Skip to content
All articles
  • All articles
  • About whales & dolphins
  • Create healthy seas
  • End captivity
  • Green Whale
  • Prevent deaths in nets
  • Scottish Dolphin Centre
  • Stop whaling
Solinia is inspiring children to protect river dolphins

A promise to the river dolphins of Peru

Ali Wood Ali is WDC's education projects coordinator. She is the editor of Splash! and KIDZONE,...
Fin whales in the Gulf of California © Christopher Swann

A critical moment for the whales of Iceland

Luke McMillan Luke is WDC's head of hunting and captivity. VIEW ALL LUKE'S BLOGS The...
Norway For Whales

We’re inspiring a wave of change in Norway to end the world’s largest whale hunt

Lottie Pearson Lottie is WDC's stop whaling campaigner. She works to end whaling in Norway,...
El Salvador whale watching workshop

Empowering communities through responsible whale watching

Miguel Iñíguez Miguel is WDC's research fellow based in Argentina. Seeing whales and dolphins in...
Busy Japanese city

WDC in Japan – Part 6: Lessons learnt

Katrin Matthes Katrin is WDC's communications and campaigns officer for policy & communication in Germany...
Help Michelin change the course

We’re working with Michelin to take whales off the menu

Julia Pix Julia Pix is WDC's head of engagement. She delivers our public campaigns and...
Baird's beaked whale © Robert Pitman

Beaked whales have culture, too

Erich Hoyt Erich is WDC's research fellow. He works to protect areas of the ocean...
Humpback whale playing with kelp

Why do humpback whales wear seaweed wigs?

Alison Wood Ali is WDC's education projects coordinator. She is the editor of Splash! and KIDZONE,...

Beaked whales have culture, too

Erich Hoyt

Erich Hoyt

Erich is WDC's research fellow. He works to protect areas of the ocean that are important for whales and dolphins.

Over the past decade, the world of whale and dolphin culture has been a hot topic for scientists. They’ve been exploring how these magnificent beings share unique behaviours with one another. While the spotlight has often shone on well-known species like humpbacks and orcas, we’re now uncovering, that a lesser-known group, the beaked whales, have unique cultures, too.

Our journey into understanding culture in various species of whales and dolphins has revealed some pretty cool behaviours: the melodic singing and co-ordinated bubble-net feeding in humpbacks, orca dialects and feeding behaviours and even the ingenious use of sponges by bottlenose dolphins to avoid hurting their noses when rooting for food in the sand. But, proving these examples are culture has been painstaking, involving the identification of individual whales and dolphins through photo identification (photo-ID) and sometimes genetic and other research.

Salt - Credit new england aquarium 1
Dolphin using a sponge as a tool

Like us, whales and dolphins have culture and societies all of their own.

The 2014 book The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins by Hal Whitehead and Luke Rendell marked a turning point in this area of research, shedding light on multiple examples, and extensive work by WDC research fellow Philippa Brakes has helped advance our understanding of it. But there has been no mention of beaked whales.

Baird's beaked whales

If you are able to make a donation, it would mean the world right now.

What’s taken so long?

There are 24 species of beaked whales living all across the northern North Pacific Ocean, from the shelf slopes to the deeper canyons of the ocean, far from land. They dive for squid often for an hour or more at a time with only brief minutes at the surface. This means there are not many opportunities to observe beaked whales, much less uncover their culture. Because of these long dives, identifying multiple individuals in these populations is considered near impossible. Researchers would need patience, a great deal of patience.

Group of Baird's beaked whales at surface
Beaked whales are often overlooked, but they need protecting, too. © Graeme Cresswell

Thankfully my colleagues Ivan Fedutin and Olga Filatova from the Department of Biology at the University of Southern Denmark, have this kind of patience. In 2012, when I visited them on Bering Island (located east of Kamchatka and geologically part of the westernmost Aleutian Islands, Alaska), Ivan proudly showed me photographs of the 80 individual Baird’s beaked whales that were coming near the island in two waves in early and late summer. Baird’s are the largest beaked whale, with males reaching up to 10.7 metres and females 11.1 metres, making them the second largest toothed whale after sperm whales.

Ivan told me that he could tell the Baird’s beaked whales apart from the complex patterns of subtle scratches on their backs. He showed me in successive photos how the scratch patterns stayed consistent from year to year. His makeshift photo album was the first individual identification catalogue for beaked whales

Baird's beaked whale scratches along back
Each individual has a unique set of scratch patterns that can be used to identify them.

Beaked whale breakthrough

Returning almost every summer from 2008 until pre-Covid 2019, Ivan and Olga carefully documented the regular appearance of Baird’s beaked whales from their camp on Bering Island. The whales could be seen from land and then were tracked by boat, with precise locations and identifications recorded. In 2015, our team, led by Ivan and Olga’s work, documented the long-term social relationships among these whales in Marine Mammal Science. Building on the extensive photo ID, location and genetic data, our recent paper in Animal Behaviour describes, for the first time, the strong possibility of culture in Baird’s beaked whales.

The cultural tradition among the Baird’s beaked whales around Bering Island is fascinating. Those who come often to the area, and are classified as residents, stay in the shallow areas of the shelf slope for feeding and socialising, while the transient whales, unfamiliar with local conditions, mostly stay in much deeper waters that are typical for this species. Only the transient whales that have social bonds with the residents venture into the shallow area. This suggests that cultural tradition is not only passed from mothers to their offspring; it also involves knowledge being transmitted between adult whales through their well-documented wider social bonds.

Bering Island
Resident Baird's whales were spotted closer to the shore more often than the transient whales. © PilipenkoD

The idea that Baird’s beaked whales have cultural traditions is perhaps not surprising. If we know that some whales have culture, then why not all whales? In fact, many animal groups have culture, such as chimpanzees and other primates. They acquire part of their behavioural repertoire through social learning rather than genetics, and variations in these behaviours that persist over time may be attributed to cultural traditions.

Two chimpanzee's
Culture is important for the survival of many animal species. © Donald Morgan

Culture under threat

Baird’s beaked whales have been hunted by Japanese whalers since the early 1600s, with American, Canadian and Russian hunters also participating until the 1970s when whaling ceased in those countries. The intense social bonds and the presence of culture presents a strong argument against the hunting of these the largely overlook beaked whales, and indeed, any whale species. If we don’t preserve the cultural traditions, they will disappear and their function in helping a species to navigate a difficult, ever changing environment may diminish or disappear.

Recognising culture to help protect wherever whales live in the sea

The IUCN Marine Mammal Protected Areas Task Force, which I co-chair, acknowledges the remarkable culture of whales and dolphins as a criterion for declaring a habitat as an important marine mammal area, or IMMA. The IMMA tool sets out distinctiveness, which includes genetic and behavioural as well as identified cultural distinctiveness, as a reason to protect the habitat of a population or smaller group of marine mammals. In fact, between 2016-2023, 56 IMMAs were approved at least in part because clear evidence of the unique qualities of individuals in these areas was provided.

Japanese whaling ship
Increasing our understanding of whale culture will help us stop whaling © WDC/M Votier

The Baird’s beaked whale habitat around Bering Island is effectively protected as part of the Commander Islands National Park. But Baird’s beaked whales throughout the rest of their range and especially in the waters of central and northern Japan remain unprotected. With the persistence of Japanese whaling resulting in direct killing of approximately 60-70 individuals year after year, any cultural traditions of Baird’s beaked whales in Japanese waters may well be affected. If whaling of this species had continued in Russian waters around Bering Island, the nearshore resident whales that our team watched as they socialised would have likely been the first to be eliminated.

Baird's beaked whale distribution map
Uncovering culture in the Baird's beaked whale will help protect them across their entire range.

There is much yet to learn. . We will continue trying to uncover the intricate cultures of whales and dolphins, and in doing so we will be able to put forward strong cases to protect areas of the ocean that are important for their continued survival.  Understanding and appreciating their social complexity is essential to ensure that whale and dolphin populations not only survive, but thrive.

Baird's beaked whale © Robert Pitman
The more we learn, the better we can protect these awesome beings © Adrian Shephard

Please help us today with a donation

If you are able to help, every gift, whether large or small, will help protect whales and dolphins everywhere.