Up Close With the Sperm Whale Families of the Caribbean Sea
Up Close With the Sperm Whale Families of the Caribbean Sea
By Shane Gero, Dominica Sperm Whale Project  

I have known Fingers for a long time. My relationship with her dates back to before I was married or had kids, and long before I even had any idea of what she was saying when she spoke.

When I met Fingers for the first time in 2005, she was swimming around with her family in the Caribbean Sea. We named her family the "Group of Seven," in part because a little Canadian art history never hurt anyone, but mostly because there were seven whales in the family when we first met them (scientists can be simple and direct like that!) The Group of Seven is one female line — grandmothers, mothers, sisters and daughters living together.

5 sperm whale tailsPhoto: Courtesy of The Dominica Sperm Whale Project

We often name the animals we study based on their physical characteristics because it helps us remember and recognize them. We use natural markings on the edge of their tails to identify them; Fingers got her moniker because she has two distinct peaks on the right side of her tail flukes.

Fingers is kind of like the older neighbour that’s nice to have down the street — reliable, a good babysitter, and stoic. She had two calves: Thumb, who died in 2005, and Digit, born in 2011. Over the years, her family has included Puzzle Piece, Quasimodo, Mysterio and her calf Enigma, as well as Pinchy.

Pinchy is also a good mom, and has had two calves as well: Tweak, and Scar, who was a young male when we met him in 2005. Scar has since left his natal family as all young males eventually do, and Tweak passed away just last year.

Sperm whale families in the Caribbean most often swim around alone, but when the Group of Seven hangs out with a neighbouring family it's almost always the ‘Utensils’: Fork, Spoon, Knife, and, of course, Can Opener. I would be remiss not to mention her, because she has such a big personality.

When Can Opener was young she used to like to investigate our equipment, try to play with our hydrophone (underwater microphone), and “fake” dives so she could wait just below the surface for our boat to approach in search of skin and fecal samples. It’s hard not to interpret that as smart behaviour that involves forward planning and is backed by complex thinking. When she would be nearby, she would always roll here eye out of the water, almost as if she knew the people on the boat were the interesting part — not the hull of the boat itself.

Finger with her calfFingers with her new calf Digit. Tweak swims under his new cousin. Photo: Courtesy of Bryant Austin, taken under government permit in 2011

Through thousands of hours in their company, these whale families have become the best studied in the world. They have taught us the details of life as a sperm whale in the deep, dark, open ocean. But perhaps the starkest message they have given us is that as “urban” animals living near the shores of the Caribbean islands, we are a key part of their lives.

Our growing presence in the ocean impacts every part of their day. Digit is currently struggling to survive, entangled in old fishing gear. Sadly, the Group of Seven is, today, only three.

An important part of what I do is to learn from Fingers, Pinchy and Can Opener in order to share their stories, their family trees, and their culture so that we can learn to respect them, protect them, and be good neighbours.

SCENE FROM THE FILM: Sperm whales communicate in their own language, complete with local dialects.

You can learn more about the sperm whale families living off Dominica by downloading The Dominica Sperm Whale Project’s Flukebook.

Listen to an interview with Shane on The Current

Shane Gero is an FNU Research Fellow in the Marine Bioacoustics Lab in the Department of Zoophysiology at Aarhus University in Denmark. In 2005, Shane founded The Dominica Sperm Whale Project, a long term study on the behaviour of sperm whales. He tweets at @sgero and you can follow live tweets from when he is with the whales @DomWhale.