“In the next ten years, the United States alone is going to spend 100 million dollars looking for signs of intelligent, non-human life in space. But there is already intelligent, non-human life and it’s right here on our planet, deep beneath the sea.”
— James Nester

Our understanding of whale communication is pointing us to extraordinary signs of their intelligence! Whales (like dolphins) use a kind of “clicking”, a lot like sonar, to form mental pictures of their surroundings and convey information to each other. And just how complex that information may be is a mystery that is starting to be revealed. Let’s see what scientists are finding!

A one second click from a sperm whale contains as many as 1,600 micro clicks of detailed, encoded information. And in addition to communication, that clicking allows the largest predator on the planet to send beams of energy right through their prey—seeing them from the inside out.

In this article, we’re going on on a little journey into the deep to learn how these creatures could be every bit as smart as we are. Unsure of this? Stay tuned.

Let’s dive in!

First up, a wonderful TED Talk by James Nester who has done some amazing “free diving” (deep diving without scuba gear) with sperm whales. He’s an author and journalist whose work you can find in some of EWC’s favorite, high-quality sources like Scientific American, NPR, and the New York Times.

James has appeared on more than 40 national radio and television shows ― including ABC’s Nightline, CBS Morning News, and dozens of NPR programs. In this TED Talk, James brings us on a journey we could not have gone on without him.

See what you think!

Fabulous work there, huh?

If you’d like to learn more and support this work, the research program exploring sperm whale communication is CETI. They’ve just been granted an exploratory seminar at Harvard in April 2019, so stay tuned for great strides in our knowledge base!

Here’s how the CETI Foundation describes their work:

CETI (Cetacean Echolocation Translation Initiative)

We develop and employ technologies such as machine-learning and AI to decipher the language of sperm whales.

Sperm whales have the largest brain of any creature to have ever lived on Earth. Scientists have known for decades that these animals transmit highly-sophisticated click communication, but they have not had the technology or methods to decipher sperm whale language.

CETI seeks to crack the code.

Sounds like yet another example of how thought leaders are using technology in new ways to kick the door open on possibility! Absolutely stunning work.

Sperm Whales’ Clicks

Additionally, a fascinating talk that James gave for the Long Now Foundation, called Humanity and the Deep Ocean, contains more great stories and science gathered from communing with sperm whales.

Important details about their big brains are beginning to be brought to light and should be raising eyebrows! Here’s just a short clip with a detail or two we didn’t ‘t want you to miss:

In that last clip, I couldn’t help but think about Mother Nature’s amazing design process.

You may know that every living being has been shaped by hundreds of millions of years of evolution and that’s going to preserve features that improve survival. So what are we to think of James’ comments about the whale having brain structures associated with conscious thought, future planning, and language in humans?

And how about the fact that they have far larger quantities of spindle cells than we do? Remember, those are the brain cells associated with compassion, love, and suffering in our brains.

Something to think about the next time you are star gazing.

So, how are sperm whales able to communicate like this?

Now to close out today’s article, I couldn’t resist this last short piece from the terrific BBC Earth. It’ll leave you with a lasting mental picture of your own as to how all this clicking works and why it was such a wondrous innovation in Sperm Whale design about 23 million years ago.

Thanks for diving deep with us today!

Want to expand your worldview?

You can access the entire talk James Nester gave that night for the Long Now Foundation, and others like that, on The Interval’s website. And if you are curious about the Long Now Foundation, your instincts are right! Check it out. It’s a great place to expand your world.

Oh! And I also discovered that James has a book out that gets 4 and a half stars from reviews on Amazon. His fascinating insights and great stories come from experiences while doing the research on DEEP. Here’s a link where you can have a look at DEEP: Freediving, Renegade Science, and What The Ocean Tells Us about Ourselves.

In fact, I ordered a copy for myself when I learned that DEEP was a BBC Book of the Week, a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice, a Scientific American Recommended Read, and has been translated into many languages.

Best of all, James reads the audiobook version himself and I’ve found that to be a huge bonus when authors have a knack for storytelling like James!

ADDENDUM: Three weeks after this article published, I had an 18-hour drive to tackle and when I pulled out of my driveway to start the journey I pushed “Play” on the audiobook DEEP. It was as if James was sitting beside me, telling the most extraordinary story the whole way! The book was so compelling and full of insights in areas I knew nothing about. If you are naturally curious about the wider world, this book will take you on a wonderful journey. James weaves together about 4 different disciplines, that bring one to a completely new vision of the “intelligent life” right here on our own blue orb.

As a disclaimer, I don’t know James except to have had exchanged some lovely emails with him. But his work just strikes us as well-worth supporting. Here’s a link if you’d like to further the insights of the CETI organization with a donation!


Image: A mother and baby sperm whale

Source: Wikimedia

A little more on dolphin and whale intelligence!

Want just one more remarkable piece of evidence to cement this notion of whale intelligence and emotions? Check out this article we wrote about a very unique encounter:

9 minutes

Saving the Life of a Humpback Whale

While out in the Sea of Cortez with friends, a whale conservationist came across a young humpback whale trapped in fishing nets, the incredible adventure that followed is an amazing testament to powerful connection we share with the natural world!

Read More

If you are inspired by all the possibility here, you’ll love an article we wrote about a woman who has been studying the same family of dolphins for 30 years. Further more, she’s on the verge of deciphering their “language” too! Check this out:

16 minutes

Communicating with WILD Dolphins

Imagine what it would really be like to understand the mind and communicate with another intelligent species on the planet. Dolphins may be the first.

Read More

Let’s close by revisiting the initial thought I posited at the beginning of this article and see if we understand the gravity of the possibilities here a lot better!

In the next ten years, the United States alone is going to spend 100 million dollars looking for signs of intelligent, non-human life in the skies. But there’s already intelligent, non-human life and it’s here on our planet deep beneath the sea. – James Nester

Stay open, hopeful and curious!

~ Dr. Lynda

Want to meet more of the brilliant animals that live alongside us?

Just jump into this category!

Animals on EWC


  1. “Deep Dive: What We Are Learning from the Language of Whales | James Nestor | TEDxMarin.” YouTube, TEDx Talks, 18 Oct. 2017, www.youtube.com/watch?v=JM77aTk1XyI&t=10s. Accessed 14 Sept. 2018.
  2. “Sperm Whales Clicking You Inside Out – James Nestor at The Interval.” YouTube, Long Now Foundation, 26 Apr. 2017, www.youtube.com/watch?v=zsDwFGz0Okg&t=8s. Accessed 14 Sept. 2018.
  3. “Feeling The Force of Sperm Whales Ultrasound | Super Giant Animals | BBC.” YouTube, BBC Earth, 11 Mar. 2016, www.youtube.com/watch?v=tw7E7owEBm8. Accessed 14 Sept. 2018.

Dr. Lynda is a dentist, artist, global traveler, and philanthropist who looks for potential and shares it with the world.

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