What Sperm Whale Communication Can Tell Us About Communities & Cultures Beneath the Ocean’s Surface

Until fairly recently, the dominant view among scientists was that non-human animals didn’t manifest real intelligence and certainly didn’t live in dynamic cultures. But those ideas have been entirely demolished in recent years. Several examples of sophisticated decision-making, tool usage, emotional richness, and complex social organization in species have come to light (something Indigenous traditions have long held to be self-evident). 

In this edited conversation led by science journalist and artist Kate Golden, we hear from two major figures in this burgeoning scientific and societal renaissance: Carl Safina, a longtime, world-renowned advocate for animal intelligence; and Shane Gero, a National Geographic explorer and daring, visionary young scientist on the frontlines of research on animal societies. Carl and Shane discuss what we know and what we might be able to learn from studying sperm whales, and if we can get beyond our species chauvinism. 

This panel conversation took place at Bioneers 2023.

KATE GOLDEN, SCIENCE JOURNALIST: Tell us what it is like studying sperm whales.

SHANE, SCIENTIST & NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC EXPLORER: I’d love to tell you that the reason the sperm whale project has been so successful has been because of my amazing skill as a biologist, but there is the right place to study the right animal, and Dominica has this magical combination of ecology and the species and the oceanographer that means the sperm whales are there.

We went to Dominica, and it was like the promised land. Before that, we’d only spent maybe 14 days in a row with a family of whales. So to spend an entire month was unheard of. 

They’re there virtually year-round, and the families sort of take turns. There’s usually only one family of seven animals off the island on any day. The project leaves from shore in a small open boat, and then we go home every night and sleep onshore, and the whales go about their business. In other years, we’ve lived on a sailboat, spending 24 hours a day with the whale families. The project has built this family of people who are literally living above the surface of this family of whales that we care so much about. 

KATE: What kind of intuition do you get about whales from spending so many hours watching them?

CARL SAFINA, WRITER & ANIMAL RESEARCHER: I guess the overarching impression is that they really know who they are, and as Shane taught me, not only do they know who they are because of who they’re with, but we know who we are because of who we are with. Our companions create our identity, our relationship to other individuals is what creates our identity. It’s so completely universalizable that it changed my view of a lot of things.

SHANE GERO: I would agree. I often say that by spending a lot of time trying to learn how to be a whale, you actually learn to be a far better person. Their lives are about fundamentals that make a ton of sense.

CARL: They’re fundamentally the same as us. Shane may have a different impression after 20 years, but my impression is that they’re concerned about their families, and they’re concerned about staying together and who they’re with and how they do the things that they do, and that applies entirely to us. The details are very different, but I think fundamentally we’re very similar.

They don’t look like a typical mammal, and they have that incredibly unusual head, but when they’re swimming over to each other to meet after a dive, they’re greeting each other like dogs greet each other, or like dogs greet us. They’re greeting their family, and they like to rub, they like to touch. 

SHANE: The truth is that they’re individuals as much as we are. There are some that are super curious, especially when they’re young, about pretty much anything, whether it’s a sea turtle or ocean plastic pollution or our boat. 

KATE: Can you talk a little bit about their worlds — the pressures they’re dealing with, the decisions they have to make on a daily basis?

CARL: One thing about the sperm whale society that is surprising and interesting and cool is that their family structure is a lot like elephants. They live in female groups, and females stay in the group they were born into. So if you’re a mother, you’re with your daughters and your sisters and your mother, if she’s still alive. The males leave at adolescence, and they have a different kind of social life. That’s very similar to African elephants. 

The reason for it, with sperm whales, seems to be that because the food is really far down and the babies can’t go, babies always need babysitters. The adults have to leave the surface, and somebody has to stay with the babies. It can’t always be the mother because the mother also has to go and find food. 

Their physical world is obviously much more vertical than ours. They fly up and down in the ocean. They can’t breathe in most of their environment. They can go where there’s oxygen, but they have to take the oxygen with them, which connects them to the surface every hour or so. They’re not just holding their breath in their lungs like we do when we dive. They’re dissolving the oxygen into their blood. 

But the other thing is, they go into places with no light at all. We call that darkness. When humans see things, we have the impression that we are seeing out. But that’s literally an optical illusion. What’s really happening is that there’s a lot of light bouncing around in the entire room. Since it travels in straight lines, it comes into our eyes, and in certain patterns of reflection, our eyes code the patterns, and they send a code along a wire called a nerve, and that goes into our brain. Our brain decodes what’s come in on that nerve, and it creates a picture. So what we see actually only happens in our brain.

It may be that whales and other cetaceans and bats take the reflections of sound and make pictures out of it. There are blind people who claim that they see the sounds that are reflected; they hear and they make a visual picture in their brains. If blind humans can do that, it’s likely that cetaceans and bats can do that. Is that a possibility?

SHANE: Yeah, I love it. I don’t think it’s far-fetched at all. I think how they’re doing that and how much they need to do that is an amazing question. 

In dolphin groups, all of the dolphins click. You can have a thousand common dolphins flying around in the open ocean, all of them echolocating all of the time, whether there’s food around or not. Why is that? Couldn’t just the 10 in the front echolocate? 

One analogy is, imagine we’re all running through the forest with flashlights. You’re going to use mostly your flashlight to make sure you don’t trip, but everyone else with flashlights around you helps to create a 3D map of the world. 

So we know they make clicks and they get echoes back, and they use that information to navigate and find food. Recently, marine biologists have been able to put suction cup computer tags on smaller porpoises. With the echoes that the porpoise is making and then hearing, they can actually see the resolution enough that they could watch the tail beats of the fish that the porpoise trying to hunt. 

There is this amazing echoic scene in front of a sperm whale, which can sometimes have 600 or more targets. Who knows if it’s marine debris or a squid, but there’s a lot going on in front of a sperm whale, and we know now that they’re picking up squid over 120 meters away. That distance is really, really huge. 

There’s a war going on in the dark in the ocean. You have this amazing mammal that’s developed a sound system to see through the dark, and then you have this amazing squid whose eyes are getting bigger and bigger and bigger in order to see the whale before it gets hit. The idea has been that the squid is potentially looking for this bioluminescent bow wave as the whales come through those layers in the ocean, and they get out of the way. But if sperm whales are picking up a squid at 120 meters away, it seems like they have, hands down, won that arms race. 

CARL: I never thought about the fact that a sperm whale’s bow wave could be literally lighting up all of the phosphorescent organisms down there. But there are a lot of things in the ocean that make a tiny little bit of light when they’re disturbed. That’s pretty amazing to me. 

KATE: What do you know about what whales are saying to each other?

SHANE: I know what I believe they’re saying. It’s pretty clear based on how they interact that they have a need to label each other as individuals, as family groups, and as clans. Those patterns of differences emerged in such an obvious way. We figured out who spends time with who, mostly by building family albums. Once we figured out those social patterns, the sound overlapped perfectly. That explains how they might be able to not only label each other but also broadcast their own identity.

But it gets complicated in terms of a couple of problems, technologically. One is figuring out who’s saying what. The second problem comes with a bias in how we study the whales. I call that the dentist’s office problem. If your microphone happens to be in a dentist’s office, and you don’t know what a dentist’s office is, you’re going to think the term “root canal” is critically important to English-speaking society. But it’s only because you have such a narrow picture of all of the potential contexts and behaviors that humans do when they talk. 

Scaling up across contexts allows us to get the who and the what, but also the where and the when so we can answer that why question of what are the important things that whales talk about. 

KATE: Tell us how the tags that you’re using in machine learning might help you a bit with that problem.

SHANE: Project CETI is one of the big projects that we’ve launched over the last number of years with roboticists, computer scientists, cryptographers, and linguists. We’re working on being able to record on a much larger scale, to create technologies that allow us to record off Dominica across 30 kilometers or more. And then we’re working to create pieces of equipment that can add all of the behavioral context of what the whales are doing. That involves new suction cup tags that last longer. We’re working with Harvard microbiotics lab to create those. 

I feel like a kid in a candy shop because 20 years ago, I would sit there and record with one hydrophone and know that there was information being exchanged. You can’t watch siblings play and chat and not recognize what’s happening there, but we had absolutely no clue what they were saying. Now we have all of these amazing experts. 

CARL: I just want to add that there are some things that dolphins have done that appear to be impossible unless they were communicating really detailed information to each other, similar to what humans are capable of doing. For instance, you can train dolphins in captivity to understand a signal that means “Do something we never taught you to do.” Two dolphins will go swim around their enclosure for a few moments and then, in perfect synchrony, they will together do something they were never taught by people to do. It will be the exact same thing, like they’ll both jump out of the water spinning to the right. Nobody knows how they’re communicating that because they don’t appear, to us, to be talking to each other at that moment. 

In the period when the orcas in the Northwest were being captured for aquariums and amusement parks, a lot of those families were repeatedly chased and had babies taken from them. At one point, all of the males of one family split off and stayed at the surface, very obviously and very noisily, while all the females with babies went in a different direction, stayed underwater for as long as they could hold their breath, and traveled to the backside of an island. That seems impossible unless they were telling each other what to do based on knowing what was about to happen to them. 

But when I spent a bunch of time with Ken Balcomb, who had studied the orcas in that area for 40 years, he said to me, “I’ve never heard them say anything that made any sense. I’ve never heard a call repeated that sounded like something.” But it seems to me perplexing that they would spend so much energy, and evolution would give them these voices to make all these sounds if it meant nothing to them. But it meant nothing to the leading expert in the world. 

I have this question about whether our human brain is capable of actually learning the language of another kind of mind. I think it might be possible. That’s what Shane is working on. 

But I also think that coming up with nothing doesn’t mean nothing is there, necessarily. And I’m not saying that because I believe that they are definitely talking to each other. I don’t know. It certainly seems like dolphins or at least some dolphins are capable of saying some complex things that our brain might not be capable of understanding. And if it gets somehow coded into something that we can understand, maybe we wouldn’t understand it.

Since we know that in our Western culture for the last 5,000 years or so, we’ve continually sold every other living thing short of what it’s capable of, my little caveat is that if the machine-learning stuff doesn’t come with a transcription of what they’re saying, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re not saying something. It may mean that the human mind cannot understand their language.

SHANE: I agree in so many ways. Where I find a lot of hope already with machine learning is that it’s blowing open the encoding space potential. What the machines have done, quite rapidly, is open up multiple new dimensions within an individual call, within a click for sperm whales, where there is the potential for variation. So while we used to identify a 1+1+3 pattern, there are now four different types of 1+1+3, and they seem to be used in different contexts. 

Computers are giving us the capacity to see a deeper phonetic alphabet of possibilities, and that’s going to be a big jump. It’s not going to be Google translate next week, but what it will do is give the whales a bit more credit in terms of literally defining the complexity of the information that they’re sharing with each other.

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