Gay, lesbian and intersex whales: our queer sea has much to teach us | Sexuality

Whales are extraordinarily sensual creatures. These fatty substances are very sensitive and sensitized. At social gatherings, groups of sperm whales, humpback whales, and right whales roll around each other’s bodies for hours. I saw a pod of right whales engaging in foreplay and penetration for an entire morning.

I also observed a male-female couple so united that they didn’t seem bothered by our small fishing boat as they passed underneath. And in what may seem like a career of cetacean voyeurism, I’ve also been caught in a superpod of fast-moving dusky dolphins continually penetrating each other at high speed, regardless of the gender of their partner.

That’s why this week’s report of the first scientifically documented male-to-male sexual interactions between two humpback whales off the coast of Hawaii is not surprising.

Remarkable image of two-metre whale penis entering another male ‘leaves little room for discussion of whether there is a sexual component to such behavior’, whale scientist says , Jeroen Hoekendijk at Wageningen Marine Research institute in the Netherlands, notes dryly.

In fact, one of the whales was sick and there was speculation that the encounter may not have been consensual or that the healthy whale was comforting the other. Whatever the truth, such “egregious” acts also reveal many of our human assumptions about sexuality, gender, and identity.

Off the Pacific Northwest coast of the United States, male orcas often leave family groups to rub their erections against each other. But women have would also have been seen also have sexual contact with each other.

Indeed, graphic descriptions of behavior between men can mask many “invisible” sexual interactions between women.

Doctor Conor Ryan, Honorary Research Fellow at the Scottish Association for Marine Science, notes: “It is easy to visibly identify the ‘homosexual’ male when an extruded penis can be two meters long. » It’s less easy to diagnose when female sperm whales are seen “cuddling,” as Hoekendijk observes.

A humpback whale’s penis penetrates another male. Homosexual behavior has often been observed in cetaceans. Photography: Lyle Krannichfeld and Brandi Romano/Marine Mammal Science

Ryan has often witnessed homosexual behavior between whales and dolphins. “I’m interested in the things we’re missing,” he says. He recorded competitive behavior of humpback whales in groups that appeared to be typically male, such as chasing other whales.

But it turned out, from DNA samples, that they were genetically female. He speculates that female humpbacks might even use whale song – previously considered the domain of males when it comes to mating.

“If I were a woman being harassed by horny men, maybe I’d sing too,” Ryan says. “To attract more women, draw attention away from me, while still making me look like a man.”

TThese observations shed new ideas on the behavior of these animals. Whaling society is almost predominantly matriarchal. Female sperm whales, for example, travel in large groups – sometimes several thousand strong – in which the males are “useful” only for their sperm, visiting the groups briefly and then leaving the females to their own society.

In the past, male-focused science has made varying judgments about sexual behavior. But the idea of ​​lesbian whales should come as no surprise. Ryan even cites the case of a “non-binary” beaked whalewho was found to have both male and female genitalia.

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Even identification as a species can be fluid for cetaceans. In 2022, near Caithness in Scotland, a bottlenose dolphin was discovered identify yourself as a porpoise, swimming with a group of porpoises and using their vocalizations. In one of the great queer couples of the 20th century, Virginia Woolf referred to her lover, Vita Sackville-West, as “my porpoise.”

WWe cannot know how whales and dolphins themselves perceive genital interactions. But in most cases, they seem to enjoy them – without perhaps the preconceived notions that we humans as a species have historically projected onto such behavior. They can be great clickbait on social media, but they also mean something to us.

When Canadian biologist Bruce Bagemihl published his book Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity – listing 450 species exhibiting such behavior, including whales and dolphins – it was used as evidence in a state Supreme Court case United States in 2003 which struck down, as unconstitutional, homophobic “sodomy” laws used in Texas.

It’s also telling that the best-known work of literary fiction written about whales, Herman Melville’s 1851 novel Moby-Dick, is a decidedly strange book. Melville confuses the strangeness and diversity of his characters – says his narrator, Ishmael married to his shipmate, the many-tattooed Queequeg, based on a Maori warrior – with the mysterious sensuality of the whales he describes. He even spends an entire chapter describing the foreskin of a whalewith joyful overtones.

The sea itself seems to be a strange place, where gender is sometimes a slippery notion. Slipper shells stuck together on the beach, which you might find during your digging, actually change sex, from female on the bottom to male on the top. The genitals of cetaceans are in any case hidden in genital slits. Sleek and streamlined, it’s as if awkward sexual definitions are overtaken by the beauty of wondrous hydrodynamics.

Much of what we project onto whales and dolphins is about our own hang-ups. They seem to lead a free and easy life. They may not have hands to manipulate, but they have the biggest brains on the planet and extremely sensual bodies. Having existed for millions of years, it is tempting to imagine their long-term existence as an existence beyond all that seems to hold us humans back.

Philip Hoare is the author of several books, including LeviathanThe Sea Within and Albert and the Whale

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