Whale Talk.

Randyn Bartholomew has a LiveScience story “Will humans ever learn to speak whale?“:

Sperm whales are among the loudest living animals on the planet, producing creaking, knocking and staccato clicking sounds to communicate with other whales that are a few feet to even a few hundred miles away. This symphony of patterned clicks, known as codas, might be sophisticated enough to qualify as a full-fledged language. But will humans ever understand what these cetaceans are saying?

The answer is maybe, but first researchers have to collect and analyze an unprecedented number of sperm whale communications, researchers told Live Science. With brains six times larger than ours, sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus) have intricate social structures and spend much of their time socializing and exchanging codas. These messages can be as brief as 10 seconds, or last over half an hour. In fact, “The complexity and duration of whale vocalizations suggest that they are at least in principle capable of exhibiting a more complex grammar” than other nonhuman animals, according to an April 2021 paper about sperm whales posted to the preprint server arXiv.org.

This paper, by a cross-disciplinary project known as CETI (Cetacean Translation Initiative), outlines a plan to decode sperm whale vocalizations, first by collecting recordings of sperm whales, and then by using machine learning to try to decode the sequences of clicks these fellow mammals use to communicate. CETI chose to study sperm whales over other whales because their clicks have an almost Morse code-like structure, which artificial intelligence (AI) might have an easier time analyzing. […]

The CETI project currently has recordings of about 100,000 sperm whale clicks, painstakingly gathered by marine biologists over many years, but the machine-learning algorithms might need somewhere in the vicinity of 4 billion. To bridge this gap, CETI is setting up numerous automated channels for collecting recordings from sperm whales. These include underwater microphones placed in waters frequented by sperm whales, microphones that can be dropped by eagle-eyed airborne drones as soon as they spot a pod of sperm whales congregating at the surface, and even robotic fish that can follow and listen to whales unobtrusively from a distance.

But even with all this data, will we be able to decipher it? Many of the machine-learning algorithms have found audio more difficult to analyze than text. For instance, it might be challenging to parse apart where one word begins and ends. As Sharma explained, “Suppose there’s a word ‘umbrella.’ Is ‘um’ the word or is it ‘umbrell’ or is it ‘umbrella’?” The barriers between spoken words are more ambiguous and less regular, and patterns may therefore require more data to suss out.

That’s not the only difficulty CETI will face. “Whether someone comes from let’s say Japan or from the U.S. or from wherever, the worlds we talk about are very similar; we talk about people, we talk about their actions,” Sharma said. “But the worlds these whales live in are very different, right? And the behaviors are very different.” What’s more, sperm whales are known to have dialects, according to a 2016 study in the journal Royal Society Open Science, which analyzed codas from nine sperm whale groups in the Caribbean for six years.

Fascinating stuff; I’m normally very skeptical about accounts of “animal language,” but this sounds better grounded than most, and I hope the study produces results. Thanks, mapache!


  1. I twice tried to talk with crows. That is, to say “caw!”. The reaction:

    1.surprised look 2. responce, and then 3. the crow followed me a couple hundred meters, exchanging caws with me. On my way back I found the crow on the same tree.
    The crow said “caw”, I responded and the crow followed me to where we met. Then I went home.

    The second time was a different crow and years later. I was talking with my freind and told that story and it turned out that she did not remembered it, and as we were near a forest and there was a crow on a branch above us, I turned and said “caw” and she turned and looked and said “caw”.
    Then my freind and I kept talking.

  2. How do we know that these learning machines crack the code? How are they trained before being put to use on Sperm Whelsh?

  3. They’re trained in Wales. Once they can communicate with people in Merthyr Tydfil, they move on to Whales.

  4. See perhaps


    esp re fruit bat gossip? See perhaps also


  5. David Eddyshaw says

    Once they can communicate with people in Merthyr Tydfil

    Per impossibile …

  6. Crows yes, but don’t try to hoot at owls, especially captive ones. I saw very stern warnings about it.

  7. Jen in Edinburgh says

    Why has it never occurred to me before that whales would speak whelsh…

  8. John Emerson says

    “If a whale could talk, we wouldn’t understand him.”

    Ludwig has provided us with the proper cliche for this situation and we should use it.

  9. David Eddyshaw says

    That was pretty much my first thought, too.
    What experience could we possibly share?

    This reminds me of


    Even talking glibly of whales “saying” things is to make a whole lot of anthropocentric assumptions right off the bat. So to speak.

  10. Bat’s brains are (more or less) upside down:

    A variant of the mammalian somatotopic map in a bat
    M. B. Calford, M. L. Graydon*, M. F. Huertat, J. H. Kaast & J. D. Pettigrew
    Nature volume 313, pages 477–479 (1985)

    I’ve had good experiences whistle-talking to mockingbirds and catbirds…

  11. Now look what you did. You’ve upset the cats.

  12. Sperm whales make a lot of clicking noises.

    There is the case of the Essex, a whaling ship that was rammed and sunk by a sperm whale in 1820, with the survivors undergoing horrific hardships before some of them were rescued. The incident was well-known in the 19th century, and was an influence on Melville writing Moby Dick.

    The evening before the incident, the ship’s carpenter did some major hammering, repairing one of the whaleboats.

    Some modern writers have suggested that perhaps the whale interpreted these hammering sounds as a territorial challenge, and responded with an attack on its rival.

    The clicking sounds may be used for echolocation, but in any case it could indicate that a strange whale was in the vicinity.

    I don’t know how well sperm whale behaviour is understood. They spend much of their time way out at sea, unlike, say, humpbacks, that spend a lot of time fairly close to shore. And they dive really deep. So it’s a challenge to observe them.

  13. What is it like to be a bat?

    A classic blast from the past ! Skimming it, I was brought up short by:

    # But philosophers share the general human weakness for
    explanations of what is incomprehensible in terms suited for
    what is familiar and well understood, though entirely different. #

    This is somewhat misleading. Obscurum per obscurius is just as widespread, being the explanatory MO of many authors, not all of them alchemists. There seems to be no end of general human weaknesses. It’s a wonder the trains are still running.

  14. @John Emerson, cf Vicki Hearne, in `Wittgenstein’s Lion’: “The silence of Wittgenstein’s lion is like many of Wittgenstein’s own silences: there is something there…”

  15. There’s always something in silence, you just have to be patient. Silence is deafening, the longer it lasts.

    Samson found a honey-comb in the mouth of a silent lion.

  16. Charles Perry says

    This reminds me of John Lilly’s attempts to communicate with dolphins in the Sixties. He reported great success, said dolphins were super-wise.

    On the other hand, an old college roommate of mine who had become an LSD millionaire has told me he was providing Lilly with acid for research purposes. (Whales much bigger, researchers might need to take bigger doses.)

  17. Wait, am I the local Machine Learning expert? Y’all want me to peruse the thing and answer Trond’s question (though I have a guess)?

  18. Speaking of the Royal Society, I note that there is a theme issue:

    Vocal learning in animals and humans

  19. Yuval: since you asked, you’re it. You touched it, you bought it. Yes, please.

  20. Jeffry House says

    Imagine how we will feel if it is discovered that whales have 142 whale words for “water” and 76 for “salty”.

  21. . . . 50 words for marine snow . . .

  22. Jen in Edinburgh says
  23. David Eddyshaw says

    Evident nonsense. These are clearly Irish dolphins, over here for the Rugby.

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