SETI's 1st 'conversation' with a humpback whale offers insight on how to talk to E.T.

An image of a whale's tail above water.
Scientists were able to communicate with a whale named Twain. (Image credit: Jodi Frediani)

Humpback whale "conversations" provide valuable insight on how humans may one day communicate with life beyond Earth. 

Researchers from the SETI Institute, University of California Davis and the Alaska Whale Foundation recently "conversed" with a humpback whale named Twain using an underwater speaker and recorded a humpback "contact" call. Twain responded to the researchers' call by matching the interval variations between signals of each playback call over a 20-minute period. 

If you're having a Star Trek flashback, yes, this is awfully reminiscent of that one film in which the crew receives alien whale transmissions that can only be decoded underwater. And in fact, mirroring our sci-fi fantasies, this demonstration of interspecies communication has implications for the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, according to a statement from the SETI Institute. 

"We believe this is the first such communicative exchange between humans and humpback whales in the humpback ‘language,'" Brenda McCowan, lead author of the study from U.C. Davis, said in the statement. 

Related: Why are we still searching for intelligent alien life?

Much like how astronaut crews simulate missions to Mars or the moon on Earth, the Whale-SETI team is studying humpback whale communication systems to better understand how to detect and interpret signals from outer space. Their findings can be used to develop filters that can be applied to any extraterrestrial signals received, according to the statement. 

"Because of current limitations on technology, an important assumption of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence is that extraterrestrials will be interested in making contact and so target human receivers," Laurance Doyle, coauthor of the study from the SETI Institute, said in the statement. "This important assumption is certainly supported by the behavior of humpback whales."

Twain's response to each playback call showcases a sophisticated level of understanding and interaction. The humpback whale approached and circled the team’s boat upon hearing the contact call played via an underwater speaker. Matching the interval variations between each call mirrors a human-like conversational style, according to the study. 

"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," Fred Sharpe, co-author of the study from the Alaska Whale Foundation, said in the statement. 

Therefore, working with humpback whales offers a unique opportunity to study intelligent communication in non-human species. The team will apply principles of information theory to develop filters that can aid in processing extraterrestrial signals and the search for intelligent life beyond Earth.

Their findings were published Nov. 29 in the journal PeerJ.

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Samantha Mathewson
Contributing Writer

Samantha Mathewson joined as an intern in the summer of 2016. She received a B.A. in Journalism and Environmental Science at the University of New Haven, in Connecticut. Previously, her work has been published in Nature World News. When not writing or reading about science, Samantha enjoys traveling to new places and taking photos! You can follow her on Twitter @Sam_Ashley13. 

  • Unclear Engineer
    I would think that we would have better chances of developing a real conversation with Orcas than with Humpback whales. They are more involved in things that we sort of understand. And, we have a long history of teaching them to do shows for humans.

    We just don't seem to "get" what they sometimes seem to be trying to tell us. For instance, Tilikum killed 3 people who worked with him. See . He was not "happy".

    But, having watched an Orca show at Sea World, I was impressed with the inter-species cooperation. The big act involved a swimmer diving underwater and the Orca swimming underneath, coming up under and balancing the swimmer standing on its nose, and then breaching the surface with the swimmer on its nose, and the swimmer finally jumping higher than the whale's maximum altitude, and both diving back through the surface in sync. It was spectacular, and it was done multiple times each week. There was some "communication" there, for sure - but apparently one-way - humans getting animals to understand what the humans wanted them to do.

    Currently, a wild Orca pod near the mouth of the Mediterranean Sea is going after boat rudders on large yachts, tearing them off, but not sinking the boats (although it sometimes creates holes that need to be blocked to avoid sinking), It seems to be the same pod of Orcas that have been doing this for months. See . Maybe we need to figure out how to ask them "Why are you doing that?" We probably would not like the answer. But, we probably should learn what it is about from the Orca's perspective. Right now, the debate is whether the pod matriarch is somehow mad at boats, or if this is just destructive play with no real message content.
  • Holy HannaH!
    I just really hope they name the whale communication system DORY.
    I dont know what it will be an acronym for but I'm sure those involved are intelligent enough to come up with something relevant.