Whale I’ll Be Diego’d
Whale watchers and well wishers please welcome scientists, students and other whale enthusiasts from around the country and the world for the 13th International Conference of the American Cetacean Society (ACS) as they come to San Diego’s Hyatt Regency Mission Bay the weekend of November 9 through 11.
ACS, founded in 1967, is the oldest non-profit conservation society dedicated to cetaceans – whales, dolphins and porpoises. Its conference always attracts some of the leading researchers and professionals in the field, and this year’s meeting is no exception.
The theme for 2012 is Whales & Humans: A Conflicted Relationship. Presentations on Saturday and Sunday will provide scientific, political and social analysis of diverse aspects of whaling and whale-watching, including examination of emerging issues and findings in cetacean populations around the world.
Take a peek at the program schedule. Also enjoy book signings, an art show, a marine life photo contest and a research poster contest. Have a Friday filled with fun and discovering more about marine mammals on one or both of the whale-watching trips before the conference starts.
The Saturday night banquet speaker will be Charles “Flip” Nicklin, one of the world’s leading wildlife photographers, whose majestic whale photos have appeared in National Geographic and in his current book, Among Giants: A History with Whales.
Flip Nicklin was one of the first photographers to swim with whales and capture them in their natural environments and the point man for whale photography at National Geographic. Though he’s dived in every ocean on earth, worked extreme hours and braved hostile locations in search of his stunning photographs, he remains surprisingly humble and self-deprecating about his work.
“For most of my career, if I was sitting in a bar and someone asked what I did, I couldn’t tell them without them thinking I was just completely full of it,” he says. But with the recent publication of his retrospective photography book and memoir, “Among Giants: A Life with Whales,” Nicklin is finally getting the wider recognition and respect he’s due. Flip Nicklin followed his passions to live life with a dedication to photography, providing inspiration to help the whale community, and commitment to conservation. Learn more by reading the interesting story of Flip Nicklin’s start in San Diego below.
The keynote speaker on Sunday at the ACS Conference will be the renowned primatologist and ethicist Frans de Waal, whose topic will be The Prosocial Side of Animal Behavior and the Role of Empathy.
Frans de Waal is listed on the Time 100 men and women whose power, talent or moral example is transforming the world under the even more specific Scientists and Thinkers category. He is a Member of the United States National Academy of Sciences and the Royal Netherlands Academy of Sciences.
From his pioneering research on alliance formation in Chimpanzee Politics, to reconciliation behavior in Peacemaking Among Primates and Good Natured, to the implications for human life and thought in Primates and Philosophers, de Waal has been seeking to understand the roots of moral behavior in the most political of animals. The theme of his newest book, The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society, suggests nature is not guided by selfishness and how we can implement these morals into our own society.
For the past 20 years de Waal has lived and worked in Atlanta, Georgia where he operates the Living Links Center at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center of Emory University. Biologists and evolutionary scientists focus on competition, on what drives us apart. De Waal focuses on what brings us together: reciprocity, empathy, conflict resolution. Amazing Interview with Frans de Waal after Flip Nicklin’s San Diego Start Story below.
“Be guided by a few simple rules. Number one: a photo must either show something new or show something familiar in a new way. Number two: Pictures that look like pictures you’ve seen before don’t count. Number three: Your photo should tell a story – you should be able to talk for hours about the story behind a photo.” – Flip Nicklin
On January 11th, 1963, my father rode a whale.” This is how Charles “Flip” Nicklin explains the event that changed not only his father’s life but his own as well. His dad, Chuck Nicklin, owned a dive shop called the Diving Locker in San Diego. His father had learned to skin dive in Hawaii during World War II and had continued it as a hobby. Scuba diving was still a new, exotic activity for most people at the time, but Chuck taught his son, Flip, to dive at an early age. Both of them also tried their hands at underwater photography.
One day, while diving with friends, Chuck Nicklin and his buddies spotted a whale tangled up in a gill net’s anchor line. The Bryde’s whale was floating in the water and didn’t react to the divers. They all swam around it, petted it and took some photographs.
Finally, Chuck climbed up on its back and one of the guys took his picture waving at the camera. When Chuck finally untangled the line from the whale’s fluke, it swam away, but the story was far from over.
The photo of Chuck on the whale ran in newspapers all across the country, got Chuck on TV and caught the eye of Bates Littlehales, a pioneering underwater photographer for National Geographic magazine. Littlehales was working on a story about gray whales and needed to consult a whale expert. This contact would introduce Flip Nicklin to a whole new world.
“Bates got in touch with my dad as a whale expert, because he had seen one,” Flip explains. “I was about 16 or 17 when I met Bates, and Bates was my role model for what you should do with a camera. He’s the guy that got me interested in underwater photography and introduced me to National Geographic.”
That was over 40 years ago. Today, Charles “Flip” Nicklin is the Whale photographer for the National Geographic Society, which has featured his photos and audio tracks of humpback and killer whales in numerous magazines and television specials since 1976. He is a cofounder of Whale Trust and the author of several books, including With the Whales and Whales, Dolphins, and Porpoises.
It’s hard to overstate Flip Nicklin’s contributions to the field of whale research. He not only showed us a new world but made it possible for scientists to get their research out to a broader audience — and the scientists are more than grateful for the exposure. He truly leads life with passion and commitment to photography, whales and conservation. We look forward to his words at the conference.
“To endow animals with human emotions has long been a scientific taboo. But if we do not, we risk missing something fundamental, about both animals and us.” – Frans De WaalMaintaining a peaceful society is one of the tendencies underlying human morality that we share with other primates, such as chimpanzees. After a fight between two adult males, one offers an open hand to his adversary. When the other accepts the invitation, both kiss and embrace.
If you want to design a successful human society you need to know what kind of animal we are. Are we a social animal or a selfish animal? Do we respond better when we’re solitary or living in a group? Do we like to live at night or in the daytime? You should know as much as you can about the human species if you have a hand in designing human society. Of course, I’m not saying that you can derive moral rules from nature – that’s deriving an ought from an is, as the philosophers say – but you do need to know what kind of animals we are if you want to design a stable society.
How does the environment affect this? For example, you’ve written that there are distinct differences between bonobos and chimpanzees despite the fact that they are so close genetically. Bonobos live in a female dominated society even though the males are still somewhat larger. You have suggested, as has the bonobo field researcher Frances White that the environment may hold the answer to why this is.
It is possible that bonobos live in a richer environment and have more food sources in their forest that are less dispersed than chimpanzees do. They also have access to ground vegetation, which chimpanzees have to compete with gorillas over. As a result, bonobo females can travel together and don’t need to disperse like chimpanzee females do. Chimp females largely forage alone and would only be competing with each other if they foraged in a large group since the food patches are small. Because bonobo females can travel together, this gives them power in the sense that they can form coalitions against males. They’re very cooperative with each other and that’s how they keep the males in check. The males individually are dominant, but as soon as you get two or three females together they dominate the male.
Chimpanzees have long been the model for human evolution and have been used to justify the story that Huxley advocated about our violent past. Chimps have been known to form all-male bands that patrol their territory, even attacking and killing males from rival groups. However, bonobos show very different behaviors and have even been observed grooming males from other groups. Would you say that these behaviors are purely genetic or, as Cristophe Boesch and Gottfried Hohmann have suggested, that the environment is key to understanding why chimpanzees and bonobos behave so differently? Could it be a behavioral flexibility that is learned or even cultural in origin?
It is true that most chimpanzees and bonobos are very flexible animals who under different circumstances behave differently. We’re in the process of documenting that in Africa and you can also see the same thing in zoo groups. But if you look at, say, a group of twenty chimpanzees or twenty bonobos on a large island, and we have that kind of situation today, the bonobos behave very differently than the chimpanzees. Many of these differences are not just environmentally induced because the zoo environments are pretty much identical.
What have you found with chimpanzees in how culture is transmitted?
After demonstrating that chimpanzees transmit habits to each other and imitate one another, Vicky Horner, who works with me, started doing experiments on prestige. The idea was that we would introduce two models into a group of chimpanzees who would demonstrate a certain task and would be rewarded with food. There would be a high status model and a low status model. She found that chimpanzees are much more eager to follow a high status model. It’s a bit like the way we follow celebrities or leaders, we follow the example of high status individuals much more readily than low status ones.
Today we are faced with what has widely been termed a “culture of corruption.” In your latest book you point to the abuses on Wall Street in which financiers have willfully defrauded the public and Washington politicians who operate through a revolving door of political favors and corporate kickbacks. Is there something in this research with our evolutionary relatives that can help us change our political culture? For example, you and your colleague Sarah Brosnan discovered something very interesting in your study with chimpanzees and capuchin monkeys concerning economic behavior.
Yes, the first experiment was with capuchin monkeys where we would put two monkeys side by side and we would give them rewards for a very simple task. If you give them the same reward, such as small pieces of cucumber, they’re perfectly happy to do this many times in a row. But if you give one of the two monkeys a grape and the second a cucumber then the second monkey gets mad and refuses to perform the task. We have repeated this with chimpanzees where Sarah found that the one who gets more is also affected and refuses the task unless the other one also gets a grape. With this we’re getting very close to the sense of fairness.
How does this translate to modern human society?
I think the sense of fairness in humans is very strongly developed and that’s why we react so strongly to all the bonuses received by Wall Street executives. We want to know why they deserve these benefits. The anger we have towards Wall Street is probably a very old primate reaction that relates to cooperation. If you are a cooperative animal you need to watch what you get. If you, or even a whole community, invest in something but then a few individuals receive a much larger return, it’s not a good arrangement. If it happens consistently, it’s time to look for an arrangement that is more beneficial. That’s why we’re so sensitive to how rewards are being divided.
You would argue, then, that a sense of fairness and equality is an innate feature of our species. How does that get sidelined?
Yes, to some degree that is happening. You justify the inequalities by saying some people are just better and smarter than others and the strong should survive and the poor can die off.
That sounds nearly identical to what Herbert Spencer said in the nineteenth century; that the poor were a drag on a nations economy and should die off.
Yes, he claimed it would be better if they died because he thought that’s what happens in nature. This view came to be called Social Darwinism, though this is really a misnomer because Darwin himself rejected it. I have two problems with that whole viewpoint which is so popular among conservatives in the United States. They claim you need to organize a society based on competition because the strong will advance and the weak, well, that’s their problem. They assume that the way natural selection operates is the way that society should be structured. I’m not sure that society should be structured along the lines of natural selection. So that’s the first problem.
The second problem is the assumption that nature is purely driven by competitive processes. Darwin himself understood that this was not the case when he wrote that “struggle for existence” needed to be taken in a very broad sense. It may mean that an individual has a better immune system than another and that’s why they survived to leave more offspring. Instead of direct combat, which is the terminology that Spencer and Huxley used, it is more about who is smarter, who detects the predator earlier, who has better ears and eyes, etc. All of these things play a role, it is not necessarily combat between individuals. The conservative view of how nature operates and how we need to apply that to society is extremely distorted. It is a very deficient ideology in my opinion.
What do you think is the key lesson we should consider as we attempt to build a global community today?
What is happening is that we are having more and more economic ties and that will probably reduce international warfare. International conflict has been reduced over time and most of the wars we see now are between ethnic groups within a country. If you look at national economies today, for example, the American economy, the European economy, the Indians, the Chinese, we’re all tied together. If one of them sinks the rest are going to sink with them and if one floats the rest are lifted up. I find that very interesting. Internationally we are now reaching a point where we have an increase of value in the relationships.
Given all of the problems that we face today as a species, are you hopeful?
I’m hopeful about most of the issues except for the environment. I’m hopeful about the social issues. I think we can handle six billion people, or whatever it’s going to be, because of the increasing integration in the world community. But as far as the environment is concerned, I am becoming pessimistic because I do not see anybody stepping up and taking the long view approach. It seems like we’re stuck in a tragedy of the commons where everyone is trying to contribute as little as possible to get out of this situation. On issues such as global warming and the deterioration of the environment, I just don’t see the steps taken that need to be taken at this point. But if we can solve these problems I think we have a chance.
Final Thoughts from Flip Nicklin…
People’s relationship to whales has always been a complicated one, Nicklin says. In the distant past, they were seen as monsters of the deep, leviathans that destroyed ships and ate men whole. Then they became commodities to be hunted for their oil, meat and tissues. This led to overhunting in some cases and placed many whales on the Endangered Species List.
There was a time when many scientists and activists assumed that whales would soon become extinct, and people began “Save the Whales” campaigns in response. In the 1970s, another whale was created in the public’s imagination — the magical, mystical whale of the deep blue abyss. Now we are actively trying to understand the realities of these marine mammals and their place in the natural world, and Nicklin’s images have become a major force in this movement.
Though the bans on whale hunting have helped to restore whale populations, challenges are far from over, Nicklin says. Climate change is melting the polar ice caps, which will lower the salt content of our oceans, raise the sea level and significantly change ocean current and weather patterns. And then there is the danger of pollution and garbage ruining our oceans.
“The oceans are in peril,” he adds. “We are on an unsustainable track, and I don’t know what we’re going to do about that. It seems fairly clear that we can’t keep going the way we are.”
But for the moment, whales are doing well and, in some cases, are being taken off the Endangered Species List. While this is undeniably good news, it presents new challenges for the relationship between people and whales. How do we live together going forward?
“It’s gone from ‘Can we save whales?’ — when I started in the ’70s — to ‘How will we get along with recovering whales?’ Will they be protected, or will they become prey again?” he asks. “How will increasing numbers of whales fit into our human world?”
Nicklin compares the state of today’s whales to the world’s few remaining wild places, such as Banff National Park in Canada.
“You’ve got these beautiful valleys with an ecosystem in place, and a few people move in so they can become part of that wonderful ecosystem,” he says. “Then more people move in because they really want to see what’s there — it’s so nice! — and pretty soon, there’s so many people that they start complaining that there’s too many bears. There’s actually a fraction of the bears that were there in the beginning, but now they’re [considered by some to be] a pest.”
Nicklin fears that those same issues will surface with whales as their population continues to recover. “It dawns on people that we all share the same environment, we all eat some of the same stuff, and how we handle that, I hope, will bring out the best in us.”