Excerpt from Strange Encounters: Adventures of a Renegade Naturalist by Daniel B. Botkin.
How many hours does a whale sleep?" I asked into the telephone receiver. If anybody could have seen my red face, he would have known how embarrassed I felt asking this question. I was working as a research scientist at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, doing a professional, scientific study of whales. Here I was on the phone to the New York Aquarium, asking the kind of question a child might ask of a zookeeper.
"You want to know what?" a voice said at the other end of the line. It was about the tenth-I had lost count-person I had called that day.
Each person who answered had reacted the same way and had shuffled me on to someone else. "How many hours does a whale sleep?" I said. There was silence at the other end of the line. "Why do you want to know that?"
"Well, it's kind of a long story. I'm doing a study of whales ...I'm at MBL," I said, hoping that the well-known nickname of the famous marine laboratory might sound like a justification.
"Do you have any whales?" I asked.
"Beluga," the voice said. One beluga." "How long does it sleep?" I asked. "Hold on a minute." I had been calling around the country for the whole day, as had my research assistant, asking the same question. It was getting late in the afternoon and I was tired and frustrated.
"Hello," said the voice. "We're not really sure. Maybe two hours. We don't watch the whales to see when they sleep. We've more important things to do. It's very busy here with tourists and then caring for the fish. Why do you want to know?"
''I'm a scientist at the Marine Biological Laboratory," I said again. "We're doing a study of whales-whale behavior. It has to do with the conservation of whales ." I didn't know if my question sounded more foolish to an aquarium expert coming from a scientist or from an eight-year-old. "It has to do with the International Whaling Commission," I said, hoping this would impress the voice.
''Why do they want to know?"
"The Japanese have asked permission to take some of the big male sperm whales", I said. I had gotten the voice's attention, I hoped.
"Why do the Japanese want to know?"
"They don't. I do. A conservation organization asked me-us to find out what the harvest of these big males might do to the behavior of groups of sperm whales and then how it might affect the number of calves born," I said.
"Well, if you say so," said the voice. "Look, I've got to go. One beluga whale. Two hours. Maybe."
I looked out the window of my laboratory office to the "Hole," the narrow passage between the mainland and Martha's Vineyard, where ferries went to and from that island and Nantucket. It had been a long day and I was beginning to wonder why I continued the struggle to get an answer to what seemed an absurdly simple question: How long does a whale sleep? Other phone calls had yielded precious little. Another aquarium keeper told us that one of their killer whales seemed to sleep very little. One of the whale scientists at Woods Hole told me a story about a boat that had banged into a sperm whale that seemed to be dozing. The whale had been startled by the collision.
"But what does it mean for a whale to 'sleep'?" he had asked, then answered, "Perhaps whales rest but don't sleep like people." This was a philosophical point I wasn't able to deal with. What did I mean by a whale "sleeping"? Is it a specific state of its nervous system? Did a whale dream? I decided that all we needed to settle for was a condition like the sperm whale, plain and simple, lying on top of the water, seemingly inactive and unaware of its surroundings until "woken up."
We had to throw out the philosophical or neurophysiological question of what "sleep" means in general and what it might mean for a whale. We weren't about to put radio collars on whales with detectors for brain wave activity. I had just recently taken the job at the laboratory at Woods Hole. The town and countryside appealed to me; they seemed a neutral ground between nineteenth-century, rural New Hampshire and twentieth-century, hi-tech Brookhaven National Laboratory. Woods Hole was a small village, part of the town of Falmouth, Massachusetts. In the nineteenth century, scientists and naturalists interested in the ocean and its life had come to the Hole, and in 1886, some had set up the Marine Biological Laboratory. It was right on the waters of protected bays and inlets, and seawater was pumped directly into the laboratory so that research with sea life could be done easily. Summer courses were famous there. My sister, Dorothy, had taken one when she was in college. The laboratory had a beautiful, modern brick residential building with a central cafeteria that looked out onto the Eel Pond, a small, squarish salt-water pond that served as a marina, connected to the Atlantic Ocean through a small inlet over which stood a tiny drawbridge.
I stared at the ocean and thought about how this had all begun. A few months before, Charley Russell, a Canadian mathematical economist who sometimes worked on conservation of whales, turned up unannounced at my office door.
"Hi," Charley said. "I was in Woods Hole and wanted to talk with you about a project. Maybe you'd be interested. I was just at the annual meeting of the IWC." The IWC is the International Whaling Commission. It met every June in Cambridge, England, and Charley was on its scientific advisory board. Charley was thin and wiry, and was dressed, as usual, in a corduroy sports jacket and a dress shirt unbuttoned almost to his belly button.
The Japanese want to harvest some of the biggest male sperm whales in the Pacific. They claim there's an excess number-more than are needed for successful reproduction. They claim that the best Western whale biologists say that not all the big males are necessary. Based on whale social behavior, there are many more males than are needed to mate with the females.
A conservation organization approached me at the meeting. They said they would fund a study of sperm whale breeding behavior, to see whether the removal of some of the big males would make a difference . Here's the plan. We find out the details of whale social behavior. Then I will do an analytical model. You do a computer simulation. We create theoretical models of whale social and sexual behavior . Then we see if our results agree."
An analytical model is a pencil-and-paper mathematical model, the only kind that scientists and mathematicians could do before the invention of computers. By this time, I had had a lot of experience with computers, starting with the work in the radioactive forest, a pretty rare thing among ecologists at that time. When Charley and I were speaking, analytical models were considered the right thing to do in ecology, while computer simulations raised the eyebrows of both mathematicians and biologists.
Perfect, I thought, now we can do some real, hard science and help save whales at the same time. Just the kind of problem I had dreamed of back in the days I wandered around the radioactive forest and helped Heman Chase fix the old mill. Now I could make a difference. Well, except there was one catch. Computer simulation - computer gaming - of something like the social behavior of whales seemed impossible. To most mathematicians, simulations seemed sham mathematics. To most biologists, computers were an unknown entity that seemed to have little to do with their work. I was one of the few ecologists at the time intrigued with the potential power of computers. Charley was sympathetic to my work, but he was a skilled applied mathematician and had approached problems of the conservation of marine mammals by clever, often simple but insightful analyses, using traditional pencil-and-paper math.
Still, it was a strange problem for me, trained in the study of forests, to tackle. I had studied with Murray Buell, an expert in plant ecology, who himself had been trained in plant taxonomy - the naming and classification of plants. But I had majored in physics as an undergraduate and I had always been interested in machines-electronic ones like the recording systems and computers at Brookhaven National Laboratory and the big mechanical ones at the old mill in New Hampshire. I had started to create computer models of forests and of endangered species.
"First, we have to find out what's known about the social behavior of sperm whales," Charley said. "We have to get together with those Australian whaling guys-the ones who think that doing science is rolling around in high seas in an open boat, banging into whales. Old what's-his-name-the one at the meeting last year-does a lot of field studies of sperm whales. Let's meet with him.
"We have to understand what in the social behavior affects the success of reproduction mating, gestation, care of the young," he said. "You talk to who you can, I'll talk to some people in Britain. Make a computer model of the social behavior of the whales during the breeding season. Then look at the birth rate of the whale population as a function of the density of large males." Then Charley explained the financial arrangement with the conservation organization and other details of the project. "Well, I'm off to see the lovely lady deep-sea diver," he said. "Hope you like the scenery here, all the cute houses and sailboats."
Then he left, and I sat in my office gazing once more out the window thinking what I would do next. I was elated by the idea that something like this might work, and I went for a walk along the shore. I always found it cleared my head to walk near the ocean. Good ideas would pop into my brain when I was watching the gulls circle or a boat approach a dock.
Several months later, Charley came back and we met with a whale scientist, Richard Needles, another Canadian. "Here's how sperm whales' social behavior works," he said. "There's a pod of whales - the females and their young. During the reproductive period, a pod has a single male, the harem master. He mates with the females. Some pods haven't any adult males.
"Then there're adjacent males, ones on the breeding grounds, but without their own pod," Needles said. "They swim round looking for a pod without a harem master. Or sometimes they try to displace a harem master. Then there are other males - immature teenagers and others who just give up on mating - they go up to the Arctic feeding areas."
After Charley left, I sought out Bob Holmes at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, one of the world's experts on whale sounds. "How far can sperm whales hear each other when they call?" I asked. "About fifty miles," he answered, but he looked at me quizzically. "Why do you want to know? I thought you studied elephants and trees." "It's a long story - sometime over a beer," I said, and hurried away, anxious to avoid another embarrassing conversation about who and how whales should be studied.
With that, I thought, I had enough information to create a computer game about the courting and sex life of sperm whales. Here's how the game worked. Imagine a chessboard, only with many more squares-let's say a board about three feet by three feet, with hundreds of squares. The game has two kinds of pieces. One kind is a largish oval-shaped piece called a 'pod" that covers about six squares; it's the group of females and their calves that Richard had told me about. The other is in the shape of a whale, small enough to fit in one square; these are the male whales.
There is a small number of pod pieces - let's say twenty. You set up the game by throwing these on the board at random - say, by turning your back to the board and throwing the pieces over your shoulder onto it. Two players, one on each side of the board, have a pile of male whales.
Now the game begins. Each player takes one male at a time from his stack and puts it on the far right square in the first row. Then you, the player, throw three dice. The left die determines how many squares the whale may move up the board, the middle die determines how many it may move horizontally, and the right one determines if the horizontal movement is left or right - odd means go left, even means go right.
This way, a male whale piece moves completely at random until it gets within two squares of a pod. Then the odds change and there is a much greater chance of the whale moving toward the pod. The chances increase again when it gets one square away. That's because the male can "hear" the female and young whales in the pod. You win a point by getting a male on the same square as a pod. Your whale can be displaced by one of your opponent's if his whale lands on a pod where you already have a male. There is some kind of dice rolling here, too, to determine whose whale gets to stay. Whales that end up on your opponent's first row have "gone to the Arctic" and are out of the game. The winner is the player who had the most males on pods for the longest time by the end of the game. You get one point for each play that a male is on a pod. A point is a new calf. So you win by having the greatest count of calves.
That's the general idea - the details differed in the computer game we created to more closely resemble the story about whale social behavior that Richard Needles had described to Charley and me. This would be a slow game to play by hand, but we wrote a computer program that created the board and the game and ran it very fast many times. We could play the computer version with various numbers of pods and males. Then we could make a graph of the average number of calves produced in relation to the number of males. When we created this game, we had a computer simulation of a little bit of the whale's social behavior as told to us by whale scientists. Based on information we obtained from Richard Needles, we added courting and mating of the whales to the game and the chances that all of this would result in the birth of baby whales.
We spent several months to get this program to work.
As far as we knew, nobody else had ever tried to make a computer game about the courting and mating of big whales, or even about any animal's social and sexual behavior, not even human behavior. We were very proud of our work.
After a few more months, the computer game seemed to work fine. We began to get interesting results about how much the number of baby whales changed with changes in the number of mature males, both harem masters and adjacent males - the ones the Japanese wanted to hunt. The results were different from any we had seen written about before, and we thought we had the chance to write an important paper with a new insight about animal reproductive behavior. Just over the horizon lay an ocean of success.
But then a question arose and our poor computer model got lost in the waves. How long did a male have to be harem master - to be with a pod - for successful reproduction? Were these overnight stands-just long enough to mate successfully with each of the females? Or were these long-term relationships? Did the male have to be there for the en- tire breeding season to protect the pod? And what happened if one male came in and forced another out-divorce whale-style? I decided it was time to ask more questions of Richard Needles.
A short while later, Charley and Richard came to the Marine Biological Laboratory. Charley and I met together first to compare notes about where we were with our parts of the work. He had designed an elegant pencil-and-paper model. But because of the limits of that kind of math, he could only deal with fixed conditions about the whales and their environment. In the computer, we could have ocean conditions change during the game.
We found Richard Needles seated at a table, drinking coffee. He was a large man, well over six feet, and built like a football player or a commercial fisherman. His face was tanned and starting to show lines typical of people who spend most of their lives outdoors, squinting into the sun and wind. He looked from Charley to me. It was clear that he didn't think much of what I was doing and he was skeptical about Charley, too, but knew him better from other meetings about whales.
"Saw the Alvin," he said, referring to the two-person very deep ocean submersible research vessel. "Some good ships here. Ought to get you two out on 'em," he said. "Come to Canada. I'll show you what studying whales is really like. We'll go out in my boats. That's real science. Out in an open boat, watching the whales. Not the kind of garbage you guys do, sitting in an office scribbling on a pad, or even worse, using a newfangled computer. What's the world coming to, I'd like to know."
"We're making pretty good progress," I said. "We just have a few final questions." I cleared my throat and paused. "What happens if one harem master is chased out and replaced by another?" I asked. "Does the first harem master have to be there just long enough to mate with the females, or does he have to stay?"
"Oh," said Needles, "we can't tell one whale from another. We have no idea about that."
I was startled. "If you can't tell one whale from another, then how do you know any of the story you told us about their social behavior is true?" I asked.
There was a long silence. "Well," said Needles, "gazelles do it in Africa." "That's it?'' I said.
"Yes. We just assume that the whales behave like gazelles in Africa." "You can't do that," I said. "We worked for almost a year to develop a computer model that mimics exactly what you told us. And now you're telling us you don't know if any of it is true. The whole thing's a god- damned fairy tale."
Needles got red in the face. I thought he might start punching us.
Charley looked away. "Science is more than rolling about in your bloody open boat," he said.
"Nonsense," said Needles. "We're out there where the action is. You guys sit inside and never see what you're studying. Now you're criticizing me because you don't like what I tell you I saw." "You just told us you didn't see anything-you made it up because you think whales are gazelles." Needles got up from the table, mumbled something to the effect that people who use computers don't know anything about whales, and stormed away.
Our year of work on the computer model had just been hit by a tidal wave and sunk. The flotsam and jetsam of the programming was a beau no more basis in fact than the life of a unicorn. It gave fascinating results based on a totally mythical story told to us by a supposed expert on the behavior of whales. Except as an example of a hypothetical population, our work had no real application to the problem of hunting sperm whales.
And so ended my first-but not my last-venture into saving whales. Several years later I told this story to my old friend and professional colleague Lee Talbot, one of the world's experts on conservation of nature. He had done some of the first fieldwork on big game animals in Africa years before. Lee laughed when I told him the story.
'I'm probably the culprit," Lee said. "I met with Richard Needles a while before he first talked with you, and I told him about the social behavior of gazelles I had studied in Africa. I told him about harems and harem masters, and how the male harem master defends his territory. He must have just transferred what I told him to believe it applied to whales."
It's hard to study whales. These huge animals are hard to find. Understanding has come a long way since that time. Ways have developed to recognize individual whales based on individual marks-cuts or markings on the tail, a certain shape to a jaw. Some whale biologists keep elaborate photographic notebooks, with entries about the sightings of individual whales. Perhaps today it would be possible to make a computer game that was accurate about how whales courted, kept their pods, and managed their young. But there are still the Richard Needleses of this kind of "science" - what I call the plausibility theory - if it sounds good it must be true.
Informal observations substitute for careful measurements, the search for understanding, and the development of theories that are tested by observation.
I had become an active research scientist, still believing that I was part of a new but real science, a hard science, based on facts, solid scientific observation, and good theory. That theory was connected to observations, following the classic methods of science well-known in the modern world, in which I had been trained in my undergraduate major in physics. I still hoped that I could make a difference with that science, helping to apply it and really solve important environmental problems. But then I began to come across strange problems-like how many hours does a whale sleep-questions so simple that you would think only a child would ask, but questions I needed to know the answer to, and could not find.
So our wonderful computer game did not help save the whales and could not be used to increase our understanding of real whale behavior. In those days, nobody thought about software as something to sell; it was too arcane an activity to have much of a market, we thought. Perhaps today one of the computer game manufacturers could make an educational and entertaining whale mating game, a kind of animal pornography that might appeal to a certain audience.
Sometime in the future, I thought, this field of whale biology would grow up and people would be able to create useful theory well-connected to legitimate observations. Meanwhile, I would never forget the story of the social behavior of sperm whales, based on what gazelles did in Africa. Perhaps I really had gone into the wrong field. Where was the science in "ecological science"? It was lost at sea, rolling about in an open boat.
Beluga whale photo by Britt Reints.