance (well, most of us anyway). Megaptera noveangliae is the scientific name for the humpback whale. ‘Megaptera’ means ‘giant wings’ and refers to their large pectoral fins, which are about 1/3 of the length of the body or about 15 feet long in an adult humpback whale. Because of this they have been dubbed the ‘Angels of the Sea,’ and sometimes, when they breach out of the water or do a pectoral or peduncle slap, they look like they are performing some kind of ritual dance. It is truly mesmerising.
Then there is the issue of intelligence. Both humans and whales have large brain to body mass ratios and according to collective bodies of research, whales, like us, possess self-awareness, emotions and high-level cognitive powers. Moreover, marine researchers have known for some time now that the way in which these animals communicate is more complex than we could have ever imagined and they have discovered a structural complexity that suggests they have a complex language which includes something like grammar and syntax.
And, just like us, humpback whales love to sing. Well, the males do. The male humpback whale song is unique in that it consists of a series of repeating patterns that gradually change over time. Interestingly, all the singers in a population sing the same version of an ever-changing song at any one time; the whales in the Pacific sing one song and the whales in the Atlantic another.
So as you can see, there are many similarities between whales and humans, which is perhaps why we feel such a strong connection to them… and why we need to do whatever it takes to protect these highly sentient, magnificent beings.