A Kind of Intelligence–the Whale Who Knows “Thank You”

by | Nov 26, 2020 | 2 comments

A humpback whale is caught by crab nets, entangled in the mess of nylon lines that cut into her tail, mouth, even her blubber. Coast guards and volunteers come to her rescue, diving into the ocean to sever the nets, one by one, line by line, taking the risk of getting caught by the nets themselves, in the lapping waves, or if the whale slaps her tail in distress. But the whale stays in stillness, until she’s free. Instead of leaving right away, she circles around each diver, touching, nudging, and “kissing” them one by one, as if to say:


Thank you.
Tears well up in my eyes as I listen to the story, real stories off the coast of California, Hawaii, and other places…

A whale is a cetacean, a sea mammal. It has a much larger brain than a human’s, in fact, the sperm whale champions in the realm of brain, its intelligence shown through the epic battle between Ishmael Ahab and Moby Dick, between Man and Whale. For a long time, scientists argued that it’s not the size, but the spindle neurons involved in social conduct, emotions, judgment, and theory of mind, the special intelligence that mark humans as God’s chosen species, conqueror of the earth. Despite countless stories, eyewitnesses, field notes, videos, and studies, they firmly believed, until 2019, that only humans own such intelligence, therefore, are capable of higher intelligence, cognition, or emotions for pain, joy, love and gratitude, for self-awareness and community.

How much do whales, porpoises, and dolphins have to give to prove their emotional intelligence? How many humans do they have to lift from a stormy sea, how many kisses for their human rescuers? How much more love and forgiveness must they give to counter greed and violence in this world?

To know gratitude, one needs to know kindness. To know kindness, one needs to know love. To know love, one needs to know self, who we are, why we are here, how we relate with others outside the self, with communities, other species, rivers and mountains.

“To know love, one needs to know self”

It’s all bundled together, around the spindle, an axis that spins and weaves all the energy and matter and spirits together, and they are called spindle neurons, padded with fat, the oil that protects and moves the neurons smoothly, sending love and gratitude, the special kind of intelligence, through our brain, body, the world.

Because love can’t be born on its own, cannot exist or grow without the spindle of communities, it can’t move without the protection of gratitude. Self can’t exist without the other, individual can’t live without the communities, forgiveness can’t happen without gratitude, and life can’t go on without the ocean of love. The whale knows how to grieve, play, love, learn, and teach.

Do we know, as humans, how to play, grieve, learn, and teach our spindle neurons, just as generously padded with love, covered with gratitude, as the whales?

The divers cry as the freed whale circles around and around, saying goodbye and thank you, one by one, her body bleeding from the nylon lines, her heart flowing with gratitude.

I cry as I listen to the story, my tears joining the ocean of gratitude, my spindle neurons strengthened by cetacean love.

Tuesday, November 3rd, Americans voted.

They knew they were taking risks in the worst pandemic of virus and race. The lines were long, the threat of violence and virus was pulsingly visible.

But they went anyway, to exercise their special kind of intelligence, because they knew who they were, knew who had sacrificed their lives so that they could stand in long lines to vote, and they must honor it with gratitude, as an individual, as a community.

Cetaceans came from the ocean, then moved to the land, then moved back to the ocean, each transition transformed them, each transformation was traumatic, but they embraced it and triumphed, and became the flowers of the sea, with their special kind of intelligence.

I know we can transform and triumph through this pandemic, together, as a community, a country, with our special intelligence for love and gratitude for the self, the community, and life on earth.

more RIFFs to enjoy

<a href="https://writersatlarge.com/riff/author/wang-ping/" target="_self">Wang Ping</a>

Wang Ping

Wang Ping came to USA from Shanghai in 1986. She is a multimedia artist, poet, fiction writer, translator, essayist, filmmaker, and the founder / director of the Kinship of Rivers international project, building relationships through creative exchange among river communities. She is the author of 14 books and the recipient of awards, grants, residencies, and fellowships from the NEA, Lannan Foundation, NY State Arts Council, McKnight Foundation, and others. Wang Ping is Emerita Professor of Creative Writing at Macalester College.


  1. Hope

    Great read as I hung on to every word.

  2. Allen Spath

    Now, all those years later, I understand why my parents encouraged me to watch shows about animals in the wild instead of mindless (but sure entertaining), shows like Casper the Ghost, or Tom and Jerry. They indeed enlightened me about so much in life I can’t begin to recount the ways. It wasn’t until I matured and understood how the cycle of life cycle created and played out that I realized how important the loving and training relationship of those early years. You see, parents, whether animals or human, protect their young, teach them how to survive and thrive, and often times will give their own life for them. With humans it’s during the first 3-5 years that norms, disciplines and unyielding attachments are imprinted into their offspring. I can only assume it’s a much faster pace with animals in the wild or in captivity (dogs and cats for example), as their lives are much shorter and often times unwittingly put in harms way. We often hear that with a dog their devotion is unconditional. When we really think about it, we can come to one logical conclusion – they give back what they perceive to be love and “thanks” for all that is provided (the only love they have known, both daily nourishment and safety, and acknowledgement of how they return their appreciation (loving you back). I enjoyed that article very much but I suspect not as much as that freed whale. tyvm


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