April 14th, 2010

Whale fluke

An alien intelligence

Got thinking about whales today.

Whales are rarely too far from my mind, and they swam closer to it (shall we say) when I talked to the front-desk guy in the Fox Tower's lobby this morning, because we discussed the new sculpture of two orcas swimming around each other that's now in the lobby. The piece is titled "Ocean Romance," and was inspired by both the owner's girlfriend and how the owner likes to get up to the San Juan Islands of Washington state and, among other things, see orcas for real.

There be whales here. (I just had to say that. Some of you will know why.)

I became fascinated by, and fond of, whales very early on, when I was living in Southern California in the late Seventies and early Eighties. During that time I went on two gray whale boat tours; I also started reading about the creatures. An early-Eighties recurring dream of mine featured a whale off the Northern California and Oregon Coasts that was miles long -- with the soil and trees of an island on its back above the waterline and the usual swimming accoutrements below it, flippers and flukes, so it could swim along that coast. (Presumably it never dove below the surface and thus drowned the plant and animal life on its back. I never pondered that until now, but that makes sense.) It was this gigantic living thing, impossible and fascinating, and -- being a cool dream -- it had some sort of connection to me. Some sort of a meeting of the minds, little me and this immensity near shore.

I've long had dreams at that sort of scale. It's awesome. In more than one sense of the word.

And that was relatively early on in my fondness for whales. I've stayed fond. Footage or photos of whales won't just make me stop while channel-surfing, it can even stop me in my tracks. Once in 2003 I was walking with Alicia through a movie theater and I stopped and gasped at a Finding Nemo banner of the humpback. The film probably won me over right then and there, months before I saw it.

And I got inspired to write this entry by seeing a sculpture of two whales swimming around each other. It also brought up a thought I mentioned to the lobby man, and which I'll expand on here:

This is a science-fictional way to look at it, but whales are likely as a group one of the most intelligent types of creatures on the planet -- and we don't know exactly what kind of intelligence they have. (It's not as if you can CAT-scan a sei. Or even a minke or a beluga.) Their brains evolved in a staggeringly different environment than ours, with its own special challenges, and they've evolved well to it. But how? Whatever resulted, it's an alien form of intelligence. Try to imagine what kind of intelligence is in the heads of whales, and that may be somewhat -- but never entirely -- similar to what intelligent creatures on completely other worlds would evolve to have.

And I find that idea both huge and strangely comforting. Not unlike my childhood dream whale.

Back to the sculpture. "Ocean Romance." Think of it this way: I doubt that whales feel anything like romantic love. Something about this sculpture feels to me a touch superficial and more than a little anthropomorphized: Here they are in love, we can say, because that is within our frame of reference. But maybe whales feel something slightly or completely different -- and just as powerful. Perhaps more powerful.

What alien emotions would evolve in a different world, in a different environment, with different creatures with different brains and different intelligences?

We can only try to imagine.

I think I better understand now why whales appealed to me so immediately so young.