A deep dive into how the most intelligent creatures in the ocean perceive their world.
There is almost nothing about a whale’s body that we can relate to. They breathe air like we do. They give birth to live young like we do. But the similarities seem to stop there. Their scale, body structure, and environment are all different.
But we do have a point of connection: the eyes. Both humans and whales are mammals, so our eyes are derived from a common ancestor. Not only can we look at whales and they can look back at us, but we know enough about optics to infer their eyes’ capabilities from their anatomy. Animal eyes can be imagined as technological systems evolved with biological materials.
“We will make the fairly bold claim that it is sensible to approach eyes in essentially the same way that an optical engineer might evaluate a new video camera,” write Michael Land and Dan-Eric Nilsson, the authors of the Oxford University Press treatment of our topic, Animal Eyes.
Their eyes capture light in ways we can understand. Their eyes have a focal length. Their eyes have a maximum resolution.
So, what does the world look like to a whale?
Here’s what got me pursuing this line of inquiry. The photographer Bryant Austin makes life-size composites of whales: humpbacks, sperm whales, minkes. The results are sublime. Each fin, each ridge in the skin, seems worth pondering. Austin is especially obsessed with photographing their eyes, and with good reason.
To create these images, Austin thought a lot about what kind of visual system could represent the experience of floating next to one of these creatures. Most whale photographers use wide-angle lenses to capture as much of the whale as possible at longer distances, but he realized that wide-angle lenses do not capture enough data to create high-resolution, life-size photographs of whales.
So, on a very fancy Hasselblad H3DII-50, Austin mounted an 80mm portrait lens with a narrow field of view. The consequences of that decision are startling: Austin has to get within ten feet of the whales, and he has to take many photographs from that distance in order to get enough photographs to stitch together the life-size portrait. In practice, that brought him eye-to-eye with these multi-ton animals time and again.
In his new book about his process, out next week, Beautiful Whale, he describes a moment where he came eye-to-eye with a sperm whale named Scar. “I lowered the camera so that our eyes could meet once again, I noticed his eye moving along the length of my body before returning to meet my gaze,” Austin wrote. “As I reflect upon that moment and reconsider the question, ‘What does it feel like [to be so close to whales]?’ the only word that comes to mind is ‘disturbing.’”
Why is it disturbing? Because, as Austin puts it, the whale challenges him “to reevaluate our perceptions of intelligent, conscious life on this planet.” This mammal’s eye—lens, cornea, pupil, retina, photoreceptors and ganglion nerve cells—is a direct passageway into its brain. And when we look at it, Austin can’t help but see an intelligence there, a connection to a brain that, perhaps, works enough like ours for us to understand each other.
… Whales, unlike nocturnal rodents or ourselves, see the world in monochrome. Leo Peichl at the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research co-authored a paper with the nearly tragic title, “For whales and seals the ocean is not blue.” Indeed, the first thing that we can know for sure about how whales see the world is that it exists only in shades of gray. The water we see as blue they would see as black. “They do want to see the background. They want to see animals on the background. And the animals on the background are reflecting light that’s not blue,” Johnsen explained. If we try to imagine what that might look like, Johnsen said perhaps we could picture a grayscale photograph of people wearing fluorescent clothes under a black light.