The Brilliance Of Whales: Are Whales Intelligent?

are whales intelligent

Measuring intelligence is easy in humans. We have advanced IQ tests, administered on a 1-1 basis by professional psychologists, but it’s surprisingly difficult when it comes to animals.

A question that many whale lovers regularly find themselves asking is “are whales intelligent?” This can be difficult to answer, but we do have evidence that helps provide clarity.

The short answer to this question is YES. Whales are intelligent, much more intelligent than they are often given credit for. Some species display supreme intelligence through hunting behaviors, social interactions, and complex problem-solving.

Whales are the biggest animals that have ever roamed the earth, far bigger than any dinosaurs that lived some 300 million years ago.

The blue whale is the largest of all whale species, weighing between 130,000 – 150,000kg and reaching a maximum length of 29.9m, but its brain is only 4x larger than a human brain.

The largest brain in nature belongs to the sperm whale, with a giant brain weighing up to 20 pounds.

Let’s take a closer look at just how intelligent whales really are…

Are Whales Actually Intelligent?

Whales are highly complex sentient beings that display great levels of both emotional and social intelligence through cooperation, social learning, and problem-solving.

Whilst having a large brain doesn’t necessarily increase intelligence, it’s clear from observing whales that they are not just mindless fish that some people like to think.

intelligent whales
Photo by Richard Sagredo on Unsplash

These ocean giants use a variety of clever methods to catch fish and thrive in their marine habitats, often working together for a better success rate and communicating with one another whilst doing so.

They are deep thinkers that can adapt to change, work with one another to avoid predators, and pass down vital survival skills to young whale calves in their pod.

How Intelligent Are Whales?

As mentioned earlier, measuring intelligence in animals is incredibly difficult. Sadly, we don’t yet have IQ tests for whales that would be able to indicate just how smart these animals are.

However, there are researchers, scientists, and marine biologists that work with whales on a daily basis and get to know individuals of all species on a deep level.

So how intelligent are whales? VERY.

First off, these majestic animals contain specialized brain cells called spindle neurons.

These neurons are associated with advanced abilities such as recognizing, reasoning, communicating, remembering, problem-solving, understanding as well as perceiving and adapting to change.

There’s also an overwhelming amount of evidence that suggests whales are not only conscious, but they are self-aware and have complex brain structures for dealing with a range of emotions.

Whales can feel happiness, sadness, grief, empathy, and a whole range of emotions that we as humans feel too.

When it comes to hunting, some species use highly advanced tactics to catch prey which is nothing short of mind-blowing.

Killer whales, also known as Orca are apex predators that are widely considered some of the smartest animals on the planet.

They have the second largest brain of any ocean mammal and are some of the most effective hunters in the ocean.

One technique that shows their supreme intelligence is when Orca pods swim in tandem to produce a large wave that can knock seals off their ice caps.

They “spy-hop” around ice caps in Antarctica looking for seals lounging in the sun, then once they identify their prey they use synchronized swimming to wash it into the water.

These animals have also mastered producing a wave that impacts large ice caps from the bottom, splitting the ice into multiple pieces and making the seal more accessible.

Other species like humpback whales use a technique known as “bubble netting” to catch prey.

humpback whale bubble netting
Image: GRID-Arendal

This is when humpbacks blow bubbles to push large amounts of krill, shrimp, and even schools of small fish into a tight ball before the whales scoop them up with their large mouths.

These whales even work together to increase their efficiency and ensure that the whole pod gets a good feed.

Are Whales Smarter Than Dogs?

Based on both physical and behavioral evidence, it’s fair to say that YES, whales are smarter than dogs.

Canines are man’s best friend and are loyal to the death. They’re capable of being trained to very high standards and are used in policing and the military all around the world.

There is no denying dogs are smart, but when it comes to the intelligence of a whale, dogs are no match.

Killer whales, humpbacks, and sperm whales are some of the smartest animals on earth.

They’re in the same family (cetaceans) as arguably the smartest animal on earth, the dolphin.

Anyone that has ever been to Sea World will tell you how remarkable the dolphin shows are, and although I don’t agree with what goes on there, the shows put on there demonstrate a dolphin’s incredible intelligence.

Are Whales Aware?

YES, whales are self-aware. When put in front of a mirror, whales start to play around, twirling and posing in unusual ways which indicates self-awareness.

Whales have sophisticated cognitive abilities and are able to recognize themselves and have a sense of identity.

Many species live in pods (groups of whales) and have a clear understanding of the role they play within the pod.

Killer whales live in a matriarchal society, in which sons and daughters stay with their mother throughout their lives and Grandma rules the roost.

Whale Social Structures

Some whale species have highly complex social structures that very much resemble human cultures.

Orca often lives in pods of between 5 and 30 individuals and has a strict hierarchical structure that ensures the pod operates efficiently.

Pods work together to trick, scare and trap prey using a variety of sophisticated hunting techniques that have often been developed over many generations.

These techniques are passed down through the generations for young calves to learn, and they’re taught over and over again until the young Orca can hunt for itself.

In Punta Norte, orcas come ashore to hunt seals and sea lion pups in one of the most fascinating hunting techniques in nature.

The killer whales swim sideways to hide their large dorsal fins and stay out of sight of their prey, they then beach themselves to attack their prey before maneuvering back into the ocean.

This is a tactic used by less than 100 killer whales in the wild and is one that is high-risk high reward for these animals.

Some whale pods can be as large as four generations swimming with one another, hunting as one, and having each other back, which is why they’re often known as “wolves of the sea”.

Whale Communication

Baleen whales are known to communicate with one another over vast distances through loud melodic tones often referred to as “whale songs”.

These songs are highly complex and resemble the music that we humans make, only much louder.

In humpback whales, researchers estimate that their whale songs can travel as far as 10,000 miles without losing their energy.

Humpback whale pods in different oceans have been heard singing the exact same whale songs as pods thousands of miles away, with the two pods being completely unrelated.

are whales intelligent
Image: Dixie Lawrence via Flickr

The whales will even use structures under the ocean such as shells to amplify their song, positioning themselves vertically in the ocean and singing into underwater valleys for amplification.

Toothed whales communicate through a variety of clicks and whistles which are distinct among individuals allowing them to identify which whale is communicating.

This is highly effective with whales that live in large pods as there is no confusion as to which whale is talking as their tone can be distinguished from others.

Whales will communicate with one another for a number of reasons, including letting one another know when there’s food nearby, alerting the pod of a potential threat, or communicating the desire to mate.

Body Language & Visual Communication

As well as vocal communication, whales are known to communicate through visual cues and body language.

This form of communication can be just as important for whales, especially among species that have strong social bonds such as sperm whales and killer whales.

Below are some of the communication techniques whales use:

  • Breaching
  • Charging
  • Touching
  • Lobtailing
  • Splashing
  • Spinning
  • Spyhopping

Final Thoughts

Whales are some of the most fascinating animals on earth, and a large reason for this is their supreme intelligence and complex social structures.

So are whales intelligent? Yes, they are HIGHLY intelligent and possess many of the same emotions as we humans do.

I really hope you’ve learned something new in this article and now have a better understanding of just how similar we humans are to whales.

Whilst they are completely different in appearance, many of the emotions and behaviors they exhibit are the same.

These animals are majestic, loving, and true gentle giants. They show no aggression towards humans and for this reason, I urge you to take every opportunity you can to experience whales in the wild.

Thanks for taking the time to read this post and I’ll catch you in the next one!