New Projects Use AI to Teach Humans How to Speak Whale

Whale song has become one of the most interesting and mysterious areas of research in the natural world.


Science, Wildlife
Orca whales off the coast of Canada.

(slowmotiongli /

Whale song is hauntingly beautiful to listen to. While many believe whales only sing to attract a mate, there is a lot more communication in the series of clicks, squeaks and deep moans that are known as whale songs.

In the 1960s Dr. Roger Payne, an American biologist, made an incredible discovery, according to Mirage News. Certain species of whales vocalize in distinct complex patterns in order to communicate with each other. These vocalizations have excited and intrigued both researchers and laypeople alike since then. Now, two separate projects have undertaken the task of trying to decode the language of two types of whales; orcas and sperm whales.

Purpose unknown

Though discovered nearly 60 years ago, the purpose of whale song is still an area of intense research. It seems clear that it serves some sort of social purpose, as the songs change over time and vary from population to population. However, the exact purpose is not yet known. 

Another potential reason for whale song could be emotional expression. Scientists already know that birds sometimes sing just for the fun of it. There is no reason why whales couldn’t do this as well. 

Two projects
Now, two distinct projects are hoping to solve this mystery, according to Atmos. One project that is being conducted by  HALLO (Humans and Algorithms Listening to Orcas) is studying a family pod of orcas named the Southern Residents.  Members of the Southern Residents tend to spend their time around Seattle, Washington, Vancouver, British Columbia, and the Strait of Juan de Fuca. 

The goal of the orca project is to be able to recognize members of the southern residents family group by call, and as such be able to track the pod in real time. Knowing where the whales are could help keep this endangered family alive. The waters they traverse are along the routes of major international shipping lines. If the presence of the orcas is noted ships could be told to quiet their engines and slow down, avoiding collisions and allowing the orcas the relative silence they need to hunt. 

On the other side of the continent, Project CETI (the Cetacean Translation Initiative) is studying sperm whales off the coast of Dominica in the Caribbean. CETI’s attempts to go even further. The goal, according to the researchers is to not only track and organize sperm whale calls, but to decode them as well, and create what would be essentially a dictionary of sperm whale language. 

For me anyway, Project CETI is about listening to what’s important to the whales and trying to understand what that is and why,” Dr. Shane Gero, a marine biologist at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada and Project CETI’s field biology lead told Atmos. 

Though the projects are studying two different types of whales, and have slightly different goals, they are both using similar methods.  Both are using artificial intelligence, to help them detect patterns in the various noises the whales they are studying are making. This in turn, could help them categorize and define them. 

Both CETI and HALLO are excellent examples of how innovative technology can be harnessed to help humans better understand and appreciate the natural world around them. 

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