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Cachalot Clicks

Listen to this recording of a cachalot pod, clicking in the water off the Azores. The wavelet graph displays two discrete cachalot clicks.


The Mystery of Cachalot Vocal Behavior

From The Interspecies newsletter


wavelet dolphinThe cachalot...

...(or "sperm" whale), possesses the largest brain we may ever know. It can attain seventeen pounds compared to the average homo sapiens 3.5 pound brain. One might easily wonder if this being’s mind is likewise outsized? If so, then what does the sperm whale think about? For that matter, what does it think about our own lesser-endowed species.

Traditional biology may never comprehend this species’ behavior because, as Gödel's theorem posits, our own smaller computer can never map the cetacean's larger computer. Ironically, that may also explain why many people feel something indefinable and yet powerful in the whale's presence. This experience leaves us clinging to the sublime idea that this cetacean species is potentially the purveyor of a genuine mystery—rather than just being unresearched because of some current lack in scientific ingenuity. This offers a rather ethereal twist to the economic reality of whale watching now becoming a $100 million business world wide. Yet until twenty years ago, human beings related to this species only by slaughtering them at every turn. Even this year, the whaling Industry is out on the Pacific ocean harpooning 15 more sperm whales although the industry acknowledges that they no longer need the oil, and the meat is laced with toxic levels of mercury. If you appreciate beauty or intellect, join the fray to protest this senseless ?scientific whaling?.

Interspecies has just initiated what is probably a first, a cultural contact with the species. We are producing what might be best understood as a systematic "greeting" with the cachalot. In July 2002 we started a long term project in the Azores, initiating a relationship with one specific pod of sperm whales which resides in an area otherwise free of human boat traffic. Adopting a holistic regimen, our team includes an interspecies communication consultant, a bio-acoustician, a photo ID specialist, a whale activist, a ceremonialist, and an Azorean eco-tour entrepreneur to help us fill in some of the blanks. At the very least, we hope to pinpoint the blanks themselves.

wavelet dolphinWhat did we observe in July? The two photos here show a pod of female and their young engaged in a behavior referred to as the Marguerite Formation. Some researchers describe it as a "defensive posture". We strongly disagree, at least in terms of what we observed that day. If anything, these whales seemed easy about our presence, and one member of our own group swam among the whales for fifteen minutes. None of us observed any sign of aggression.

We prefer to describe the formation as one more unexplained behavior. The whales seemed unconcerned by our presence eight miles from shore in waters 6000 feet deep. They faced one another while floating on the surface, appearing as petals of a huge gray daisy, Touching heads, they individually emitted a continuous and rhythmical series of loud clicks. Certain individual click trains are already known to contain that whale's "signature", basically it's own name. That's what you're listening to, if you click the recording. All together, the individual rhythms comprise a pod-identifying poly-rhythm, a family signature if you will, possessing a sophistication that lifts this otherwise straightforward signaling into the realm of music.

Cachalots possess a unique vibrating organ, the so-called "case", inside their forehead that is the size of a car, and which is used to transmit, receive, and focus sound waves. When the whales click loudly together, this case physically vibrates. Is it just a massage? Or are they tuning themselves together in preparation for some other, unknown activity? It has been suggested that by clicking all together, they call in a male pod which may be thousands of miles away. Or is the vibration analogous to the clock cycles that synchronize the speed and power of the various components of a computer processor. Use your own imagination to dream up other possible uses, communicative, mechanical, sacred or otherwise, to explain this harmonic, rhythmical and communal ceremony.

A Great Adventure.

Let's gather together a diverse group of thoughtful humans to meet the cachalot in the open ocean, and attempt to discover a common ground of communication. What method might we employ to even begin this difficult process? We agree with philosopher Gregory Bateson, who spent years working to communicate with dolphins. Bateson concluded that attempting to translate cetacean whistles into sign language—or even into a made-up halfway language like John Lilly's computer-based delphinese—is a futile endeavor, not unlike trying to translate Beethoven into words and sentences. For that reason, we at Interspecies recommend music as an important component. Improvised music displays something essential about the human heart and pulse, and is an evolved expression of human imagination and culture. But can music provide a humble statement that our own species is finally ready to transcend the cruelty we exacted so thoroughly on the sperm whale over several centuries?

What about the clicks you're listening to? All toothed whales use clicks as the very basis of perception. It's sonar, echolocation, the primary means by which they perceive their often-murky underwater world, just as humans rely primarily on eyes to perceive our world. A staccato burst of clicks bounces off an object such as a squid and echoes back to the whale where it is received through nerve receptors in the jaw. The animal "hears" this echo as an actual three-dimensional image possessed of a certain shape, material density and distance. Unlike the other toothed whales— dolphins, belugas, orcas—sperm whales do not whistle as a means of signaling simple messages like identity, distance, and alarm between members of their immediate pod. Socially, the species vocalizes a very close approximation of their same echolocation clicks, but this time back and forth to one another. It suggests a vocabulary of "echoed objects", a kind of three-dimensional holosonic language one might imagine being spoken by some otherworldly species from Star Trek. Nonetheless, whale echolocation follows the same physical laws of acoustics that produces sonar in submarines and ultrasound imaging in pre-natal care.

It is therefore not beyond the realm of possibility to consider that we already possess the basic technology to image sperm whale clicks onto a screen.Our project has placed considerable resources to develop tools and techniques to test this hypothesis of an echoed vocabulary. For basics, we are starting to assemble a specialized computer audio system to record the whales' calls full spectrum, from about 5 Hz to at least 200 kHz. We are also starting to work with a digital audio programmer to devise innovative sound mapping techniques. With good fortune, perhaps eventually we may be able to display images of the echoed objects themselves, although interpreting them probably bumps up against Gödel's Theorem. If, for instance, the Hawaiian language has over one hundred words for rain, how many words might the deep-diving sperm whale have to describe water pressure?

Assuring close proximity to the whales for extended periods of time will be of immense importance in making the best recordings possible.

wavelet dolphinAs this photo demonstrates, close proximity is not an issue. In this instance, we sat silently among the whales for over two hours and finally left them, still floating head-to-head, only because we were in an open boat and the sun was about to set. Here you see project co-director and Interspecies' own primary investigator Jim Nollman, with co-director, Rauno Lauhakangas, a physicist and distinguished whale activist. Rauno is webmaster of The Whale Web, the largest cetacean information site on the Internet. All photos here were taken by katy Nollman, using a digital camera provided by one of this summer's sponsors: Casio Japan.

If sponsoring this project interests you, please write us.

And please read The Sperm Whale/Cachalot page, and join our media campaign to adopt a crucial name change for the species.

The Azores is one of the few points of land on the planet where sperm whales stay relatively close to shore for much of the year. In the area we plan to do our study, there are about 30 whales in residence. One important component of our project will be identifying these 30 individuals, both by the physical scar patterns on their bodies as well as by their unique click rhythms.

wavelet dolphinAs a direct result of whaling, the cachalot is, today, on the endangered species list. Whaling records show that as many as 5000 whales were killed in this same area by men in open boats over the course of the 20th century. The last processing plant was closed in 1985. As the photo of the oil rendering vats shows, it is falling apart.

Rauno has much experience, both in Russia and Iceland, developing local economies to better appreciate and thus ultimately, better protect whales. This past summer, he consulted with local entrepreneurs and government officials to promote this old whale works as the optimal site for a new Azores Whale Museum and Ocean Education Center. It will display the history of Azorean open boat whaling, as well as the vulnerable resource of the living whales who still reside offshore. Promoting whale protection on the local level has always been a key component of Interspecies Communication projects. Developing an Azorean center where residents and visitors can learn both about the ocean ecology and the whales is an important aspect of our work in the Azores.


Cachalot Naming

Whale Clicks

Whale Language