Sperm Whales….What they can teach us about pain….

Dear Pain Matters blog readers,

As we all know, most humans have 5 senses (i.e. sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste).  In addition to these 5 senses, some consider pain to be a 6th, albeit very unpleasant, sensation/sense/perception.

Today, I will share something amazing about sperm whales, and their ability to use echolocation, or biosonar, as one of their senses (like other cetaceans, bats, etc).

I recently read James Nestor’s book called ‘Deep – Freediving, Renegade Science and What the Ocean Tells Us About Ourselves’.

In the chapter called ‘-10,000′, James describes his own personal experience while in the ocean with a friend, Prinsloo, and two sperm whales (a mother and her calf).  He states that these whales’ echolocation clicks sound ‘like jackhammers on pavement’, while ‘the whales are scanning us inside and out’ (like an ultrasound machine!).  While in the water with these 2 whales, James and Prinsloo heard (and even felt the vibrations of) the rhythm of the whales’ clicks change from echolocation clicks to another type of click rhythm called coda clicks.  While in awe of these 2 whales, James and Prinsloo were literally showered with coda clicks and echolocation clicks….that eventually faded away as the 2 sperm whales disappeared….’and the ocean, once again, (fell) silent’.

The sperm whales’ echolocation clicks, even when produced miles under the sea, are strong enough to cause a five-foot long piece of timber (i.e. wooden oar) to vibrate, making ‘an audible clicking sound’ (a soft ‘tick-tick-tick’).

I could go on and on about this interesting book called ‘Deep’, but I will let you read this book yourself. However, there is one other part I would like to bring to your attention:

A pod of female sperm whales, when approached by (another) free diver, ‘showered him with clicks and gently interacted with him’ for many hours.  However, a perturbed young bull sperm whale approached him, somewhat annoyed at all this attention that the female whales were giving to this free diver.  This bull whale ‘shot (the free diver) with clicks powerful enough to stun him.  He managed to kick to the surface and crawled back to the ….boat, where he experienced debilitating pain in his stomach and chest.’  (Isn’t the bull whale’s ability to induce acute pain in the free diver amazing??  What a display of energy and power by nature!)  ‘After three hours, he recovered fully….’

On a different day, another diver was approached by a curious calf whale who started to bump the diver with its nose.  When the diver held his hand out to gently push the calf back, he ‘felt a sudden shock of heat rush up his arm.  The energy from the clicks coming out of the calf’s nose was strong enough to paralyse (the diver’s) hand for the next few hours.  He too recovered.’

What does this tell us?  Pain (acute or otherwise) can have many different causes/triggers (including exposure to certain mechanical vibrations). As weird as it may sound, certain vibrations in the sea caused by an acutely stressed whale can even cause instant and excruciating acute pain in humans who happen to be swimming nearby.

This brings us to the centuries-old philosophical question – what exactly is pain?  For example, how can acute pain arise in a diver who is merely in the watery vicinity of a stressed sperm whale that is emitting pain-inducing vibrations through the water??  What vibrational patterns are inherent in these pain-inducing clicks??  Are these certain vibrational patterns used by some animals to generate acute pain or (partial) paralysis in other animals including humans?  If yes, what are these pain-inducing vibrational patterns?  Will we be able to decipher these ‘pain patterns’ one day?  If there are ‘pain-forming vibrational patterns’, can these ‘pain patterns’ be reversed, leading to the reversal of pain itself?  These, and other pain-related philosophical questions, remain our challenges.

In the book ‘Deep’, 3 hours after being painfully stunned by the whale’s pain-inducing clicks, the free diver luckily recovered.  From a biological perspective, did the free diver recover because he was able to get out of the water, and hence, away from the stressed whale’s pain-inducing clicks/vibrations in the water??

I hope one day you will enjoy James Nestor’s book called ‘Deep’.  It will take you to another world, being the wet, wild, and watery world of our oceans that is teeming with life. The wonders of nature never cease to amaze….

In the meantime, please also enjoy the following YouTube that celebrates the awe-inspiring beauty and wonder of sperm whales:

‘The Azores — Photographing Sperm Whales With Dr Chris Brown And Krystle Wright’ (Canon Australia)

https://youtu.be/_USBDcAtjcc

Until my next Pain Matters blog,

Sabina Walker

Reference:

Nestor, James; Deep – Freediving, Renegade Science and What the Ocean Tells Us About Ourselves; 2014 http://www.amazon.com/Deep-Freediving-Renegade-Science-Ourselves/dp/0547985525

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