The mathematician who loved to sail

It’s the type of encounter that changes ones life. Hal Whitehead had recently finished studying mathematics at Cambridge University in England and had absolutely no intention of studying cetaceans. While sailing solo along the coast of Nova Scotia (Canada) in 1974, he experienced his first encounter with a whale. It was a minke whale. He was fascinated and the questions piled up in his head. After a few summers of sailing with the whales off Canada’s East
Coast, he decided to undertake a doctorate on the humpback whales of the Northwest Atlantic.

Soon after the completion of his Ph.D., he left for the Indian Ocean in search of sperm whales. It wasn’t long before these mysterious and social animals had fascinated him. Although he is now a professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax he still studies this species of cetacean more than any other in Nova Scotia, Chile and the Galapagos Islands.

Through all of this, he has not put aside his interest in mathematics, far from it. His work on behaviour, social structure and the protection of sperm whales has led him to develop sophisticated analytical tools. Here his knowledge of mathematics, statistics and computing have proven indispensable. These tools are now used by other researchers studying whales.

The results of his work have led him to become interested in general questions concerning the social structure of mammals. He is particularly intrigued by the numerous parallels that exist between sperm whales and African elephants. He is also studying how knowledge and behaviour are transmitted by way of the social links that exist between animals,a phenomenon biologists refer to as “culture”.

What about sailing? Dr. Whitehead still spends several weeks per year aboard sailing vessels acquiring data on cetaceans. However, he no longer travels solo. He is accompanied by his students, and on occasion by his children and another whale biologist from Dalhousie University; his wife, Linda Weilgart.