What the Cetacean Says: James Nestor’s CETI Project to Research Sperm Whale Clicks

James Nestor is a journalist and author who has written in major publications such as The New York Times, Scientific American, and Dwell Magazine. The author of the 2014 book Deep: Freediving, Renegade Science, and What the Ocean Tells Us About Ourselves, Nestor is especially fascinated with exploring life underwater — and gave a fascinating keynote address at a recent Bioneers Conference:

To take his fascination to a new level, Nestor has teamed up with a marine scientist and professor, David Gruber, and an aerospace engineer, Jean Koster, to establish CETI (Cetacean Echolocation Translation Initiative), an independent research project focused on studying and attempting to comprehend sperm whale clicks. Recognizing that traditional marine biology had limited means and methods for studying these animals, Nestor hopes this research will lead to important breakthroughs, the likes of which haven’t been seen for upwards of 50 years.

“What we found is there’s a gap between what’s happening in marine biology and interspecies communication in the academic world and the private world and the technology world,” says Nestor. “We’re trying to bridge the private world and all of these amazing emerging technologies with marine biology and marine science to try to do something big. Will it work? Maybe. Will it fail? Perhaps. But no one else is really trying to do this, which to me is insane.”

Bioneers spoke with him about this new venture into animal language, why he’s trying to keep it independent, and what he hopes to accomplish if he and his team crack the sperm whale code.

Tell us about the technologies that make now the right time for this type of research.

It’s machine learning, especially, and some A.I. technologies that are currently being used to translate and crack into mouse and bat language. That’s already happening, so the algorithms are all written, and researchers are discovering incredible things. They’re also looking into patterns in birdsong.

We want to use these technologies that exist and are growing and apply them to what could be the most sophisticated form of communication, which is sperm whale clicks. We want to really try to push it and see what happens.

You’re not going to find any marine biologists saying these animals aren’t communicating in a very sophisticated way. We’ve known that for 50 years. We just haven’t had the technology or the means to really research it. Traditional marine biologists conducted research in a boat. They dropped a hydrophone over the side of a boat and collected data that has revealed some incredible discoveries. But it hasn’t been able to crack into these animals’ language. By interacting with these animals face to face, which is what we’re going to be doing, you can really spur them to interact in a way that no hydrophone or person on a boat is going to be able to do. We have video showing that something magical happens when you approach them in peace face-to-face. They want to sit there and interact with you. It’s those interactions that we think are going to provide the best data.

James Nestor

Mechanically speaking, how do sperm whales create these clicks?

They create them in their nose. The sperm whale has the largest nose on the planet. It’s technically a “nose” even though it’s basically the front of their head. They have a chamber inside of their nose, where they vibrate sounds. They click with these two lips and then vibrate the sounds in this hollow area and shoot them out in the front of their head. They can shoot clicks out and form them in highly directional sound beams.

Someone recorded that there were 1,600 microclicks in a single second sent to one sperm whale from the other. An animal is not doing that by accident. That’s not a dog barking. That’s a very deliberate signal. We know they’re able to pick and choose to which whale they’re sending these. If you’re diving with these animals, they’ll sit there in a circle and crane their heads in just the right way to shoot clicks to one another with a clear signal. It’s a pretty mind blowing experience to be in the middle of. To see them conversing. There’s obviously something so powerful there.

What makes sperm whales, in particular, special? Are there other species communicating in the same way sperm whales do?

Yes. Ukrainian scientists at Saint Petersburg Polytechnical University have been collecting data on dolphin clicks and just recently found that they’re using these clicks as a form of data transmission. Not the way that humans use language, but still a form of language.

They were able to reveal that the clicking patterns dolphins used were different depending on each dolphin. Inside those clicks are little encoded packs of information. Words. But I think it’s more than just words — they’re doing more than just communicating a single word. If you think about human language, it’s really clunky. If I mispronounce something just slightly, you don’t understand me. Transmission of data is a much more evolved way of communicating, which is what we’re doing on this phone, and on fax machines, and on email. The study is fascinating. The fact that this is happening right now means to me that when these revelations come out, they’re going to come out fast and furiously.

The reason why we’re interested in sperm whales is dolphins are a lot easier to study. You can put them in a tank and study them up close. They’re small and pretty docile. No one can get near sperm whales. They’re 50 feet long, and these are the world’s largest predators. But by free diving, we found a way of getting very close to them in ways that no one else really has. Sperm whales have the largest brain ever to have existed on the planet that we know of — about six times the size of ours and many times more complex than our own brains. They’ve had these brains for tens of millions of years longer than we’ve had our current-size brains. We know this animal has incredible potential for intelligence. We know they’re communicating. We just don’t know what they’re saying. That’s what we hope to find out.

What else do you hope to accomplish with this project besides just understanding language?

If you want to save the animals of the ocean, give them a name, and show their intelligence. I think that will make it a lot harder for idiots to want to continue killing animals off. At least I hope. I think it’s going to be easier for resolutions to be passed if we can show the incredible intelligence of these animals.

Additionally, tons of whales get hit every year by ship strikes. If there’s a way for us to peek into the language, perhaps we can send out some broadcasting language that warns them not to get close — that ships are coming.

But to me, the real fascination is that we’re talking about the possibility of communicating with another animal on this planet that is communicating in a way that is so much more sophisticated than human language. There could be industrial applications, but the real interest to me is strictly a scientific and curious pursuit. Just to interact with them on a minimal level, I think, would really get people to realize that there’s more happening on this planet than iPhones. There’s something bigger going on here.

Any plans to use this tech to study other species?

Absolutely. We know that orcas use these clicks. We know that dolphins use these clicks. So this could be a lingua franca. Could be. We don’t know. No one’s really studied it. But if we’re able to crack into the communication code of one of these animals, I think it’ll be that much easier to replicate the code of others. Then we’ll be easily able to determine whether all these cetaceans have been communicating for millions of years. I know that sounds way out and pretty spacey, but it’s really not. If you look at the specifics of these clicks and how long these animals have been around to evolve this ability, I think it’s completely possible.

Do you think humans will be able to mimic their clicks to communicate with them?

That’s a big challenge. First of all, we have to figure out what they are. We have to understand whether they’re like fax transactions, which is possible. If you look at one of these clicks, these animals can repeat the same exact click codes down to the millisecond with the same discrete frequencies. If you look at a fax transmission, it’s the same exact thing. So it’s a possibility, we just have to capture them. I know that if we’re able to capture some really clean signals — and considering how sophisticated machine learning and speaker technologies are now — I’m pretty confident that we’d be able to send them back. That’s the ultimate goal: to be able to send them something, and for them to send us something, and back and forth.

It’s like ancient sailors going to some distant island in the South Pacific. How did they communicate? They’d draw out a picture in the sand and say this is where I came from, and the indigenous people would draw another picture saying this is where we are, and this is how we understand the world. I have a feeling we’ll have to start with that before we really understand each other’s languages.

To be clear, there’s a big risk involved with this. Maybe we won’t find anything for a while. But just the fact we know they’re communicating, and we know it’s really detailed and complicated and sophisticated, lends me hope that we’ll be able to really break into something here.

What is your specific role on this project?

I put it all together because I just didn’t see anyone else doing it. I’m not a scientist. I’m not an academic. And I know that very clearly. Luckily, I’ve been able to surround myself with people in the community who are open-minded enough to take this on.

David Gruber is a very well-known marine scientist who’s been studying the communication of bioluminescent animals — the codes in those bioluminescent flashes. Jean Koster is a very well-known engineer who is building a whole drone system to find the whales for us.

How is the project being funded?

What’s interesting is we’re not a traditional academic project, which means we can’t necessarily go to a university and ask for grants. And we’re not a private project, so we don’t want to go the Kickstarter route. We need some funds to come together, and that’s what we’re working on now. It’s all tax-free. None of us are making any money. We’re actually just spending massive amounts of cash and time to make this happen. We put up the CETI website because we had some people express interest in donating to it. For our first phase, we need a certain amount of cash to build this one robot that we plan to send out in March.

We could start applying for traditional grants, but the problem with that is A) it takes a long time, and B) there’s a ton of red tape. One of the reasons marine biologists don’t dive with animals is they can’t. If you’re accepting money from a university, you’re bound to certain restrictions just for insurance reasons. No grad student is going to be told to go dive with a bunch of 50-foot whales. That’s why we really love the autonomy of being this offshoot. We’re free to do what we want, when we want to do it. I think that’s going to allow this to go so much quicker.

The amount of money we’re asking for is not a lot right now. If we don’t get it through the private funnel, we’ll probably have to go the grant route. But we’d much prefer to do this in a different way.

Where will you be telling stories of what you find?

We’ll definitely have an online presence, and it looks like we’ll have a documentary crew together. We’re just now working on this to make sure we’ll be able to show people when we actually start making these breakthroughs.

Explore more Bioneers media on Intelligence in Nature >>

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