Alien-hunters inspire world-first chat with whale

Twain's fluke (Jodi Frediani / NOAA )
Twain's fluke (Jodi Frediani / NOAA )

Extra-terrestrial alien-hunters have teamed up with cetacean scientists to conduct what they say was the world’s first conversation in “whale” between humans and humpbacks – but their sights are set light-years away.

The Whale-SETI team, made up of scientists from the SETI Institute, University of California Davis and the Alaska Whale Foundation, have been studying humpback whale communication systems as part of the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence – and have just reported a close encounter with a non-human intelligence. 

The SETI Institute is a US research body that was set up 40 years ago to explore and explain the origin and nature of life in the universe. SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) is a research partner of NASA and the National Science Foundation.

The team, onboard the research vessel Blue Pearl, played a recorded humpback whale greeting signal into the sea via an underwater speaker while off south-east Alaska.

The signal caught the attention of a known adult female whale named Twain. She approached and circled the team’s boat, while responding to the signals in what was described as a conversational style. 

The human-whale exchange lasted for 20 minutes, with Twain responding to each contact call sent. Her replies matched exactly the deliberately varied intervals between each human signal.

“We believe this is the first such communicative exchange between humans and humpback whales in the humpback ‘language’,” said lead author of the just-published study Dr Brenda McCowan of UC Davis

Brenda McCowan of UC Davis and Fred Sharpe of the Alaska Whale Foundation (Jodi Frediani)
Brenda McCowan of UC Davis and Fred Sharpe of the Alaska Whale Foundation (Jodi Frediani)

“Because of current limitations on technology, an important assumption of the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence is that extra-terrestrials will be interested in making contact and so target human receivers,” commented co-author Dr Laurance Doyle of the SETI Institute. “This important assumption is certainly supported by the behaviour of humpback whales.”

Nets of bubbles

“Humpback whales are extremely intelligent, have complex social systems, make tools – nets out of bubbles to catch fish – and communicate extensively with both songs and social calls,” said co-author Dr Fred Sharpe of the Alaska Whale Foundation.

By studying such intelligent terrestrial non-human communication systems, the Whale-SETI team plan to develop filters to apply to any extra-terrestrial signals that might be received.

The other team-members and co-authors of the study were animal-intelligence specialist Dr Josie Hubbard, humpback whale song analyst Lisa Walker and humpback whale behaviourist and photographer Jodi Frediani.  

Funded by the Templeton Foundation Diverse Intelligences Programme, their study is published in the journal Peer J. The team is now working on a second paper, dealing with non-audio communicative behaviour of humpback whales in the form of bubble rings made in the presence of – and possibly for – humans. 

Also on Divernet: Humpback hits: catchy songs could circle world, Diver's too-close whale encounter, Out with whales? Ask about decibels, Whale-rescuing freediver spared fine


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