Deep Dive: What We Are Learning from The Language of Whales: James Nestor (Transcript)

Full text of author and journalist James Nestor’s talk titled “Deep Dive: What We Are Learning from The Language of Whales” at TEDxMarin conference.

Listen to the MP3 Audio here:


James Nestor – Author & Journalist

(Clicking sounds by sperm whale)

What you’re hearing right now isn’t a construction site, it’s not a fax machine, it’s not an old dial-up router, if any of you remember those.

This is the sound of the world’s largest predator, and this is what it feels like to swim face to face with these beings.

(Clicking sounds by sperm whale)

So, these clicks are so loud, you can actually feel them in your body. Your body starts heating up after a few minutes.

I swam with these animals about four years ago. Some friends and I had heard that, off the coast of Sri Lanka, these huge congregations of sperm whales would gather in March and April.

So we hopped on a flight, got on a boat, and had the boat drop us off, about six miles off the coast. We sat there in the water, and we waited. One hour became two, two hours became three, till we heard this “tick tick tick tick” sound, like a typewriter, from like miles away.

We looked down, and we saw these two shadows, and this ticking got louder, and louder, and louder. The frequencies, again, were so powerful that you could feel them inside.

These animals came up to us, welcomed us into their pods, and started showering us with these clicks. So, this is a pretty interesting experience for me.

I found out later that these clicks are actually used for communication. These animals also use them to see in the deep ocean.

What they do, is they send out a click, they wait for the echo of that click to come back, and they use that information to form a picture of everything around them. It’s a form of sonar, called echolocation. So that’s pretty amazing, right?

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They’re able to see better with sounds than we are able to see with our eyes. But there’s something else in here. Inside of these clicks is encoded information. There is a secret language in here. And the more you focus in on these clicks, the tinier and tinier they get, into more complex structures.

So, not only do sperm whales use these, but other cetaceans, such as dolphins and orcas, also use these. It’s this secret language. And it’s not random. These animals are able to repeat the same discreet codes over and over again, down to the millisecond.

So, scientists have known all about cetacean communication. Back in the ’60s, this guy, John Lilly, had a lab set up, dedicated to solving the dolphin communication problem, in the Bahamas. And he did all kinds of crazy stuff.

He had a dolphin telephone, where he put one dolphin in a tank, on one side of the lab, and another dolphin on the other side of the lab, and he hooked them up through an intercom, and he would listen in, as these dolphins would have these very complex conversations, for hours and hours and hours.

He also had dolphin English language immersion workshops — this is true — where he would have an intern grant dolphins sexual favors, if they learned English words. And this totally worked.

He also did some pretty creepy things, like he shot them up with LSD, tried to figure out if that would help them learn English.

So, what Lily really wanted to do, though, was to figure out the sperm whale communication code. He said these animals are, by far, the most intelligent animals on the planet. They have a form of communication that is far more sophisticated than ours. But you can’t quite put a 60-foot long whale into a lab. It just doesn’t work.

So, for the past 50 years, we’ve been stuck doing this: studying these animals from the deck of a boat. Now, this is very limiting. You can’t see what you’re actually doing, you just have to put these hydrophones off the deck of the boat. But still, with that, they found some pretty amazing things.

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They found that, yes, sperm whales have dialects; they found that, yes, they can shoot this click communication in focused sound beams to other whales, across great distances of ocean.

They found that, also, these sperm whales can cram 1,600 micro clicks into a single second, and repeat those over and over, and move discrete frequencies around, and shoot those to other whales.

So, really interesting stuff, but they could not crack the communication code. To do that, you have to get below the surface. You have to see these animals, you have to gauge their behavior.

So, a few years ago, a French researcher and a Belgian free diver had an idea. They thought, “Hmm, what if we try free diving with whales? Maybe we could get close enough to them that way, that they would be able to encounter us, and start communicating with us.”

So, free diving is the act of holding a single breath of air in your lungs, and letting the ocean take you down hundreds and hundreds of feet, for minutes at a time.

So, this is — there are no video effects on this. What happens, after around 30 feet, is the water stops buoying you to the surface, and starts dragging you down to the sea floor. It will keep dragging you down till you hit it.

And the deeper you go, the more your body changes. All of these reflexes start turning on. Your organs allow for the free flow of fluids, so they don’t collapse, your brain waves slow down, your heart rate will slow to about a third of its resting rate. I know that sounds crazy, but the lowest recorded heart rate, ever, was seven beats per minute, by a free diver, which is about half of someone in a coma, I think.

So, anyway, these guys thought, “OK, we’re going to go free dive, we’re going to go strip off all of our scuba, and just see how the animals would respond to this.”

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And this is what happened. The animals are usually very wary of scuba, but when you free dive silently, they saw something similar to themselves. It turns out that whales also have the mammalian dive reflexes. That’s how they’re able to dive down to 8,000 feet, for 90 minutes at a time. We share those same things.

So the divers were able to commune with these animals for hours, and hours, and hours, and get footage that no one else has ever gotten. The whales welcomed them into their pods, started shooting them with echolocation to figure out what they were, and then started shooting them with this: communication clicks.

And this lasted for a series of days, over and over and over. So, I know that seems impossible, right? We can’t talk to whales! Whales don’t have a form of communication that’s more sophisticated than our own.

But just consider a few things: the sperm whale’s brain is about six times the size of ours, OK? They’ve had it for 15 million years longer than we have had ours. We’ve had our current size brain around 200,000 years. It’s in many ways more complex and evolved.

So, animals don’t grow big brains by accident, they grow them for a reason. Brains take up a lot of energy. So, I think that they’re using this, at least partly, to communicate, and I believe that if we’re able to understand just the rudiments of this communication, we may be able to save them.

And Lord knows they really need it, because this is the reality of what we’ve done to these animals over the past 200 years.

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