Whales spouting

‘The cetaceans may give rise to some complexity’: breathlessness in whales and dolphins

In the first of a series of posts on cetaceans, Project Manager (Bristol) Jess Farr-Cox writes:

As discussed in previous posts (see All his heart was cold), Aristotle was fascinated by creatures that live in the sea, and in particular how they breathed. In his rich and thoughtful book on Aristotle’s interest in (and, he argues, creation of) biology, Armand Marie Leroi notes that ‘Dolphins fascinate him [Aristotle] for they breath air […] yet look like fish’ and poses a series of questions, beginning with the one that concerns us here: ‘Why do fish have gills and not lungs?’[1] For Aristotle, it seems to be a question of balance:

why do fishes if they respire die in the air and gasp (as can be seen) as in suffocation? It is not want of food that produces this effect upon them and the reason given by Diogenes is foolish, for he says that they take in too much air and hence die, but in the water they take in a moderate amount.[2]

Aristotle was by no means the only classical scholar with an interest in whales and dolphins: Plutarch tells stories of cetaceans in his Lives; Pliny mentions dolphins and porpoises in his Natural History, distinguishing one from the other on the grounds that dolphins seem to be jolly, smiling creatures, whereas porpoises have a ‘gloomy air’;[3] and dolphins also appear in Aristophanes (The Frogs), Herodotus and Homer. Whales appear in many ancient stories, including Inuit stories of Sedna, goddess of the sea; the tale of Jonah; mentions of the leviathan in the Books of Job and Isaiah (of which more in a future post) and the more nautical psalms; and the Maori legend of Paikia, who rode to New Zealand on the back of a whale (see also my post on breathing and the haka, ‘I will not be drowned‘).[4] From the Greek myth of Arion onwards, then, whales and dolphins had symbolic power across culture and time; however, to a tidier Aristotelian mind, they were troubling, disturbing a neat definition of fish by having both wombs (Greek delphis, meaning dolphin; delphys, meaning womb) and lungs. Joe Roman quotes Arthur Pink, a Newfoundland fisherman, who might also have added brains to that list: ‘Some folks say whales is only fish […] They’s too smart for fish’.[5] We might juxtapose that with the submarine named the Intelligent Whale, sold to the US Navy in the 1970s, and which proved ‘not as intelligent as a whale. It drowned thirty-nine men during trials.’[6] Finally, there is John Stuart Mill’s contention that whales are in fact fish when considered from a purely economic standpoint, ‘no matter what the zoologists said’.[7] In fact, whalers seem to view whales and whale products in the light of products derived from cod (whale livers were used to make vitamins, among other things) and cows, referring to the whalemeat as ‘steak’, cutting it (and declaring its flavour) to resemble beef.

Aristotle remained focused on the breathing, however: he knew that fish breathed without leaving the water and had gills and fins, whereas cetaceans had to come to the surface to breathe, and had lungs and fins (rather than feet, like other air-breathing creatures), but he didn’t know why:

Among water-animals, the cetaceans may give rise to some perplexity … they have no feet, yet possess a lung.

Aristotle knew that stranded whales suffocated, but was unable to explain how this happened: they have lungs and even when stranded have access to the air. Failing to realise that the whales were unable to breath out of water because they could not support the weight of their own bodies, he wrote, ‘It is not known why they sometimes run aground on the seashore: for it is asserted that this happens rather frequently when the fancy takes them, and without any apparent reason.’[8]  Another problem for stranded whales is the sheer weight and heat of their own bodies, issues that are usually resolved for them by being surrounded and supporting by water. Philip Hoare also writes about the dangers of accessing air for cetaceans, and Arctic whales in particular. He describes how

[t]housands of narwhals and beluga are still hunted every year from small boats or shot at from the ice, a cull in which nature itself is complicit. In winter, the inlets up which the animals swim can freeze over, creating a barrier too wide for them to cross in one breath.[9]

Aristotle observed dolphins over a number of years, noting that ‘dolphins, marked by nicks on their tails, lived for twenty-five or thirty years’,[10] and learnt an extraordinary number of things about cetaceans of all kinds, including the following:

They breathe air, have a windpipe and lungs, and a blowhole through which they spout water. When hunting they will plunge into the deep, calculate how long they can stay down, and then shoot to the surface like arrows, flying out into the air, sometimes clearing the masts of boats […] when caught underwater in nets they drown. […] Sleeping dolphins do, however, snore – or so it is said.[11]

In this description of dolphins leaping out of the water, we might see a relationship with Homer’s works as mentioned above: in the ‘Hymn to Apollo’, Apollo takes the form of a dolphin, and, just as both Aristotle and Leroi describe, bursts out of the water and leaps aboard a ship; Apollo then hijacks it from the amazed sailors by commanding the wind to blow it where he likes.

There are obvious areas of commonality between people and cetaceans beyond wombs and lungs, such as similar life expectancies, strong family bonds (I have written about this elsewhere in The fish that is black), complex social structures, and the ability to communicate. Furthermore, and particularly in the case of dolphins and killer whales, they share our ability to learn, plan and co-operate. For example, as well as planning hunts that require co-ordinated actions, whales can also learn to avoid danger. Roman writes about whales being hunted in the Bay of Biscay when they strayed too close to the shore; within a few generations, the whales had learned that this route was dangerous and swam in deeper water, out of sight of the towers and beyond the reach of the small whaling boats of the time.[12] Leroi describes how people from various cultures, including some Greeks, seem to have regarded cetaceans (human-sized ‘smiling’ dolphins in particular) as almost sacred, while others preferred to harpoon and eat them. Leroi notes that Aristotle passes no opinion on the morality of this, but must have observed at least one such hunt, conducted in silence while the nets were stealthily put in place and then using noise to disorient the dolphins, from which Aristotle draws the conclusion that dolphins can ‘hear’ even though they have no external ears, groping towards the discovery of sonar.[13] Killer whales and dolphins also use both sound and air bubbles to confuse and frighten their own prey into huddling together, forcing the air out in controlled blasts to disorient other creatures.

Just as we may feel sympathy or empathy for a fellow human struggling to catch their breath and wish to relieve their suffering, cetaceans are well-known for coming to the aid of distressed people who have fallen into the water, as in the myth of Arion mentioned earlier. They also assist each other in their breathing, even in captivity. For example, Richard Perry writes of dolphins responding to distress calls by

begin[ning] an immediate search for their companion. When it is found there is complex exchange of whistling notes and the disabled dolphin is pushed to the surface and supported there by one or two member of the herd so it may breathe, in the same manner as a young dolphin (or a young sperm whale) that fails to swim to the surface within seconds of birth is pushed up by its mother.[14]

Perry suggests that these calls indicating respiratory distress can cross the species barrier, describing a false killer whale responding to the calls of a common dolphin in captivity. He also passes on Cousteau’s account of similar altruistic behaviour in a pod of three sperm whales, animals usually known for their aggression:

when one of them collided with the ship [Cousteau’s Calypso], the injured whale gave mouselike squeaks, and then plaintive cries in reply to the piercing calls of its companions. The two unhurt whales pressed their shoulders against it on either side and enabled it to raise its blow-hole above the surface.[15]

It seem, therefore, that while cetaceans continue to ‘give rise to some complexity’, we can be reasonably sure that they know what breathlessness is.


[1] Armand Marie Leroi, The Lagoon: How Aristotle Invented Science (London: Bloomsbury, 2014), p. 8.

[2] Aristotle, ‘On Respiration’, p. 750, line 11 (9(3)).

[3] Alan Rauch, Dolphin (London: Reaktion Books, 2013) p. 23.

[4] The whale-as-leviathan idea is also preserved in the bodies of dead whales exhibited as tourist attractions, which all received Biblical names (including Jonah).

[5] Arthur Pink’s words, recorded by Farley Mowat, as cited by Joe Roman, Whale (London: Reaktion Books, 2006), p. 150.

[6] James Dugan, Man Explores the Sea (London: Penguin, 1960), p. 134.

[7] Roman, Whale, p. 149.

[8] Aristotle, Historia Animalium, 1.5, as quoted by Hal Whitehead and Luke Rendell, The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015), p. 259. As Whitehead and Rendell note, it is still unknown why dolphins and whales strand. ‘Atypical’ mass strandings in which the animals are spread over a wide area are probably caused ‘by loud sounds in the ocean … sound travels so well underwater and is so important in the whales’ (p. 258). ‘Typical’ mass strandings, however, in which the animals are concentrated onto one beach, ‘puzzle us today’ (p. 259).

[9] Philip Hoare, Leviathan or The Whale (London: Fourth Estate, 2008), p. 273.

[10] Richard Perry, The Unknown Ocean (Newton Abbott: David & Charles, 1972), p. 211.

[11] Leroi, The Lagoon, pp. 114-115. Aristotle says that whales and dolphins ‘sleep with their head out of the water, and dolphins, at any rate, snore (‘On Respiration’, p. 757, line 13 (18(12)). Leroi, while finding this a sufficiently arresting image to use ‘The Dolphin’s Snore’ as a chapter title, is unsure. He writes, ‘That dolphins snore is dubious, but we’ll let it go since they do, apparently, vocalise in their sleep.’ Leroi, The Lagoon, p. 115. Hoare also speculates that whales dream, but whales and dolphins shut down only half of their brain at a time. Thus, they are never truly asleep and therefore I wonder if ‘dream’ is the right word to use.

[12] Leroi tells us (or rather Leroi tells us that Aristotle tells us) that this means of spotting sea-creatures from land via towers extended to fish, as well as whales: ‘Fishermen, spotting the churning shoals [of tuna] from watchtowers, net the glistening bodies at night while the fish sleep.’ Leroi, The Lagoon, p. 239.

[13] Leroi, The Lagoon, p. 115.

[14] Perry, Ocean, p. 208.

[15] Perry, Ocean, pp. 209-210.

Jess Farr-Cox

Jess is the Bristol project manager for Life of Breath. She is also a freelance proof-reader, copy-editor, indexer, teacher and writer.

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