During a routine observation off Dominica in July, researchers came upon a remarkable event: the birth of a sperm whale. Because the team happened to be equipped with advanced technology, their data will likely reveal more than we’ve ever known about the species.
“I have been doing this for almost 20 years,” says Shane Gero, National Geographic Explorer and biology lead for Project CETI, an unprecedented initiative to understand what sperm whales are saying to one another. “Maybe if I do it for 20 more, there will be another day like this… it was pretty awe-inspiring.” He has followed the life of the mother, nicknamed Rounder, since she was nursing. She also has an older calf named Accra.
After following the whales' codas, or clicks, the team came upon an unusual scene: A group of 11 sperm whales—which usually surface alone or in pairs—all aligned in rows facing the same way, apparently trying to be quiet as the birth occurred.
It was just "a day in the life of a sperm whale, but one of those days that we’re never there to see,” says Gero. The CETI team plans to publish their research in a journal.
Witnessing a sperm whale birth is very rare: The last scientific record was from 1986, without any visual or audio recordings. The species, whose males can reach up to 60 feet long, is still largely mysterious: it was only in 1957 that we learned sperm whales even make sounds.
Scientists on Project CETI are now working to analyze audio recordings of the whales’ vocalizations during the birth with video taken via drone and aboard the catamaran. Such information is crucial for understanding more about the species, which the International Union for Conservation of Nature lists as vulnerable to extinction, in part due to marine pollution and ship strikes.
By capturing millions of whale codas—the animals’ clicks—and analyzing them, Project CETI aims to completely decode sperm whale language, part of a wider effort to actually converse with whales in their own tongue. (Read more about the groundbreaking effort.)
Gero and colleagues focus much of their research around the Caribbean nation of Dominica, which is home to an estimated 35 family units. There are less than 500 whales in the Eastern Caribbean population, mostly adult females with some calves, says Gero, who founded the Dominica Sperm Whale Project in 2005.
After witnessing the birth, Gero says he feels “enormous gratitude.”
“Moments like this sort of allow you to sort of take stock and realize what an honor it is to do the work that we get to do, and how much I do care about the whales that I work with.”
A new sperm whale is born
It was a summer day like any other for the Project CETI team—their expert crew went out to sea on two boats, one geared with special microphones that hang deep below the vessel, where sperm whales spend a majority of the time. The team deployed two drones in an effort to record a whale for the 10 to 15 minutes they surface for air each hour.
After tracing the quiet codas to the group of 11 whales, the team was initially puzzled: The cetaceans come together to socialize occasionally, but that’s a lively affair where they roll around, run their jaws along each other, and touch each others’ tails.
“One thing that dolphin species or whales do when they’re being hunted by things like orcas is they go quiet. Because if you’re being hunted by a supremely acoustic being, making noise will tell right where you are,” says Gero.
Instead, a tiny whale head emerged, and microphones picked up a sudden chorus of codas. The group lifted the calf to the surface to breathe as they moved below, acting as a kind of moving sidewalk to keep the calf afloat. The baby’s tail or “fluke,” critical to swimming, was still furled from being compacted in utero.
“When she comes out her fluke is like, all floppy, like, the cartilage in the musculature isn't there the whole body just seemed limp,” says Gero. (Learn more about Gero's work deciphering whale language.)
The scientists don’t yet know the sex of the new baby, but because sperm whale groups are matrilineal, Gero hopes for a girl. “In fact, for the first few minutes, I was worried she was stillborn… that made me very nervous. And and then like, eventually, we saw her breathe and kick.”
Groundbreaking new data
The crew watched the whales carry the newborn for hours, which David Gruber, National Geographic Explorer and founder of Project CETI, says might be the adults making sure the newborn is stabilized.
Each calf is precious: Sperm whales have some of the longest gestation periods in the animal kingdom, at 18 months, and usually only one calf is born at a time. (Read about more astonishing animal pregnancies.)
“I think it is quite profound. As something to make people care about sperm whales, watching her mother and her family welcome a new baby” is wonderful, says Tom Mustill, zoologist and author of How to Speak Whale. “Because this birth took place in this area that CETI is working, it's going to be part of the biggest ever animal behavioral dataset,” says Mustill, who isn’t involved with the project.
Through projects like CETI and the citizen science app Happywhale, which helps ID and track whales from tourists’ photos, Mustill says “we're both getting the enormous datasets that allow us to do statistical analyses on behavior, communication, and biology that were previously restricted to chemistry or physics.”
As for Gruber, he hopes stories like this will increase public interest in these social whales, which even have cultures similar to ours.
For instance, sperm whales—the species in Moby Dick—have often been perceived as villains, not incredibly complex animals that care deeply for their young, Gruber says. "How wrong were we?”
The National Geographic Society, committed to illuminating and protecting the wonder of our world, funded Shane Gero and David Gruber's work. Learn more about the Society’s support of Explorers highlighting and protecting critical species.