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Understanding the language of whales

Whales, the largest mammals on Earth, are a highly evolved species. They live in matriarchal units consisting of mothers, daughters and grandmothers. Males are ostracized from the group after reaching adolescence and they travel towards the poles until they are ready to breed. Females are said to baby sit each other’s offspring while mothers are away diving and they form a strong social community.

As part of Dominica Sperm Whale Project, Dr. Whitehead and his team have been studying sperm whales in the Caribbean Pacific islands for years. One of the aims of the project is to study whale calls and interpret the various phrases and dialects of sperm whale community. Sperm whales make patterns of clicks called ‘codas’ while diving. Not only codas mean different things but whales can decipher the source from their sound pattern. Codas have different accents just like human pronunciation and whales have the ability to differentiate them.

Sperm whales can dive to depths of more than 1,000m and are dependent on sound for communication and navigation in the pitch black of the deep water. These whales also have their own regional dialects but the pattern of five evenly spaced clicks are said to be common among whales throughout the world. Baby sperm whales babble at first just like humans but slowly acquire the family repertoire of sound pattern over a period of time. The Dominica Sperm Whale Project hopes to unravel the fascinating but complex social lives of sperm whale including how calves acquire the family dialect. The evolution of sperm whale communities over time is also part of the study. Increasing human activity in the ocean depths like oil drilling create noise pollution hindering natural communication between whales.

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