Interspecies Communications

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A whale Call Primer

Beluga calls are as complex and varied as any human language. Here's some calls from a pod of 10 animals, recorded at Cunningham Inlet in the Canadian High Arctic.

Orcas vocalize a bit less variably, but with much more playfulness, and with an acute sensibility to pitch and timing. Here's a short call, to give an idea of how they sound.

This interaction with orca and guitar occurred off Port Hardy on Vancouver Island in 2002.

The cachalot, or sperm whale, has the largest brain of any animal to ever live on Earth. All of its vocalizations are clicks, even its social communication. They click almost all the time.

Dolphin calls vary remarkably from species to species. All their calls, exhibit clear signs of sophisticated communication. Here's an Amazon River dolphin:

Here's the call of a lag (i.e. Pacific White-sided dolphin).

And finally, here's a lag interaction with guitarist Jim Nollman

Whale Communication: The Potential for Language

From The Interspecies Newsletter


This is page 2 of a 4 part essay.

The image on the right is a wavelet graph of a single pseudorca whistle.

Many CDs utilize the magic of the multi-track recording studio to overdub the calls of various whale species onto classical, newage, and folk compositions. Humpback whale calls are by far the most common choice. A favorite of newage composers, humpback courting calls are haunting, and have been known to bring tears to people's eyes.

Other cetacean calls, including most of the toothed whales (i.e. odontocetes) are seldom used by composers. and even less less seldom heard by the general public. Orca calls are jazzy, edgy, and strident. Beluga calls are often dense and otherworldly, produced by a species with more discrete kinds of calls than any other animal. Dolphins are as high pitched as the hearing tests we all took as kids. The great whales — the blues, fins, bowheads, etc — sing low and monotone. is probably the only group in the world which regularly records interactive music with free swimming whales and dolphins out on the ocean. Over the past five years we have extended our original intent of encouraging interaction between species, to include a close scrutiny of how these various cetacean species may be using these calls among their own kind. Until twenty years ago, intraspecies communication was a field largely void of original discussion within the scientific community. Today, the meaning and interpretation of cetacean calls is one of the most intensely studied fields within the behavioral sciences.

Four Species and their potential for language

Orcas...are the largest member of the dolphin family. Orcas residing along the northeast shore of Vancouver Island communicate among their own kind using frequency-modulated whistles and echolocation clicks. The first term denotes melody; the second term, rhythm. Orca calls are musically complex in structure and remind some listeners of jazz soloing over chords. Almost everyone studying these animals agrees that orcas use their whistles and clicks to communicate with each other. For this same reason, has produced sixteen summers of sessions focused on making music with the wild orcas off western Canada. We have invited musicians of every persuasion to try to communicate directly to the orcas. For three summers, we invited Tibetan Lamas to transmit their Buddhist prayers directly to the whales. If you listen to the excerpts on this page, you will hear just how quickly the orcas are able to comprehend the structures and intentions of human music, and then improvise with musicians in a meaningful way. To do so, suggests an innate grasp of many of the same communication concepts. we know as humans.

Dolphins...possess at least the rudiments of a true language. And there are many species, all of which produce a bewildering number of calls. The Amazon River dolphin lives in fresh water. Lag dolphins inhabit colder oceans as far north as Alaska. When bottlenose dolphins communicate among themselves, the animals commence the sonic correspondence by vocalizing the unique signature whistle of the intended recipient. Apparently, individual dolphins are thus able to conduct a focused "discussion" even while many members of the pod are vocalizing. You can find more about dolphins in this article about animal communication.

Cachalots...or sperm whales are the only cetacean known to use echolocation clicks in a social context. We know this, because members of this species constantly interact with one other, yet never whistle. They only click. It is speculated that the resultant communication could include the physical modeling of echolocation, resulting in a kinetic, three dimensional vocabulary; essentially a holosonic-based language. Clicks are also rhythmical, and cognitive scientists studying sperm whales in the Canary Islands have recently demonstrated that this whales' language possesses many attributes in common with African tribal drumming. One well-known researcher is collaborating with a Senegalese drum master who, so far, is the only one able to discern individual whales by identifying the polythryhms of each whale's signature. This page, describes our own uncanny experience with these beings.

Beluga Whales...make more different kinds of sounds than any species except humans, leading some of the researchers who study them to conclude that of all animals, this species is the most likely to possess a true language. We at Interspecies spent three years, off and on, collaborating with a team from the Russian Academy of Science trying to devise techniques to test this hypothesis of language. We have also designed a software sampler to be triggered by the whales' themselves; with certain increments of delays triggering different macros that vary the response, essentially testing the acoustic sophistication of beluga communication. The only thing standing in the way of developing this tool is funding, which we actively seek. And how ironic, that the most likely candidate for ET living right here in the oceans of planet Earth now exists on the edge of extinction in many parts of its habitat. Beluga whales are hunted by Inuit in many parts of the Arctic.

The Editing Process

We at have recently digitized over seventy hours of audio tape of music with animals including turkeys, wolves, kangaroo rats, lemurs, as well as orcas and beluga whales. Almost all of it was recorded on various IC sponsored projects between 1976-2006. For the technically adept, the process consists of re-recording the original monaural cassettes onto a Mac. We filter the sound, primarily to eliminate noise caused by water current and wind. For underwater sound, the noise of nearby boats also poses a problem. To solve this, we always tried hard to limit our music-making schedule to late at night when boat noise dwindles.

Go to page 3 to learn more about the science of researching the communication of toothed whales.

To read about Interspecies' many projects with cetaceans, purchase Jim Nollman's book The Charged Border: Where Whales and Humans Meet.

You can also order the Orcas Greatest Hits CD and the Interspecies DVD on our products page.


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