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Meet Jonathan Gordon

Dr. Jonathan Gordon 

Dr. Jonathan Gordon at work.

Dr. Jonathan Gordon, one of the researchers featured on NATURE, runs "Song of the Whale," a 46-foot ketch, as an offshore whale research vessel for the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW). He is also based at the University of Oxford's Wildlife Conservation Research Unit.

Sperm whales have been Dr. Gordon's particular research interest for nearly 20 years. While still an undergraduate student in Cambridge, Dr. Gordon organized an expedition to the Azores to investigate the traditional whaling industry there. This experience sparked his fascination with sperm whales. His Ph.D. work included the first benign study of live sperm whales.

"Song of the Whale" is a busy boat, and it has completed a host of other projects around the world. The boat's work in Dominica involved studying sperm whales and advising how whale watching there could be conducted while minimizing the disturbance to the animals.

QHow long have you been searching for and studying whales?

J.G.I started in the late 1970s, when I was a student. At that point, there was still whaling going on in the Azores. I first studied it through the whaling industry -- at that point the only whales to study were dead ones -- and then later I started studying live whales. I think a lot of the research done has shown that you don't have to catch whales to study them -- that's one of the loopholes that whaling nations use to keep doing it. The research has shown that whales are too precious to be used as a commodity. Whales are shy, gentle, social creatures. An alternative to whaling is whale-watching, which is old hat now, especially in the [United] States, but it was a new way of thinking then. Now, there's a national and regional pride in whales. We were able to contribute to it. The Azores are now the place where people come to watch whales.

QWhen you set off to look for whales in the ocean, where do you start?

J.G.The first step, and the reason that we can follow sperm whales -- they're the hardest to find; they live in deep water and they dive for an hour at a time -- the trick that allows this is passive acoustics.

Three sperm whales 

The hydrophone Dr. Gordon uses in his research.

With the hydrophone systems, we can listen night and day, in bad weather or good. We use these techniques to follow them, but also to photograph them. Hydrophones work at a distance of up to 5 miles. We didn't invent the hydrophone, but we adapted it. We scaled it down to the point where it's very cheap and very small, so we can bring it aboard a ship of any size. Hydrophones go back to my student days, when we discovered that acoustics was really the key. Usually, though, we have a general idea of where they are. Sperm whales are one of the most widely distributed of any animals. The females and young live in warmer waters, and the males move into colder waters. Sperm whales have the most complex organization of any of the great whales. So in New Zealand, you rarely see females as you go south towards the Pole.

One of the real revelations of working with [SPERM WHALES producer] Rick Rosenthal was to begin to see some of the sexual behavior of sperm whales. It involved all the members of the group. The males are so big that they're almost a different species. When Hal [a male adult whale] showed up, I had this expectation that a big male would be pushing himself on reluctant females. Instead, they were all over him, very excited. I don't know how to explain it in evolutionary terms!

QHow do whales react to human contact? Do they enjoy it, or are they afraid?

J.G.Most whales you meet in the middle of the ocean are quite wary of people. Calves tend to be curious, and that can be quite dangerous if what they're curious about is the boat! Certain animals do tend to get acclimatized to humans being around and seem as if they almost enjoy it -- they play up to the audience. It's funny, because whales have such a fearsome reputation -- and if you get a harpoon in them, they will get angry; there are records of them eating people. But temperamentally, they seem more like cows. They seem very placid. Sometimes a herd of dolphins will swim in and out of them, swim around them, and really pester them. They're quite shy, gentle animals that like to keep to themselves.

QIn your travels, have you ever felt as if you were in danger?

J.G.Not really. Any film of whales has to be taken very cautiously. We limit our time in the water to collecting bits of skin for DNA fingerprinting, and we observe them from quite a distance. They are wonderful, mysterious animals. We don't want people to get the idea to jump in the water with whales; people would easily get hurt. You do feel sort of vulnerable against the great blueness of the ocean; all you can think of is JAWS. The whale is so huge that you can't compare it to anything, like a skyscraper or a truck; it's just a giant mass. But as you get closer to the whale, if you can see its eye, it seems more like a companion. They're very graceful. In the water, the whale is obviously at home and you're obviously not.

QHave you made any progress in deciphering the pulses of sound that whales use to communicate with one another?

J.G.Not great progress. A lot of our work has been very practical, i.e., how can we count these animals by their clicks? We have developed methods that are almost completely automated, so other boats like ferries and icebreakers can go out and do it. Counting whales at sea is difficult and costly; it's passive acoustics that allow us to do it. One of the things with sperm whales is that a click can have several clicks inside it. Whales cruise at constant speeds for hours on end.It's the sound of the clicks bouncing around inside its head! So you can figure out how big their heads are, and from that, figure out how big their bodies are. During the part of the dive where they're feeding, they make little buzzes like the buzzes dolphins make when they're picking up fish, so we're pretty sure they're feeding. Through sound, we can get a picture of what they're doing down there.

It is a bit like Morse code. The clicks have patterns, and the patterns in the Azores differ from those in the Caribbean. Certain patterns seem to initiate exchanges.

QWhat has been your most memorable experience in your research?

J.G.Seeing Hal join the female group and seeing their reaction. The shock of that happening and the spectacle of it -- 30 "little" whales, each of them about 30 tons! And it's not as if the females knew him, either. I think that the males move around between groups, so they didn't know him. It's the sort of thing you expect insects to do when [they go] sex-mad with pheromones. Not the thing you expect from complicated creatures like whales.

QHave there been any new breakthroughs in your research since the film was made?

J.G.We've continued working in Dominica. One of the interesting things is how many of the same animals we see year after year. In the Azores, we see maybe 10 percent year after year, but in Dominica, it's nearly 50 percent that return.

QWhat's next for you?

J.G.In the summer months, we've been working on white whales off New England. White whales are very rare. We're also applying some of the techniques we use in temperate waters to the Antarctic, taking surveys of the whales there. We're also working on whales off the British Isles, what's called the Atlantic Frontier. There's an oil field there, and there are also quite a lot of sperm whales there. We're encouraging the operators to use hydrophones before blasting. The whales there are very vulnerable; they can be right underneath when the operators set off their seismic guns. I have no idea how many sperm whales exist in the world -- there's hundreds of thousands, or maybe 100,000. They're not a rare species, but they're very vulnerable because they have a low reproductive rate, even lower if you disrupt their social system. They're an animal that has not withstood civilization well. We still know very little about them.

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