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Photos: The Culture Of Whales

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Humpback whales, working in teams, circle herring with disorienting curtains of bubbles off Alaska's coast, then shoot up from below with their mouths open. This innovation developed among unrelated groups of humpbacks but is now a widely adopted practic
Brian Skerry, National Geographic

Humpback whales, working in teams, circle herring with disorienting curtains of bubbles off Alaska's coast, then shoot up from below with their mouths open. This innovation developed among unrelated groups of humpbacks but is now a widely adopted practice.

Brian Skerry says it was "the stuff of dreams" to be in the water with a nursing sperm whale.

The National Geographic photographer and explorer dove into Caribbean waters to capture what he believes to be a unique image. He got within a few meters to get the shot.

"This was a very trusting mother, a new mom with maybe a five- or six-month-old baby that was nursing down at a depth of about 50 feet," he said. "I very gently approached, just breath-hold diving, swam down. She saw me and then actually closed her eyes. I mean, she was so relaxed that I could enter into that world. I was being allowed into her world and could make these pictures."

That moment produced one of several rare images in a new issue of National Geographic magazine, the culmination of Skerry's three-year project exploring the culture of whales.

"Behavior is what we do. Culture is how we do it," he says, paraphrasing sperm whale biologist Shane Gero.

In the photographs, Skerry assembles examples of whale behavior that seem almost human: belugas play in the shallows, orcas teach their pups to hunt, sperm whales nurse and babysit.

Family units of sperm whales in the eastern Caribbean Sea near Dominica appear to "speak the same dialect, for lack of a better analogy," Skerry says. "According to the researchers like Shane [Gero], they don't intermingle with other sperm whales that might move into those waters."

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Humpback whales, known for decades for their musical abilities, frequently and mysteriously change their tunes. Researchers observe new melodies travel through populations across the seas. Skerry likens the phenomenon to a hit song.

"It might sound like a hiccup ... or a creaking door or a rocking chair at times, or a woop-woop — you know, these different sounds. Then there's more of a sad, almost melancholy sound to it that is a little bit more like a song," he says. "But they memorize it. I mean, they have it down perfectly. And what you hear in one place is often exactly what you'll hear in another place."

Skerry, a renowned underwater photographer, says this project made him reflect on his relationship with whales. The tender moments he witnessed contrasted with his childhood spent reading epic tales of leviathans like Moby-Dick.

"These are very complex societies in the sea," he says. "We know that they have cultures, that they celebrate identity, that they exhibit joy and grief. They understand that family, community, societies are important, and they need each other. And I think it's a nice reminder of what I think we already know as well."

You can find more of Skerry's photos in the May issue of National Geographic magazine, online at natgeo.com/planetpossible.

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