Interspecies Communications

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Cachalot Calls

This recording showcases the the unique "click communication" of the cachalot. For more about this whale and its language, start here. These cachalot were recorded off the Azores in 2003.

What's a Cachalot?

From The Interspecies newsletter


wavelet dolphinWhat's In a Name?

If you agree with this editorial, email it to the writer, whenever you read the word "sperm whale" in an article or story. Only through such an expression of caring, does our species learn to better protect the natural world for unborn generations.

The name "killer whale" was generally used by all to describe the species, Orcinus orca, until about the mid-1980s. Then some of us realized this was a bad rap, and certainly not an appropriate name to use in our own efforts to protect the species. Some of us started calling the species, "orca". Soon more people started calling it orca, including most of activists and those within the tightly-knit whale research community. Now, just about everyone but a few cranky holdouts refers to this beautiful animal as orca.

No one can deny that this new, less-violent name prompts human beings to perceive the same animal in a far different light.

What's in a Brain?

A Chinese proverb tells us that naming is an art form that helps define the soul of the named. Surely, it is high time to refer to the magnificent whale species we now refer to as a "sperm whale" as something besides boiled blubber.

Has there ever been an animal more wrongfully-named than the "sperm" whale? This great whale's brain is five times larger than the human brain. Actually, it is by far the largest brain of any creature that has ever inhabited the Earth and thus, the largest brain for which we have evidence anywhere in the universe. Intriguingly, studies of the dinosaur's bird-sized brain cavity suggests that big brains are not mandatory to control big bodies, because brain size correlates far more closely with intellect and sensory apparatus than with motor control.

Today, the extent of the sperm whale's intellect remains unknown, and worthy of being treated as a great mystery. How do we even start to learn about this whale's intellect? The species rarely draws close to shore, and all we discern of its behavior is gleaned from behavior it shows us during the five percent of the time it surfaces to take a breath. We do know that the females with young and the larger breeding males only come together for mating. They spend the rest of the year separated by the distance of oceans.

The Machine Oil Whale

The extent of our own ignorance is perhaps best demonstrated by the fact that until very recently humans related to this being as nothing else but a repository of fine machine oil. A unique oily/waxy substance found in the "case" located in the species forehead, was the finest grade of oil known to man. Called "spermaceti" — the seed of the cetacean — the fluid was erroneously purported to be the whale's seminal fluid. Why females also possessed quantities of this so-called spermaceti, was never explained. This so-called "seed of the cetacean" was actually the seed of the Industrial Revolution. Engineers employed it to lubricate the new powerful machines that defined that age. Today, we find a suitable replacement for spermaceti in a common desert plant known as jojoba. Jojoba is now planted as a commercial crop.

So we arrive at the ignorant, harmful, disrespectful name our English-speaking forebearers invented to refer to this brainy creature: the sperm whale. The Germans have named it no less opportunistically. They call it pottval, essentially the whale that is to be boiled down in huge pots.

The French, the Spanish, the Italians, have named it more accurately, more gently, more respectfully: cachalot, after the Basque word for tooth. The name distinguishes it from all the other great whales which have baleen instead of teeth. The cachalot is the largest species within the odontocete or toothed-whale family, so-called to distinguish cetaceans possessing teeth — the dolphins, orcas, belugas — from baleen whales.

Names have power

The name we give to a thing not only reflects the thing itself, but are metaphors of our own human state of consciousness and culture. In this instance, we can either refer to this species by demonstrating our own obtuse destructiveness, or we grant this potential wisdomkeeper an accurate, and more courteous name.

Cachalot. Spread the word.

Click here to read a report about a recent Interspecies field project with cachalots in the Azores.


Cachalot Program

Cachalot language 1

Cachalot Language 2