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François Sarano: What sperm whales can teach us

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Eliot, Delphine, Arthur… These are the names given to a pod living off the coast of Mauritius by the oceanographer François Sarano, to “respect” the humanity he sees in them.

You have to sail right out to sea, beyond the barrier reef. Sometimes you wait for hours. Then you scrutinise the dark surface of the water to make out the foaming spray of the giants. Sounding the water with a hydrophone, listening out for a dry metallic clicking sound. “Click, click, click...” The signal is heard. Under the water the shadows increase, the water darkens. The monsters – they can weigh up to 50 tonnes and be 20 metres long – have arrived.


“Meeting creatures in the wild is the best school of life in society.”


“They always come to meet us, it’s never the other way round,” explains François Sarano, the former expedition leader from La Calypso, who was born in Valence, France, in 1954. “They find us thanks to their echolocation systems. We let the mammals come to us. The huge bodies eclipse the light and flow endlessly by. Sometimes they skim past us and at the last minute lift their tail flukes to avoid us!”

“You can’t cheat when you’re in front of a sperm whale. The encounter has to be genuine, or it doesn’t happen,” insists the oceanographer, author of a small book written with a contagious enthusiasm, Le Retour de Moby Dick ou ce que les cachalots nous enseignent sur les océans et les hommes (“The Return of Moby Dick, or What Sperm Whales Can Teach Us About Oceans and Men”, Ed. Actes Sud).


Sperm whales sleep in a vertical position. A supreme moment of calm and silence.


With passion

In 2013, with government permission and led by the Marine Megafauna Conservation Organisation (MMCO) founded by his Mauritian friend Hugues Vitry, a legendary diver who has been observing sperm whales for over 20 years, François Sarano began studying the social life and incredible physiological and cognitive abilities of these largest of ocean mammals.


Overall champion of diving without equipment, this mammal can stay underwater for an hour and a half without breathing to hunt for squid more than 2,000 metres deep, before surfacing.


The MMCO team identified at least two pods off Mauritius and in particular the pod of “Irène Gueule Tordue” (Irene Twisted Nose), off the west coast: a large, almost sedentary family, currently comprising 27 mammals, only females and their young – the males go off to hunt in the Arctic waters and only return to reproduce, sometimes ten years later. “They are real individuals, each with their own temperament. Eliot is expansive, Arthur is shy, Roméo never strays far from his mother Lucy... And they recognise us individually too. Irène has a particular liking for the underwater cameraman René Heuzey!” says François Sarano with a smile.

A model society


Miss Tautou sticking closely to her mother, Issa.

Mother sperm whales spend up to seven years raising and educating their young. They share the feeding – calves nurse until they are 2 – and protecting the juveniles. 


The team goes diving several times a year to analyse the behaviour patterns of this matriarchal society with its highly developed maternal and protective instinct, its codes, its language, and even its “culture”. Each pod has its own dialect. Irène’s uses sound expressions (or “codas”) of 8 clicks – in other regions, like the Azores, the sequences are shorter, with just 4 to 5 clicks. “We try to associate the various codas linked to their behaviour patterns.

For example, they emit a specific sequence when they want to initiate physical contact. Because once their elementary needs have been met, they spend their time caressing each other! Their society is the epitome of solidarity and altruism, and this has enabled them to survive in a hostile environment where they cannot even breathe!”

Wildlife is sacred


Sperm whales communicate with each other by sounds (codas) and also by caresses.


Sperm whales have been around since the dawn of time – their shapes can be seen on the walls of prehistoric caves. Before they were hunted, up until the 1980s, there were one million sperm whales in the oceans. Today there are no more than 300,000 and in spite of the ban on hunting, the species is still endangered, threatened by chemical pollution in the oceans, which contaminates even the foetuses.


François Sarano, back from paying a visit to Irène’s pod.


“Nature has nothing to gain from us, but we have everything to lose if we ignore this friendly hand extended by our fellow creatures in the wild,” warns François Sarano. “Because if we do, those creatures will disappear in total indifference and, captive in our urban and virtual world, we will discover to our horror how truly alone we are. Meeting and interacting with creatures in the wild, where respect for others is paramount, is the best school of life in a society. It forces us to cast off all our outer layers to reach out to others, thereby enabling us to forge a new relationship, simpler, more peaceful, more primeval and sensual, with ourselves.”



By Virginie Luc
Photographs Stéphane Granzotto