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Sperm whales have distinct dialects, complex relationships and a set of traditions passed down between generations—what scientists are calling a ‘multicultural civilization’

by Kate Lunau on Thursday, July 28, 2011 5:35pm.


Tourist brochures refer to Dominica, a tiny Caribbean island between Guadeloupe and Martinique, as “the Nature Island” for its lush vegetation, its postcard-perfect waterfalls, and its plant and animal life. The indigenous Carib Indians called it Waitukubuli (“tall is her body”), which might be a better name: the island’s volcanic peaks jut sharply upwards before falling away into the sea, leaving a deep oceanic basin on its Western side that’s sheltered by the mountainous island.

Shane Gero came here in 2005 looking for sperm whales. There had been reports of sightings around Dominica (pronounced “Domin-eek-a”), including families with multiple babies, but still, he wasn’t too sure what he’d find. “When we got there, they were everywhere,” says Gero, 31, a Ph.D. candidate at Dalhousie University. That year, Gero spent 41 straight days following one family of sperm whales; he’s returned every year since, splitting his time between Dominica, Halifax and his hometown of Ottawa. By now, Gero has spent literally thousands of hours following over 20 families of sperm whales. He knows some of them so well that he can recognize them by sight when they surface, lingering about 15 minutes to breathe and socialize before diving again. He’s even got names for them, like Pinchy, Fingers and Spoon.

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