You're Eye-to-Eye With a Whale in the Ocean—What Does It See?

There is just so much difference to try to cross with a human mind.

I asked Peichl and Johnsen to speculate on what it might be like to have an eye on either side of your head, dual monocular vision.

"Perhaps the two eyes get very different parts of the visual field and environment. I don't know how they integrate that," Peichl said. "Usually in the brain... there is a high connectivity that connects the two hemispheres and makes that into a perceptual unity of just one continuous visual field. Something like that probably also exists in whales because they have to have some kind of perceptive unit of their environment, a unitary percept of their environment."

And Johnsen: "They have two completely independent fields of view. God knows what they do with that. The internal perception, how do they represent that? Is it like two screens in their head? Do they stick it together? We don't deal with that because we don't have a region of our field of view that's like that," he said. "For all we know, they represent sonar information as vision. We think they hear a bunch of clicks, but for all we know, it is represented in a visual spatial form in their heads."

Then he said something that's key to understanding what we can know about the vision, and maybe the minds of whales: "All we really know is what they can't do." They don't have binocular vision. They couldn't read the big E on a chart at the eye doctor's office. Their ocean is not blue.

But when it comes to what it's like *inside* those big heads, we're almost no further along than Melville's guess more than 150 years ago.

"The whale, therefore, must see one distinct picture on this side, and another distinct picture on that side; while all between must be profound darkness and nothingness to him" he wrote. "Man may, in effect, be said to look out on the world from a sentry-box with two joined sashes for his window. But with the whale, these two sashes are separately inserted, making two distinct windows, but sadly impairing the view."

At this boundary between the brain and mind, it is tempting to both know too much and to speculate too little. I choose to believe that we can blindly cross the blankness that is the perceptual gap between intelligent species.

John Jeremiah Sullivan took up this cause in a new essay in the latest Lapham's Quarterly. He, too, reached back before the neuroscience era to come up with a way of thinking about animal consciousness. Where Descartes saw animals as automata, Baruch Spinoza saw them as more like us, and that our inability to imagine what was going on inside their brains was not proof that the lights were on, but that nobody was home.

"Accepting that no two consciousnesses can ever have transparency, or at any rate can never have certainty about it, leaves us on some level cosmically alone," Sullivan writes. "Spinoza takes the notion in stride. He'd be more prone to say, Well, no doubt we sometimes understand each other."

ellaeye.jpgJuly, 2009. Ella's eye. (© Bryant Austin/studio: cosmos)

Coming improbably eye-to-eye in the ocean, in a monochrome or trichome moment of wonder, a human and a whale could even be sharing a thought,: "Hello, intelligent creature floating in the sea. Don't kill me."

In Beautiful Whale, Austin describes an encounter with Ella, a curious minke whale off the coast of Australia. He was taking photographs as Ella swam around. The whale liked to look at him head on, a fact that Austin used to maneuver her into better lighting. Her desire to see his face was strong enough that she'd swim around him, if he turned his back to her.

"This requires some discipline and trust in the whales. At times Ella would initiate a close inspection of me from behind, where ambient lighting was poor. Peering over my shoulder, I could see her body pass by less than six feet away. I turned back to face forward, trusting her not to accidentally harm me," Austin writes. "In my experience working with whales this way, our eyes seem to gravitate toward each other." 

On that particular day, he spent six hours with the whale. At one point, he hopped out of the water to change batteries and memory cards. As he was standing on the deck, one of the animals went vertical and popped its head out of the water, which is called "spyhopping." 

The animal looked directly at Austin, and looking back, he saw a distinctive marking: it was Ella. She was keeping an eye on him.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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