Scientists played a whale call into the ocean. A whale answered

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For almost 40 years now, the SETI Institute has been doing what its name implies — searching for extra-terrestrial intelligence. But with no definitive sign of aliens yet, the group recently turned to the next nearest thing – searching for terrestrial intelligence.

And they found some in that other frontier, the oceans. This year, researchers from SETI, the University of California Davis and the Alaska Whale Foundation had a conversation with a humpback whale.

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“We believe this is the first such communicative exchange between humans and humpback whales in the humpback ‘language,’” said Dr. Brenda McCowan, a professor of veterinary medicine at U.C. Davis, in a press release.

The team took to the seas in a research vessel called the Blue Pearl, and played a recorded humpback whale contact call – also known as a “whup/throp” call – through an underwater speaker. In response, a female humpback whale named Twain, who has been known to scientists since the 1980s, approached the boat and answered the call.

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During the 20-minute close encounter of the cetacean kind, Twain responded to each playback call and matched the interval variations between each signal, suggesting the kind of turn-taking that is also a hallmark of human conversations.

“Because of current limitations on technology, an important assumption of the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence is that extra-terrestrials will be interested in making contact and so target human receivers,” said Dr. Laurance Doyle of the SEI Institute. “This important assumption is certainly supported by the behaviour of humpback whales.”

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The team has released its findings in the journal Peer J, under the title “Interactive bio-acoustic playback as a tool for detecting and exploring nonhuman intelligence: ‘conversing’ with an Alaskan humpback whale.” (These papers never have snappy titles.) They are planning a follow-up report on non-audio communications by whales, including the rings of bubbles they sometimes produce in the presence of – and possibly for – humans.

In the absence of aliens, humans have often had to make do with talking to themselves. In May, SETI arranged for a coded message to be sent to Earth from a Mars-orbiting spacecraft, then invited those on this planet to download and decipher the call. The code has not yet been cracked, although some participants have likened the message to whale clicks.

The humpback conversation also recalls two science fiction films about alien contact. In 1977’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, scientists communicate with an alien race through musical phrases that are copied and passed back and forth.

And in Star Trek: The Voyage Home, from 1986, the Enterprise crew must bring a 20th-century humpback whale to the future in order for it to communicate with an alien probe that is threatening Earth.

That film also imagines that humpback whales have gone extinct by the 23rd century, a calamity researchers at SETI and elsewhere are eager to avoid. With luck, communication may lead to greater preservation of the species.

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