The charisma of whales is normally associated with their size, their ancient history, their apparently gentle approach to life. But it is not only those; the eyes have a role to play in why we love these creatures, among others (more on which in a subsequent post). Thanks to Alex Madrigal and The Atlantic for their attention to this topic:
Both humans and whales are mammals, so our eyes are derived from a common ancestor. Not only can we look at whales and they can look back at us, but we know enough about optics to infer their eyes’ capabilities from their anatomy. Animal eyes can be imagined as technological systems evolved with biological materials.
“We will make the fairly bold claim that it is sensible to approach eyes in essentially the same way that an optical engineer might evaluate a new video camera,” write Michael Land and Dan-Eric Nilsson, the authors of the Oxford University Press treatment of our topic, Animal Eyes.
Their eyes capture light in ways we can understand. Their eyes have a focal length. Their eyes have a maximum resolution.
So, what does the world look like to a whale?
Here’s what got me pursuing this line of inquiry. The photographer Bryant Austin makes life-size composites of whales: humpbacks, sperm whales, minkes. The results are sublime. Each fin, each ridge in the skin, seems worth pondering. Austin is especially obsessed with photographing their eyes, and with good reason.
To create these images, Austin thought a lot about what kind of visual system could represent the experience of floating next to one of these creatures. Most whale photographers use wide-angle lenses to capture as much of the whale as possible at longer distances, but he realized that wide-angle lenses do not capture enough data to create high-resolution, life-size photographs of whales.
So, on a very fancy Hasselblad H3DII-50, Austin mounted an 80mm portrait lens with a narrow field of view. The consequences of that decision are startling: Austin has to get within ten feet of the whales, and he has to take many photographs from that distance in order to get enough photographs to stitch together the life-size portrait. In practice, that brought him eye-to-eye with these multi-ton animals time and again.