Site C Dam Project betrays Trudeau's commitment to First Nations, say critics
Guests: Caleb Behn, Dave Conway, Bob Rae
CHIEF ROLAND WILLSON: From the very beginning of this process we were very clear that we were not opposed to the creation of the energy. What we were opposed to was the unnecessary destruction of the river valley. The last 20 per cent of the river valley that we have left will be destroyed through Site C — and there is absolutely no reason for it.
RB: That's Chief Roland Willson of The West Moberly First Nation. He is one of many Indigenous leaders challenging what's known as the Site C Dam. It is a nine billion dollar hydroelectric mega project being built on the Peace River in British Columbia. The dam would flood an 83 kilometre stretch of the valley near Fort St. John. Those against it say it will destroy ancestral burial grounds and threaten land that is used for traditional hunting and fishing. Chief Willson says he had hoped things with a new government, that things might improve.
CHIEF ROLAND WILLSON: When the Trudeau government came in and made all these promises about there’s nothing more important than the relationship with the First Nations people, you know, we were pretty hopeful that we're actually going to get to sit down and talk with somebody. And what wound up happening was we showed up, they showed up, we sat down, told them what our concerns were, they all took notes, nodded their heads you know. And then they waited for a comfortable number of days before issuing the permit. [chuckling] And that's what happened.
RB: That’s Chief Roland Willson of The West Moberly First Nation. Caleb Behn is a Treaty 8 member and the Executive Director of Keepers of the Water, an Indigenous water protection organization focused on protecting the Arctic Ocean basin. He's been involved in the fight against Site C for many years. He is based in Vermeer, B.C., but we have reached him in Calgary. Hello.
CALEB BEHN: Good morning. I acknowledge my presence on Treaty 7 territory, Blackfoot Confederacy lands.
RB: Caleb, for those who have not been following the Site C project closely, I wonder if you might just help us understand what it's all about and the scale of it.
CALEB BEHN: OK. Site C is the third dam on the Peace River. It provides one-third of the power in British Columbia. The Site C project is the most expensive project in Canadian history, totalling nine billion plus. It’s the most damaging project ever reviewed under the history of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act. And it as Roland identified, represents the absolute destruction of this last key valley that's already given so much to the province.
RB: Let's talk a little bit about the specifics of those issues, I mean, what is at stake for First Nations around the Peace River if Site C does go ahead?
CALEB BEHN: My territory produces over 98 per cent of the oil and gas in British Columbia. We have a sizable chunk of the hard rock minerals and coal. We have a good chunk of forestry, all of the existing wind farms. And we have these two large dams, the W.A.C. Bennett Dam built in the 60s was the biggest dam in the world when it got completed, and the largest hydroelectric reservoir in North America sits in our territory and flooded the graves of my ancestors. So, people may consider Site C just to be a one off project, but when you put it in the context of cumulative impacts, this is a region that has been massively impacted by oil and gas development, mining, coal, hydroelectric, etc, etc. And this project, given its issues, the fact that the power is not needed, the fact that it’s so very damaging, the fact that its 19th century technology in the 21st century. To have that approved by Trudeau after his beautiful promises is the epitome of hypocrisy.
RB: Why do you say that the dam is not needed? Because B.C. Premier Christy Clark argues just the opposite, that it is needed.
CALEB BEHN: [Laughs] Yeah, and that's quite likely for her to argue, because her government has failed on the LNG (liquefied natural gas) issue. I mean, they promised British Columbians they're going to have major projects off the ground, and this is the only project they can push using taxpayer dollars I might add. B.C.’s energy minister admitted in February that we have not had an increase in demand in eight years. The energy that Site C will produce is neither cleaner nor greener than the alternatives. If you want to put nine billion in solar and geothermal and wind, we're with you.
RB: What proof do you have that it is not cleaner nor greener? Because the first thing that you see when you go to B.C. Hydro's website in big letters on Site C is that this is clean energy.
CALEB BEHN: And that's a marketing ploy, quite frankly. 360 of North America's leading scientists have identified and written publicly that this project has major issues. The president of the Royal Society of Canada in an unprecedented move identified major issues of this project. And Justin Trudeau and his cabinet, nine days before they issued their permits were given the analysis conducted by an independent group of researchers housed in UBC, identifying the major issues, identifying the greenhouse gas emissions. The former CEO of Hydro has come out against this, the chair of the Joint Review Panel has come out against this. You know, and we're going to trust B.C. Hydro and Liberal government? This is not an efficient way to spend nine billion dollars in energy creation. When you have better technologies getting cheaper every day, it's insult and injury to First Nations, and Trudeau and his cabinet knew. I was there. I was there. I watched Chief Willson put this information into the hands of Minister Julia Wilson-Raybould.
RB: Caleb, we heard that clip from Gord Downie earlier and then the prime minister's response. How do you square the Liberals promise for this new relationship between Ottawa and the First Nations with their support for Site C?
CALEB BEHN: [Sighs] First of all, I don't see evidence in Trudeau and his cabinet actions that they're serious about the promises. Canadians should recognize that it looks like the Liberal government is breaking the promises they made in the election trail, the campaign trail, in the same way that this country has broken the promises of First Nations and treaty. I hope listeners understand that reconciliation, true reconciliation with Indigenous peoples is not for cowards. It is hard hard work. But the thing about reconciliation with the people of the land is it leads us intrinsically towards reconciliation with the land itself, and with the species that sustain not only my culture but all cultures and all living things. And that is good business, that's ethical, that is robust, that is resilient for the 21st century and that's not what we're seeing from this government.
RB: But can you have reconciliation and disagreement? Because the federal government is not going to stop every single project that First Nations do not support.
CALEB BEHN: Of course you can have a difference in opinion, but this project represents a departure from the science-based policy making that they promised they were going to change. This is fundamental and foundational disagreement in keeping with the promises made to us that things were going to change.
RB: Would you go as far as saying that you feel betrayed?
CALEB BEHN: Absolutely I feel betrayed. But the thing is Indigenous people in this country know all too well what betrayal feels like. And the betrayal is written in the destruction of the natural world. And this is a story time and time and time again told in Indigenous communities. I mean, my family remembers what Trudeau's dad did in ‘69, along with Chrétien with the white paper. But to his credit, his father changed his position and his tune. And I feel betrayed at this moment, but if Trudeau, if Justin Trudeau has the courage that his father showed in changing his position publicly in regards to First Nations, he will find a supporter and an ally in me and my people.
RB: Caleb Behn, good to talk to you this morning. Thank you very much.
CALEB BEHN: Mussi cho, thank you.
RB: Caleb Behn is a Dene lawyer, a Treaty 8 member, and the Executive Director of Keepers of the Water. He was in Calgary. We did invite several federal cabinet ministers to speak to us on this. The ministers of Fisheries and Oceans, Transport and Environment all declined. We are still waiting to hear back from Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould’s office, and we do hope to speak with the Minister of Indigenous Affairs Carolyn Bennett in the weeks to come. Well, according to the crown corporation behind the massive Site C Dam project, it would not only increase the province's energy supply, generating enough electricity to power some 450,000 homes per year, but it would also create about 10,000 jobs. Dave Conway is B.C. Hydro's community relations manager for the Site C project, and we've reached him in Prince George. Hello Dave.
DAVE CONWAY: Good morning.
RB: Just want you to address some of the points that we just heard. First, how do you respond to Caleb Behn’s assertion that this project is destroying land that is vital to Indigenous people?
DAVE CONWAY: Well, the project does have impacts and we’ve recognized that and we know their impacts to First Nations, which is why B.C. Hydro has been consulting and engaged with Aboriginal groups about Site C since 2007. And we continue to have positive discussions with Aboriginal groups affected by Site C. Of the 13 Aboriginal groups that B.C. Hydro is engaged with, only two First Nations remain opposed to the project.
RB: Well, two remain opposed in court, but--
DAVE CONWAY: [interposing] That’s correct.
DAVE CONWAY: Remain opposed in court. We have made offers of accommodation to all of the First Nations significantly affected by the project. And we're committed to working hard with Aboriginal groups to address their concerns and identify opportunities for them to benefit from the project.
RB: Because when you listen to Caleb Behn, he's convinced that B.C. Hydro's policy is basically it's our way or the highway. And yes we are consulting with you, but we're going to go ahead anyway.
DAVE CONWAY: Well, as I say, we've been consulting for a long time and part of the consultation process is to find ways to avoid impacts of the project. If you can't do that, you try to find ways to mitigate those impacts, and if that can’t be done you look to compensate for them.
RB: What makes you call this project clean? When as Caleb was saying, so many experts say otherwise.
DAVE CONWAY: Well, we've done a study where that work is filed through our environmental impact statement. We went through a three year environmental joint review process, an environmental assessment process, which was a joint process of the federal and provincial governments. We have studies that we've done on greenhouse gas emissions, and the greenhouse gas emissions from this project are equivalent to emissions from sources like wind and solar, which are by the way intermittent sources of electricity supply, whereas large hydro is a form of firm electricity supply, which means you know you will have it on the darkest coldest day in the winter. You can't guarantee that with wind and you definitely — once the sun goes down — you don't get it from solar.
RB: But did you examine using a combination of both? I mean, could you have done less flooding for instance, if you used a combination of solar panel or geothermal and a dam?
CALEB BEHN: Right. So this project actually, the flooding impacts are reduced because we're not storing water for long-term period. As Caleb commented, the water from this is stored behind the W.A.C. Bennett Dam and the Williston reservoir. This water would be used for a third time and is only stored behind the Site C Dam for two to three days, as opposed to the Williston reservoir where the water is there for two to three years. B.C. Hydro does load forecasting, and we do something called an integrated resource plan. That plan looks at all viable commercial generating options, and what we do is we do a blend of the varying options that are available to us. And our integrated resource plan certainly includes things like energy conservation, which is one of the ways that we get energy, and new generation when we expect to get 100 per cent of generation. Pardon me, we get a significant amount of energy back from energy conservation.
RB: But is this energy even needed? Because B.C.’s Energy Minister Bill Bennett said that the need has not increased in eight years, in fact he said there was a surplus of clean energy in B.C. So how do you respond to that?
DAVE CONWAY: Well, this isn't about today, this is about the future. So, this is about load that's 20 to 40 years out. And the projects like this take a significant period of time to build. We've been at this since 2007, and we've just initiated construction. But it's about load 20 to 40 years from now. And we're building this based on StatsCan projection of a population growth of more than a million people in the next 20 years. And potential economic development coming from mining, forestry, and potentially natural gas and liquid natural gas development. So it's not about today, it's not about the surplus and capacity that’s here today, it’s about what the requirement is 20-40 years out. As was the case when our heritage assets like the W.A.C. Bennett Dam were built back in the 60s and the 70s.
RB: Do you think that you could have done anything differently in consultations?
DAVE CONWAY: Well, we've been doing significant consultation. And that work continues and will continue. It's been recognized in the Joint Review Panel report that the work that we've done has been meaningful consultation with which has potentially affected Aboriginal groups. And the consultation has been carried out in good faith, and the process was appropriate and reasonable in circumstances.
RB: But you just heard Caleb, and he doesn't sound very happy at all. I mean, how do you square that with saying it is meaningful consultation? What does meaningful consultation mean?
DAVE CONWAY: Well that's a question you would have to ask Caleb. We know that what we need to be doing is to be out there discussing the concerns with First Nations, looking for ways to avoid those concerns, looking for ways to mitigate those concerns. And we have a lot of First Nations involvement presently in the project. We've reached agreements with two First Nations. We continue to have discussions with many others. We have Aboriginal businesses and Aboriginal peoples working on the project.
RB: OK Dave. We'll leave it there, thanks very much for your time today.
DAVE CONWAY: My pleasure, anytime.
RB: That's Dave Conway, he is B.C. Hydro's community relations manager for the Site C project and he was in Prince George. Well, when it comes to such massive projects as the Site C Dam, it may seem that forging consensus is as much of a challenge as the engineering involved. Bob Rae is someone who is familiar with this type of challenge, as the chief negotiator and counsel for the Matawa First Nations in northern Ontario's Ring of Fire mining project. Mr. Ray is also a former Premier of Ontario and former interim leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, and he joins us now from Geraldton, Ontario. Hello.
BOB RAE: Hello.
RB: You've been listening in to the discussion. Why do you think that the federal government issued permits allowing this project to go ahead despite strong opposition from Indigenous people in the area?
BOB RAE: Well, I'm actually quite surprised they didn't take more time to you know, they were new in office when this sort of issue came, it was on their desk. And I think it's something that needed to take more time. I think the fundamental issue that the First Nations are having to wrestle with across the country is that there is such a striking contrast between the negotiation and consideration that was given in the province of Quebec, when they launched their James Bay discussions and brought in a treaty to deal with the James Bay development, and what's happened in what we call the old treaty territories Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and Northeastern British Columbia, which is in Treaty number 8. And you know, over 100 years ago those treaties were signed. But basically what happened as a result is that the provinces and the federal government all decided, well we've got treaties, so we can do whatever the heck we like. That's been a problem that has really bedeviled all of the discussions and negotiations over major hydro development in northern Manitoba, hydro and forestry and mining development in northern Ontario. It's really been difficult to get the governments to recognize that in signing a treaty in the beginning of the end of the 19th century, beginning of the 20th century, the First Nations never ever intended or thought that they were giving up their relationship to the land, or their sense of obligation to take care of the land. And that's the voice that has not been adequately listened to, and that's why it's been so difficult to get consensus on some of these very critical development issues.
RB: But how do you balance that? You were saying that you were surprised that the government didn't take more time and yet you know, you have to balance the needs of the industry, government, the rights of the provinces as well, because they have some jurisdiction in these developments, and of course the rights of First Nations people. So how do you do that?
BOB RAE: Well, in the case of Site C, it's very interesting. The chair of the Joint Panel Harry Swain strongly recommended that the B.C. government take more time and consult with the B.C. electricity board, the utilities board, to get a better assessment as to whether the power was really needed. And when it comes to Site C, you can't say there's a rush. You just heard from the spokesman from B.C. Hydro saying that this is a project for the ages, and it's not going to come into effect for many many years, and the power isn't going to be needed for 20 to 40 years. So you have to ask yourself the question, what's the rush? Like, why wouldn't you? It's a major, I mean, Canadians need to understand this is the last piece of the Peace River in this part of the world that has not been dammed up. If you haven't ever been there, it's an absolutely gorgeous part of the country, and you have to ask yourself the question, why the why the hurry to flood this territory, when there could indeed be a lot of further not just consultation but real discussion. I mean the legal question that's now being raised in court is going to be well, isn't consent required rather than just consultation? And that's going to be the key issue.
RB: How do you square that approval of the Site C Dam with the prime minister's promise to build this new relationship with Indigenous Canadians?
BOB RAE: Well, I actually think that the Site C process would have been a good start in this process of understanding how do we breathe new life into these old treaty relationships, and how do we give them a new meaning? And I think that's something that the government needs to reflect on. And by the way, you can hardly argue that it's too late, you know, that the die has been cast. The die hasn't been cast, because this is a project that is not needed tomorrow and this is a project where it seems to me to be consistent. You're going to have to give new meaning to all the number treaties that go right across the country, and say how do we give meaning to these treaties so that there isn't this huge equality gap between the province of Quebec, province of Labrador, where yes there's a major dam under construction in Labrador, but there are hydro developments in Manitoba, developments in Saskatchewan, and Alberta. These issues are being critically watched, because they all have to do with how are the provincial and federal governments really treating First Nations, and how are they interpreting the modern relationship in the context of these historical treaties.
RB: OK, all right Bob Rae thanks very much for your time. A big question indeed. That was Bob Rae, former Premier of Ontario and a previous interim leader of the Liberal Party of Canada. He's the chief negotiator and counsel for the Matawa First Nations in northern Ontario's Ring of Fire mining project. And he was in Geraldton, Ontario.
The news is coming up next. And then something that you don't get to do every day. We will eavesdrop in on the fascinating conversations of sperm whales. I'm Robyn Bresnahan, and you are listening to the summer edition of The Current.
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ENCORE: Love your mom, and other lessons we can learn from sperm whales
Guests: Shane Gero
ROBYN BRESNAHAN: Hello I'm Robin Bresnahan, and you're listening to the summer edition of The Current. And our next story, their codas can be heard for over one kilometre.
[sperm whale clicks]
RB: While that might just sound like a random series of clicks or chirps to you, but to a mother sperm whale those are a baby's first words. You're hearing the sounds of baby whales, or calves as they're known. The technical term for those clicks is codas, and aside from sperm whale mom and dads, one of the only other mammals around who might understand what they are saying is Shane Gero. He is a marine biologist, who for the past decade has been documenting the social and vocal behaviour of more than a dozen sperm whale families in the West Indies. It's a project of unprecedented scope and detail. And in March, when the Ottawa native and founder of the Dominica Sperm Whale Project was back on dry land and in his hometown, Anna-Maria Tremonti checked in on his research.
AMT: Let’s hear those baby whales again.
[sperm whale clicks]
AMT: Shane, how does a whale make those sounds?
SHANE GERO: Well, they have a really special nose. If you can picture a sperm whale, it's kind of that standard whale that you draw with a big fat head and a long tail at the back. And it has pockets of oil in its head and it moves air around them and makes these clicks.
AMT: You described a sperm whale, but how big would a baby be? What do they weigh?
SHANE GERO: Well, the calves are usually born somewhere around a metric tonne and about four metres long. And then big males can get up to 18 metres and probably around 50 tonnes. But in the Caribbean where I would do my research the whales are actually quite small. They're about 12 metres and maybe 30 tonnes.
AMT: Oh, just 30 tonnes? Okay, so what is it about the area around Dominica or in the Caribbean that's such a good place for your research?
SHANE GERO: Well, I'd love to say that it's my expertise as a field biologist, but we've just been really lucky to work with families of whales that hang out. So, we see a family of whales for a week and then they disappear, and then we see them for a few days again the next month and a month after that and year after year after year. So, I've had the unique privilege of spending thousands of hours with only a few sets of sperm whale families and followed their calves from birth into maturity as the males leave their social units. Because these families are Matrilineal, it's Grandmothers, Mothers and Daughters who will live together for life. And then the males leave in their early teens to sort of roam the ocean and breed.
AMT: This is so fascinating. How do you go about studying them like this when they spend so much time deep, deep down in the ocean?
SHANE GERO: Well, it's been a challenge I think in the last ten years we've been really good at getting to know the individuals and then recording them across time and figuring out which whale is saying what call. And in the last couple of years we've been putting on small sort of computer tags with a suction cup that measure all the 3D movements of the whale as it goes underwater. So then we've been able to figure out where and when they are making these calls to each other and that really is allowing us for the first time to ask the why question. What information are they exchanging?
AMT: What do you go up to them and stick something on them and swim away?
SHANE GERO: The tags are about the size of a smartphone. And they have four little suction cups and we have a nine meter pole and we just sort of sneak up behind them and tap the tag on. And it can be out for a couple of days and then the computer inside the tag lets water into the suction cups at a predefined time, and then that floats to the surface and we can get it back.
AMT: Because you've got it on a GPS?
SHANE GERO: Yeah, so we can recover it.
AMT: Okay, so how far down do they dive?
SHANE GERO: In the Caribbean they're going down to about 1,100 metres as a maximum and more often they're going about 800 metres to feed.
AMT: How long can they stay down there?
SHANE GERO: Well, the longest recorded dive for a sperm whale…it was just over two hours but the average is closer to 50 minutes. And then they need to spend 12 to 15 minutes at the surface re-oxygenating their blood. So they're mammals and they breathe air just like us. When they dive they take all their air in and dive with it. But in order to go deep, their lungs actually collapse and so they store most of their oxygen in their blood and muscle tissue, so they need that sort of 15 minute gap at the surface to prepare for the next dive.
AMT: Okay, so when they come up to the surface, they’re kind of resting to get their strength up to go again?
SHANE GERO: Yeah.
AMT: What do they hunt for?
SHANE GERO: In the Caribbean it's primarily squid. Well, worldwide the vast majority, 90 percent of their diet is different squid types. And these are animals that we can't study very easily. In some areas like the Caribbean where nothing's been done on the squid species that live there, we know a lot about what squid are there because we've been collecting…well ,whale poo, basically.
AMT: What happens to the young whales like the one we just heard when the mother is down for an hour long or more dive, looking for food?
SHANE GERO: Yeah. So sperm whale society is matrilineal because moms need to help each other take care of babies. So when mom dives there's a primary baby sitter that takes care of the baby while mom is down feeding. The babies just physiologically can't or won't go down with mom and so they get left at the surface with someone. So these families of about seven animals are based on cooperation both defense from predators, babysitting and in some families they actually nurse each other's calves.
AMT: Whale daycare?
SHANE GERO: Yeah.
AMT: I was just going to say and how do they--they're still nursing the calves? They're not bringing food back up to them?
SHANE GERO: No, there's no evidence of them bringing squid to them, but they can nurse for four, five or six years even.
AMT: How do they protect their young if there's trouble then in matrilineal society?
SHANE GERO: I mean the predators for sperm whales are killer whales, pilot whales that hunt in sort of larger numbers. Most of the time, the adult females are pretty resilient. It's hard for them to take an adult, but they go after the calves. And so the calves are put in the middle of all of the females and they keep their tails out and basically swat away the smaller killer whales or pilot whales that are trying to attack them.
AMT: Interesting. So they would be like almost like the hands of a clock around the calves?
SHANE GERO: Yeah, right. Yeah.
AMT: Now you mention the males, they leave in their late teens?
SHANE GERO: Yeah. The project in Dominica is the first time that we've watched one of the males leave its family. Previously, we kind of thought it was sort of a testosterone-y walkabout. They got old enough, the hormones kicked in and off they went, but actually it's sort of sad. What happens is, mom has a new baby and then all of the females ignore the older male. This one male followed its family around for two years before it finally said, okay, and left. But what was really interesting is the only animal that did spend time with him was his new half-brother, which is interesting because they may never see each other again once the older brother leaves.
AMT: So interesting. So how do they communicate? What distance can they communicate?
SHANE GERO: So we know that codas can be heard over a few hundred metres to maybe over a kilometre. But they can hear their echolocation over much longer distances. So when two families are approaching in the open ocean, they can probably hear each other for a while before they can actually communicate with each other. The echolocation is very loud sound whereas the codas are sort of more for local conversation, if you will.
AMT: And when the males are making sounds deep in the ocean, how loud would that be if you were trying to compare it to something on dry land?
SHANE GERO: That's always a tricky question because how you measure sound on land is different from how you measure it in the water. But it's the most powerful natural sonar system, so these sounds are very loud, 180 decibels, so people compare it to the sound of a jet engine. But it's tricky because these are very short clicks right.
AMT: You did manage to decipher some of these vocalizations and we've got another recording. This is what you captured of two whales diving.
[higher pitch clicks followed alternately by low pitch clicks]
AMT: So I can really hear the clicks. Speak a little sperm whale for me, Shane, what are they saying? What are they trying to communicate?
SHANE GERO: Yeah, so these are two animals diving together. In that first sort of 300 metres, they talk to each other before separating to start hunting for squid. And in this case they're exchanging these five regular codas. So it's five regularly spaced clicks. And this new study that we just finished showed that each animal makes the five are slightly differently that allows us to reliably tell them apart. And it makes sense if you're about to go into a social isolation, you want to say okay this is me, here's where I am. Don't worry we'll separate now and we'll meet up again later. And that's basically what's happening. So we can use that five R coda to identify individual whales within their families.
AMT: When you realised that's what you were hearing, what went through your head?
SHANE GERO: Well, you know anyone who spends this amount of time with these animals…it's hard not to see them as different individuals, right. In the same way that our society is based on individuals you know I'm different from my brother and I'm different from my dad and those are important differences. And their social relationships we know are dynamic both within families, they prefer to spend time with their aunts or their sister. And between families we know that there are there are decadal scale relationships between families. So family A prefers family B over family C in the same way that you invite some of your neighbors to a barbecue and not the others. And then at the highest level, we know that thousands of animals share these vocal dialects of repertoires of different coda types and that sort of the cultural heritage level. So you know when we when we see these animals existing in the way they do, it's not a surprise really that identity is important to them. It's not a shock that that we found ways to identify each other at different levels.
AMT: So do you believe they have a sense of identity?
SHANE GERO: Yeah, undoubtedly. I think what we've shown now is that they have the vocal repertoire that all will allow them to identify each other and now we just have to go out and test if that's what they're actually doing. But certainly, if you're going to have these complicated kinds of relationships, where you prefer spending time with one animal or one family, there needs to be a way to mediate that. So, if you're two families coming together at sea, you need a way to recognize one another and decide whether or not you're going to forage together. Because these animals do things differently, each family is slightly different and special in its own way. Behavior is what you do but culture is the way you do it. You know most Canadians eat with a fork and many Chinese people you with chopsticks, but ultimately they have to eat. It's just the way that they've learned to eat is different and in the ocean it's so vast and variable that the most important thing in your surroundings are the other animals in your family and your distant family and so you need a way to recognise them. And that's what we think we've found here is a way that you can recognise individual whales, families of whales and then cultural heritage of a whale.
AMT: Well let's talk a little bit more about the cultural heritage because you've also captured sound of what you call a regional identifier. Let's listen.
[high pitched pings]
AMT: Is that what you call the regional dialect?
SHANE GERO: What's unique about this one plus one plus three call, the click, click, click click click, is that all of the animals in the Caribbean make it almost identically. Even with the computer we have a hard time telling the individuals apart and because we know that it takes calves about two years to learn how to make these different patterns accurately, we know that they're learning them as they grow up, right. So given that these families are very rarely spending any time together and they're spread out across hundreds of kilometres in the Caribbean Sea, there must be some kind of pressure to make sure that all of these calves learn this one plus one plus three in an exact way, and they are. It's a remarkable example of conformity in learning a call across animals that spend no time together. So what we think that one plus one plus three coda can do, is basically like saying I'm from the Caribbean are you? So when I meet you at sea, I have an idea of all the other things that you do. You know because Caribbean whales feed in a certain way or on a certain prey. They know how to exploit islands, having lived there for generations.
AMT: Do you know about whales that concentrate in other areas, like sperm whales in other parts of the world? Do they have like a different language? Did they behave a little differently?
SHANE GERO: Yes. The sort of standard work on sperm whales was done in the Galapagos, 30 years ago. And we know that there, there are five different dialects that all live sympatrically, so kind of like a multicultural society. But what's really interesting is that they're socially segregated, so if you share my dialect then I'll spend time with you, if you don't, I will never spend any time with you. So it structures their society, right? I mean there's a divide between us and them based on these vocal dialects. And they do things differently, so the regular clan forges in a certain way, moves in a certain way, eats a certain thing. And the plus one clan which has codas that have an extra click on the end, that's why we call it the plus one, forges differently, moves differently and feeds on different things. So it is really a whole cultural package, it’s not just a label of this is where I'm from.
AMT: Now I was looking at a video that you sent us and we will link to it on our website cbc.ca/thecurrent because you have a sperm whale named Can Opener?
SHANE GERO: Yes.
AMT: Where’d you get that name?
SHANE GERO: Well, every family gets a letter. So Family A was the first family, and we hit U and couldn't come up with a whole bunch of U names. So we called them the utensils and Can Opener’s fluke if you see in the video, it looks like that hooked, sort of old style can opener that you’d manually open a can of beans with, so we called her Can Opener. And the other animals in that family are Fork, which has a bunch of little prongs coming out, each of their tails are unique and that's how we identify them. Knife is very serrated, she's very cut up and Spoon has one very clean fluke, but has one very large sort of scallop out of the right side, so it just worked out.
AMT: And how old is Can Opener.
SHANE GERO: Can Opener is in her teens. She was born before we started the work in 2005, so we don't know exactly. But she's still young, she hasn't reproduced yet, but she's a top candidate to be the first animal to give us the third generation in our study.
AMT: Now when I when I watch her…is that you who goes up to her in the dive suit? Or is that somebody else?
SHANE GERO: No, so that was a photographer named Bryant Austin. So he uses a fashion camera that shoots very high resolution and he can blow up these photos to life size. And then he travels around showing people what individual whales look like. We're in an era where conservation is not just about numbers right, it's about individuals, it's about families and it's about culture. You know protecting the Caribbean for the sake of protecting its dialect is important. People need to realize that just because there are 300,000 sperm whales worldwide, they're all slightly different. You know I'm not interchangeable with my brother and one whale is not interchangeable with another. And so I really like Bryant's photos because they're intimate, but also about the animals, the individuals themselves.
AMT: So she turns upside down. Can Opener turns upside down and why is that, what's going on?
SHANE GERO: Well we think they can see slightly better down towards their jaw, so if she wants to actually physically look at him, then she would have to roll over. So in that clip she makes--Can Opener makes a decision to come over and she echolocates on Bryant and then she flips over to take a look at him, essentially.
AMT: With one big whale eye.
SHANE GERO: Yeah.
AMT: Is she dangerous?
SHANE GERO: No. I mean, so these animals are more like elephants of the sea. They're very calm Getting in the water with them isn't something that I encourage people to do without a professional, but they're not the Moby Dick in the heart of the sea that is out there. They're not aggressive in any way. In fact they're more elusive. They'd rather dive and get away than fight back.
AMT: So the fact that she comes up to the surface and goes upside down to look, you can recognize her, can she recognize you guys?
SHANE GERO: That's a really good question and personally I would love to know that. I think undoubtedly she can tell the different boats apart, so she knows our research boat versus the whale watch boat or a sailboat going by. We've had interactions with Can Opener, where she's figured out our system. When she dives we would go and we collect skin and feces behind, in the fluke print, which is the little circle of water that's left when the animals dive deeply, and then we start recording. But she figured that out and so she would fake a dive and wait ten metres below sea level and we’d come and put the hydrophone in and start looking for skin, and she'd blow out all her air, come up and swim around the boat. But most interestingly she would roll her eye out of the water almost as if she knew that it's not the boat that's the interesting part; it's the people on it.
AMT: It's like she's playing or something.
SHANE GERO: Yeah, for sure. I mean we play hide the hydrophone all the time with a Can Opener. She likes to chew on it so you pull it in and she'd swim away and then you throw it back in and she'd come back and get it. I mean those kinds of interactions, to me anyways, although they are anecdotal and it's not something you can talk about scientifically, there's no doubt that that shows that there's kind of some kind of internal thought process going on with these guys. All the things that we attribute to our dogs and cats without thinking about it, we don't attribute to wildlife. And it’s these kinds of studies that suggest names and cultural heritage that people can really connect and say okay yeah, you know these animals aren’t just a number floating around out there that we need to protect.
AMT: The hydrophone, that's like a microphone?
SHANE GERO: Yeah, it's an underwater microphone.
AMT: To catch all of these sounds. Well, we've got another one of your recordings. This is a family of sperm whales hanging out and you are eavesdropping. Let's listen.
[numerous clicks and high pitch pings overlapping]
AMT: They're pretty chatty. What are they doing?
SHANE GERO: This is when the animals are all together at the surface socializing. So they're rolling around, they’re in physical contact with each other, they're reinforcing social bonds. You’ll notice that they overlap their codas a lot. It’s not rude in sperm whale society to talk over one another. In fact we think that being able to predict the coda that I'm going to make next and making it at the same time as me is a way of showing how strong our relationship is. It's like vocal grooming. People know about chimpanzees who clean each other, they sit there and pick flies and bugs out of each other. This is sort of the sperm whale version of that. They come together, they make all these codas, they roll around and they can go on for hours before going back and feeding again. But the clip gives a really good idea of all the different types of codas. We've shown that there are 22 of them in the Caribbean and over 80 worldwide.
AMT: You make the point that their predators are the killer whale?
SHANE GERO: The killer whale but also the pilot whales.
AMT: Do they talk to them? Do they talk to each other, between species?
SHANE GERO: Wow. I don't think that we know that. Pilot and killer whales have a very different type of dialect, so the sperm whale’s is rather simple, it's sort of patterns of clicks. The killer whales, many people have probably heard. They have a number of different calls in their dialect but they're much more complicated acoustically. Undoubtedly, they hear each other and so sperm whales might go quiet to try and evade killer whales if they hear them. And mammal-eating killer whales are known to echolocate less when they're hunting because they don't want to be heard by the animals that they're hunting.
AMT: And do they have any other predators? They're not hunted by humans now are they?
SHANE GERO: No, sperm whales are pretty much not being hunted anymore. But we're still the main cause of death. Unfortunately, the population in the Caribbean is decreasing by about four percent. And calf mortality is really high, about 30 percent in the first year. And then even four percent of those don't survive into adulthood.
SHANE GERO: Well, I think we need to realize that this is the some of the most urban part of their habitat. These are deep sea roaming animals and in the Caribbean or near any sort of Archipelago, they interact with humans. So they interact with fishing gear, they get hit by boats, agricultural runoff, that level of mortality can't be natural for any mammal population so we are undoubtedly having an effect. And I think the key here to remember is that our actions impact theirs. It's easy to forget that they're out there right now feeding and defending from predators and teaching their calves the one plus one plus three coda, while we listen to The Current and order pizza or whatever.
AMT: What have you learned from these whales that you haven't thought of before in terms of how you see the world?
SHANE GERO: Well, I think there are a few lessons we can learn from sperm whales. One is, love your mom because these families of females are nomadically traversing the darkness of the deep ocean just to care for their babies. So everyone should call their mom after they hear this interview. But also the need to work together and cooperate with one another and realizing that just because we do things differently doesn't mean that one way is wrong. They're living in multicultural societies in the ocean without having wars over who's right. We can learn a lot from listening to other ways of life, whale or otherwise.
AMT: It's really fascinating, thank you for sharing your work with us.
SHANE GERO: It’s been great, thank you.
RB: Shane Gero is a Canadian marine biologist, and the founder of the Dominica Sperm Whale Project. He spoke to Anna-Maria Tremonti in March. Now, since that interview first aired, Shane has published new findings which show that there are two different cultures of whales living in the Caribbean, each with their own distinct dialect of codas. It shows that cultural diversity is important to whales worldwide, and that the whales in the Caribbean are unique and different from elsewhere. Now, if you want to see photos of the whales or that video that they were talking about, you can visit our website cbc.ca/thecurrent. And that is our program for today. And finally today, after all those sperm whale codas, let’s end things off with a little human made whale music. A few years ago, an Australian company commissioned a group of chamber musicians for a very interesting project. They were floated on a barge off the coast of Australia, performing music that both migrating humpback whales and humans could appreciate. It’s called Whale Song. I’m Robyn Bresnahan, thanks very much for listening to the summer edition of The Current.
[Music: Whale Song]