Blue Planet 2: Can We Ever Learn How to Speak to Whales and Dolphins?

Posted on January 5, 2018


Marine scientists have dreamt of speaking to cetacean species – dolphins and whales – for decades. But how far have we really come since the 1960s in understanding how they communicate and what they are saying?

Sperm whales have the largest brain of any creature.

Scientists like marine biologist Dr Luke Rendell of St Andrews University in Scotland have worked long and hard to create an intimate understanding of the lives and communication of cetacean species such as whales and dolphins. But to imagine that one day we would be able to speak to them in their native tongue is, he says, a huge misconception.

“If you were to look at scientific literature, apart from echolocation signals which have been studied quite a lot because the military are interested in them, you would not actually be able to find a single marine mammal communication call where its function has been unambiguously decoded,” he says. “It is all informed speculation and guesswork.”

Rendell has extensively studied the culture of whales and dolphins and teaches others how to understand their behaviour, revealing the dynamics of species’ cultural transmission and social learning. He mixes game theory with theoretical investigations into the evolution of learning and is co-author of The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins with biologist Hal Whitehead. But his true passion is studying ocean mammals in their natural environment.

Dominica Sperm Whale Project

The Dominica Sperm Whale Project is one of the groups featured in the BBC programme Blue Planet II. Rendell started working with the project in 2005 under the leadership of behavioural ecologist Shane Gero from Aarhus University in Denmark. Over the years Gero has built up a detailed picture of sperm whale behaviour by studying whale families in the waters off this small Caribbean nation.

“Dominica is a high island with mountains so you get this lea of calm water behind it and the sperm whales seem to like it,” says Rendell. “The population is relatively small so Shane has been able to build up a really good idea of the different groups and their social networks.”

It’s not hard to understand Rendell’s fascination with the species. The sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus) is the largest toothed whale and has the largest brain of any creature on Earth. They are found in every ocean and are among the deepest and longest divers. Each year sperm whales eat as much squid as all of the biomass removed from the oceans by all of the modern human fisheries combined.

Sperm whales can live for longer than 70 years, form lifelong relationships and family units, and look after each others babies. Traditions are passed down through the generations and they create their own communal dialects. Their lives are rich and complex and they have distinct cultures, in some cases living in multicultural societies. Off the coast of Dominica there are 20 different whale families and they have a preference for those that they mix with that has been shown to endure over decades. They are intelligent and highly socially aware creatures.

Song of the Whale

As an undergraduate in marine zoology Rendell caught the bug working as an intern aboard the International Fund for Animal Welfare’s research vessel ‘Song of the Whale’. “We were following groups of sperm whales around, listening to them on hydrophones and watching them interact,” he explains. “You hear their codas – patterns of clicks – like two people knocking on doors, in the deep ocean. You wonder what on earth is going on and I was bitten by the curiosity to find out.”

“Sperm whales are mysterious animals and relatively little is known about them, so everything we learn is fascinating,” says Rendell. “They appear to have complex societies and communication, but what I am really interested in is understanding the evolution of complex aspects of behaviour, whether through social learning or cultural transmission, and how they use vocalisation to mediate their social structure.

“We have language and no other species has language like we do, but sperm whales have vocal communication in varying degrees of complexity, with features that match some of what we see in humans.”

Rendell also helps run the Balearic Sperm Whale Project looking at the endangered population in the Mediterranean Sea. “You can’t understand these species without looking at their vocal behaviour or social structure, or the way they learn behaviour from each other,” he says. “The big question is what are the evolutionary forces that drive them towards these abilities like cultural transmission or communication, and why is it that they have made this leap.”

Cetacean species show highly developed cognition but how does the whale or dolphin’s evolutionary journey match that of humans? How should we gauge a dolphin’s intellect exactly? “You have to get away from this idea of a ladder, that we are at the top then there are monkeys, apes, dolphins and all the way down to the ants,” says Rendell. “These species are evolving in their own unique trajectories.

“If dolphins were to arrange the ladder they might do it by the ability to echolocate, in which case we would be mid-table below all the toothed whales and bats because we are rubbish at it. They are evolving in response to specific ecological and environmental pressures that they experience. The experience of finding food in often dark or murky water led to the evolution of echolocation.

“We can ask questions like what do species who live in stable societal groups have in common – do they have group specific vocal dialects? Is evidence strong enough so we can draw an evolutionary link between those two things? We might say that whatever it is that causes species to live in stable groups also seems to result in vocal dialects and there seems to be an evolutionary connection between those factors.

“We try to build up a picture of the evolutionary background as to how these abilities came about, rather than saying ‘what level are these guys at?’ because that is a misconception about evolution and a natural one that people fall into easily – that animals have got to this level and stopped evolving and humans are the ones to have climbed to the top. It is much more like the branches of a tree growing off in different directions. We need to understand more about what shapes the form of those branches.”

A more interesting question about cetacean language and communication is what it teaches us about our own languages and societies, says Rendell. One of the best studied systems is the bottlenose dolphin’s signature whistle. Each dolphin produces a unique whistle and it seems that females develop whistles that are different to their mothers but males develop ones that are quite similar.

“We have some insight into how they use them in the wild – when groups are meeting for example – but there are a whole bunch of other sounds where we have no idea of their function. They use the contours of those frequency whistles and can recognise them readily. They respond more to whistles of dolphins that they know than those they don’t. Are we looking at some type of referential system, are they able to link the contours with particular individuals? That is the working hypothesis.”

Margaret Lovatt in the dolphin house with Peter.

Polarising Science

Any insight will only be realised by careful painstaking work. And that is where some of the science around dolphin communication has suffered from association with figureheads like John Lilly. An American neuroscientist, physician and psychoanalyst, John Cunningham Lilly is acknowledged as an important but polarising figure in dolphin studies. Back in 1960 he said that dolphins would be able to understand human speech within two decades.

In 1965 he set up a house with an indoor pool containing a bottlenose dolphin called Peter and his young assistant Margaret Howe Lovatt. They were to live there for 10 weeks, eating, sleeping, washing and playing intimately together to test this hypothesis. The experiment not only failed, it was stained by the sexual relationship that Lovatt struck up to put the dolphin at ease. Most astounding perhaps was the fact that Peter and Margaret lived for the entire period in isolation.

Lilly was an inner explorer as much if not more than a scientific trailblazer. He regularly used psychedelic drugs and isolation tanks and thought dolphins were telepathic and could teach us how to live in outer space in zero gravity.

“John Lilly has certainly been influential,” says Rendell. “The sort of things he was doing and saying towards the end of his life have been a massive burden for people. They have to constantly work against this myth that they are all studying cetacean behaviours while taking a lot of LSD and going on these crazy trips.”

But we should take nothing away from the work he did into dolphin communication at the beginning of his studies, says Rendell. “He listened to and described the sounds back in the 1950s and early 60s and it was ground-breaking stuff,” he says. “He was one of the first people to go and record these sounds and to notice that researchers seemed to be able to imitate them, and from that think about how we could stimulate them to make these whistles.

“If you look at any pictures of him from the second half of the 1960s he looks like a regular scientist, he has the dolphins in captivity and is doing various experiments with them and listening to them.”

Lilly became interested in the workings of a dolphin’s brain and then did work that was so invasive that it would not receive ethical approval now. “There are pictures of him restraining a dolphin in a tank and sticking live electric wires on its head to try and get it to whistle,” says Rendell. “He quickly left that work behind and started talking about inter-species communication. That was taken over by researchers who eventually described the signature whistle of bottlenose dolphins and he dropped out of it.”

It became even more unscientific in the second half of his career when his ideas emerged about exploring consciousness through dolphins and humans taking LSD, says Rendell, and it then took decades to get out from under Lilly’s shadow. “It made cetacean biology a ‘subject non-grata’ for many biologists,” he says.

Language Technology

The way that scientists record underwater communication is to use a d-tag: a digital recording tag with a small acoustic recorder, containing pitch-roll, heading and depth sensors so that researchers can recreate what the animal was doing along with a record of the sounds it was making.

But the Wild Dolphin Project which works with dolphins in the Bahamas – where the waters are clear enough for visual interaction – uses a different method to try and crack the code of their communication. The group has developed a small shoebox-sized device known as cetacean hearing and telemetry (CHAT) which divers can wear strapped to their chest. It has a keyboard and two hydrophones and can broadcast pre-recorded signature whistles to the dolphins as well as any responses they make in return.

Research director Denise Herzing described CHAT at a TED 2013 talk. She believes that by playing with dolphins in their natural environment, using objects that dolphins interact with already, they will be able to build a common (though artificial) language so that humans and dolphins can understand one another.

“Once they get it — like Helen Keller getting language — we think it’s going to go very rapidly,” said Herzing to National Geographic. “Because they’re social, we’re capitalising on other individuals watching. It’s like kids on a playground.”

Rendell is impressed, but reserves judgement about the technology and methodology of the Wild Dolphin Project. “This is a longitudinal study and they have had known individuals in that population for a long time.” he says. “They can quantify aspects of their behaviour: it is a really powerful study.

“They have obtained some really good insights into some aspects of ecology and if they analyse the videos carefully they can learn about aspects relevant to conservation. I’m not so convinced with the idea that they are going to study dolphin cognition using a two-way interactive keyboard. The main problem is that to the extent that they are seeking to establish inter-species communication, they are working on a very anthropocentric assumption that there is something that we would recognise and be able to engage with that is just waiting to be discovered.

“It’s the idea that they are all just speaking a language like Spanish and we just have to figure out what the language is, then ‘boom’ we’ll have this enlightenment moment and there will be inter-species communication. I think it is a flawed assumption. There is no evidence for it at all: no evidence for a recursive syntactical structure, the grammar that you associate with human language. The assumption that therefore there is something waiting to be discovered that we would recognise and be able to interact with linguistically is shaky.”

Bottlenose dolphins in Hawaii.

Deeply Different

So the idea that we will be able to talk with the animals is based on a very human misunderstanding: our idea of language is too human-centred. Dolphins and whales have wildly differing types of communities and local dialects. Trying to study language by raising a dolphin entirely in captivity would not work because, apart from the species being protected in law around the world, it would have the same effect as if you raised a human in an equivalent way. The animal’s language would be stunted by its limited environment, social interaction and experiences.

“There are certain things that are common across all mammals so the developmental trajectory of a dolphin that is raised in a small captive group is very different to one that is raised in the wild,” says Rendell. “There is also variation in the wild. Some dolphins are born into oceanic groups, which might have hundreds or thousands of individuals and some are born into bays where there are communities of 80.

“We have been able to study signature whistles in captivity and see very common things with studies that have happened in the wild as well. What is hard to get across is how deeply ignorant we are, how little we know.”

This article is based on a previously unpublished interview with Luke Rendell.