Beneath The Surface: Do Whales Have Feelings?

do whales have feelings

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Encountering a whale in the wild is undoubtedly one of the most magical experiences we humans can have.

These ocean giants are highly intelligent and when looking at one face to face you can really feel a connection that you don’t with many other animals.

Maybe this is due to their enormous size or perhaps its because they are naturally curious about humans and are emotionally intelligent.

Regardless, whales are magnificent creatures that really help to put life into perspective for people.

Today we’re going to discuss a topic that often comes up when discussing whales and their emotions as well as answer a question often asked by whale watchers. “Do whales have feelings?”

YES, whales certainly DO have emotions. Spindle brain cells have been found in many whale species which provides good supporting evidence that whales experience a range of complex emotions.

Let’s dive in…

Do Whales Feel Affection?

Whales are highly complex sentient beings that DO feel affection and can have a deep-rooted love for one another.

Whilst many dismiss marine animals as “mindless fish”, this is far from the case and couldn’t be further from the truth when speaking of whales.

Researchers in New York have found that various types of whales possess the same emotion-producing brain cells as humans.

gray whale and calf
Image: NOAA via Flickr

Patrick Hof and Estel Van Der Gucht of the New York Consortium in Evolutionary Primatology made the discovery after studying whales for 15 years that many whales have spindle brain cells.

These cells have previously only been found in humans and great apes and it’s believed these cells are responsible for producing feelings of love and attachment.

Whales have a deep-rooted love for one another and this is evident to see when you see how they communicate and behave around one another.

Do Whales Get Sad?

Just like humans, whales can also experience deep sadness, loneliness, upset and even grief of a lost loved one.

Only recently scientists have found that multiple species of whale mourn their dead, including humpback whales, sperm whales, and orca.

A team of researchers recently reported seeing dead calves or juveniles being carried by adult whales, sometimes for a prolonged period of time after the calf died.

It’s incredibly sad to see this and shows how emotional whales truly are. Many adult whales will completely disregard their own well-being and safety to carry a dead calf.

They do so for sometimes weeks on end and may even travel thousands of miles pushing the deceased calf with the pod.

What Other Feelings Do Whales Have?

On a lighter note, whales can also feel happiness, joy, empathy, love, compassion, and a whole range of other complex emotions.

The BBC reports how whales in Alaska whales have been the happiest they have ever been due to a drastic reduction of cruise ships and vessels in the surrounding waters.

During a normal summer, Glacier Bay and surrounding areas are alive with traffic from all sorts of vessels, from massive cruise ships to small whale-watching boats and everything in between.

When research was conducted on humpback whales in the area during pre-pandemic times, they were. compared to how humans talk in a crowded bar.

mother whale and calf
Image: FWC Fish and Wildlife Research Institute

The whales talked louder, stayed closer together, and kept the conversation short and concise.

Whereas post-pandemic when traffic is MUCH less, the whales seem to be spreading out over much more of the bay, and mothers will even leave their calves to play whilst they swim out to feed.

Whale songs have become much more varied and some whales have even been observed taking naps.

This shows just how much happier the humpback in Glacier bay are since traffic has reduced, and it’s a clear indication that these whales ARE certainly happy.

How Do We Know Whales Have Feelings?

The discovery of spindle cells in whales’ brains has been a remarkable discovery and is evidence that whales do indeed have feelings.

This new evidence goes as far as to suggest that whales not only have feelings but have complex feelings and are even self-aware.

Simply observing whales interact with their pods and their calves give us a clear sign that these animals have feelings.

The way they communicate through vocalizations and body language allows the whales to express their feelings to one another, whether that be happy or sad.

How Do Whales Show Emotions?

A whale’s primary way to communicate is through sound, so it’s reasonable to assume that they express their emotions with one another through sound.

Whales that are sad may moan, whine or produce crying sounds or sad whale songs when they feel sad or upset.

Equally, when whales are happy and full of joy, they can be seen breaching high out of the ocean and making louder, happier-sounding whale songs.

Whales are very touchy-feely animals too. Young calves will rub up against their mothers as a sign of love and affection. It’s truly magical to witness and is an obvious display of raw emotion.

Communication, body language, and behavior are all ways that whales display their emotions.

Final Thoughts

Hopefully, you now have a clear answer to “do whales have feelings” and have learned something new today about how whales show their feelings and express themselves.

Its been obvious that whales have feelings for decades now by the way they interact with one another, with expressions of love, joy, and even grief.

Modern-day research has confirmed this by the findings of spindle cells in whale species which were previously thought to only be present in humans and great apes.

Whilst whales may look very different from humans, they are much the same in terms of their feelings and how they display them.

Like us, whales feel sadness, happiness, empathy, and a whole host of emotions.

Thanks for taking the time to learn more about whales in the post and I’ll catch you in the next one!