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Can We Learn To Talk With Whales? Introducing Project CETI

Inspired by “search for extraterrestrial intelligence” or SETI, project leader Dr. David Gruber and an eclectic band of scientists and researchers seek to decipher the language of sperm whales, which might be described as enigmatic aliens living in our midst. To do this, they are applying the latest technology including AI, cryptography, machine learning, and robotics.

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Header image: Sperm whales socializing. Photo by Brian J. Skerry

Companion story: Exploring Whale Culture: An Interview With NatGeo Photojournalist Brian Skerry

Project CETI (Cetacean Translation Initiative), a non-profit organization, with the help of the 2020 TED Audacious Project, is applying advanced machine learning and gentle robotics to decipher the communication of the world’s most enigmatic ocean species: the sperm whale. In interpreting their voices and hopefully communicating back, we aim to show that today’s most cutting-edge technologies can be used to benefit not only humankind, but other species on this planet. By enabling humans to deeply understand and protect the life around us, we thereby redefine our very understanding of the word “we.”

As with the Earthrise photo from Project Apollo, CETI’s discoveries and progress have the potential to significantly reshape humanity’s understanding of its place on this planet. By regularly sharing our findings with the public—through partners like the National Geographic Society—CETI will generate a deeper wonder for Earth’s matrix of life on earth, and provide a uniquely strong boost to the new phase of broader environmental movement.

Founded and led by scientists, CETI has brought together leading cryptographers, roboticists, linguists, AI experts, technologists and marine biologists to:

● Develop the most delicate robotics technologies, including partnership with National Geographic Society’s Exploration Technology Lab to listen to whales and put their sounds into context.

● Deploy a “Core Whale Listening System,” a novel hydrophone array to study a population of whales in a 20×20 kilometer field site.

● Build on substantial data on the whales’ sounds, social lives, and behavior already obtained by the Dominica Sperm Whale Project.

● Create a bespoke, big data pipeline to examine the recorded data and decode it using advanced machine learning, natural language processing and data science.

● Launch a public interface, data visualization, communications platform and leadership initiative in collaboration with key partners to engage and foster the global community.

WHY SPERM WHALES?

Sperm whales have the largest brains of any species and share traits strikingly similar to humans. They have higher-level functions such as conscious thought and future planning, as well as speech and feelings of compassion, love, suffering and intuition. They live in matriarchal and multicultural societies and have dialects and strong multigenerational family bonds. Modern whales have been great stewards of the ocean environment for more than 30 million years, having been here for five times longer than the earliest hominids. Our understanding of these animals is just beginning.



WHY NOW?

In the late 1960s, scientists, including principal CETI advisor Dr. Roger Payne, discovered that whales sing to one another. His recordings, Songs of the Humpback Whale, sparked the “Save the Whales” movement, one of the most successful conservation initiatives in history. The campaign eventually led to the Marine Mammal Protection Act that marked the end of large-scale whaling and saved several whale populations from extinction.

All this by just hearing the sounds of whales. Imagine what would happen if we could understand them and communicate back. For the first time in history, advances in engineering, artificial intelligence and linguistics have made it possible to understand the communication of whales and other animals more substantially. Our species is at a critical juncture, one where we can work together with the help of compassionate technologies to build a brighter, more connective and equitable future. CETI also hopes to provide a blueprint for future ambitious, collaborative initiatives that can help us on this journey.

Figure 1: An interdisciplinary approach to sperm whale communication that integrates  biology, robotics, machine learning, and linguistics expertise, and comprise the following key  steps. Record: collect large-scale longitudinal multi-modal dataset of whale communication  and behavioral data from a variety of sensors. Process: reconcile and process the multi sensor data. Decode: using machine learning techniques, create a model of whale  communication, characterize its structure, and link it to behavior. Encode & Playback: conduct interactive playback experiments and refine the whale language model. Illustration  © 2021 Alex Boersma.
Figure 2: Sperm whale bioacoustic system. A: Sperm whale head contains the  spermaceti organ (c), a cavity filled with almost 2,000 litres of wax-like liquid, and the junk  compartment (f), comprising a series of wafer-like bodies believed to act as acoustic lenses.  The spermaceti organ and junk act as two connected tubes, forming a bent, conical horn of  about 10m in length and 0.8m aperture in large mature males. The sound emitted by the  phonic lips (i) in the front of the head is focused by traveling through the bent horn,  producing a flat wavefront at the exit surface. B: Typical temporal structure of sperm whale  echolocation and coda clicks. Echolocation signals are produced with consistent inter-click  intervals (of approximately 0.4 sec) while coda clicks are arranged in stereotypical  sequences called ‘codas’ lasting less than 2 sec. Codas are characterized by the different  number of constituent clicks and the intervals between them (called inter-click intervals or  ICIs). Codas are typically produced in multiparty exchanges that can last from about 10  seconds to over half an hour. Each click, in turn, presents itself as a sequence of equally spaced pulses, with inter-pulse interval (IPI) of an order of 3-4 msec in an adult female,  which is the result of the sound reflecting within the spermaceti organ. Illustration © 2021  Alex Boersma.
Figure 3: Comparative size of datasets used for training NLP models (represented by  the circle area). GPT-3 is only partially visible, while the dataset of the Dominica Sperm  Whale Project is a tiny dot on this plot (located at the center of the dashed circle). Shown in  
red is the estimated size of a new dataset planned to be collected in Dominica by Project  CETI, an interdisciplinary initiative for cetacean communication interpretation. The estimate  is based on the assumption of nearly continuous monitoring of 50-400 whales. The estimate  assumes 75-80% of their vocalizations constituting echolocation clicks, and 20-25% being  coda clicks. A typical Caribbean whale coda has 5 clicks and lasts 4 sec (including a silence  between two subsequent codas), yielding a rate of 1.25 clicks/sec. Overall, we estimate it  would be possible to collect between 400M and 4B clicks per year as a longitudinal and  continuous recording of bioacoustic signals as well as detailed behavior and environmental  data.
Figure 4: Schematic of whale bioacoustic data collection with multiple data sources by  several classes of assets. These include tethered buoy arrays (b), which track the whales in  a large area in real-time by continuously transmitting their data to shore (g), floaters (e), and  robotic fishes (d)Tags (c) attached to whales can possibly provide the most detailed  bioacoustic and behavioral data. Aerial drones (a) can be used to assist tag deployment  (a1), recovery (a2) and provide visual observation of the whales (a3). The collected  multimodal data (1) has to be processed to reconstruct a social network of sperm whales.  The raw acoustic data (2) has to be analyzed by ML algorithms to detect (3) and classify (4)  clicks. Source separation and identification (5) algorithms would allow reconstructing  multiparty conversations by attributing different clicks to the whales producing them.  Illustration © 2021 Alex Boersma.

Additional Resources:

Meet The Project CETI Team

Cornell University: Cetacean Translation Initiative: a roadmap to deciphering the communication of sperm whales by the current scientific members of Project CETI collaboration. April 2021

Harvard School of Engineering: Talking with whales

Project aims to translate sperm whale calls April 2021

National Geographic: Groundbreaking effort launched to decode whale language. With artificial intelligence and painstaking study of sperm whales, scientists hope to understand what these aliens of the deep are talking about. April 2021

National Geographic: David Gruber: Researching with respect and a gentler touch—National Geographic Explorer David Gruber and his team are taking a delicate approach to understanding sperm whales. March 2021

TED Audacious: What if we could communicate with another species? SEP 2020

Simons Institute: Sperm Whale Communication: What we know so far/ Understanding Whale Communication: First steps AUG 2020 with David Gruber

Community

Resurrecting a Ghost: The Launch of Ghost Diving USA

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By Katie McWilliams. Photos courtesy of Ghost Diving USA unless noted. Header image by Jim Babor

Ghost Diving, formerly Ghost Fishing, has officially arrived in the United States. Naming Southern California as home for the United States chapter is not an expansion to a new territory; instead, it is a warm welcome home after a long journey. 

Ghost Fishing first arrived in Southern California in the mid 2000s spearheaded by Karim and Heather Hamza. Their team, a group of volunteer technical divers, set out to improve the health and viability of the Southern California waters. The team started with the Infidel, a sunken squid fishing vessel near Catalina Island in 45 m/150 ft. They diligently worked to clean the Infidel which took almost two years. This victory was huge for their effort. Sadly, due to lack of funding, they were unable to continue other projects. Despite this hardship and some time away from their pursuit of the ghosts, Karim and Heather are back and more motivated than ever. 

Heather’s passion is deeply rooted in her mission to advocate for animals. This passion has helped her to push through and focus on advocating for the animals that are often unseen. The marine life that goes undetected but is ever threatened in our oceans. These are the animals Heather makes very certain to see. Her passion and love for them is palpable; it radiates from her like the warmth of a sunny day. It beckons you to join her cause. This is what keeps the fire alive in her heart for Ghost Diving. She knows that she can turn the collection of nets and her experiences into educational opportunities. Heather’s aspirations for Ghost Diving USA include continuing to educate others regarding the threat of abandoned and discarded fishing gear, seeking legislative solutions to the problem, and ultimately, building an informed and empowered community that takes care of our oceans.

Karim thrives in situations that require precision and accuracy. He explains that for him, this new era of Ghost Diving is providing a fresh opportunity to build a community of elite divers that share a passion for and commitment to a great cause. He has the knowledge and experience to help train and mentor divers along their path to becoming ghost divers and intends to give all he can to the process. He wants to bring to fruition teams of divers who trust not only each other but also the process, as well as high training standards and passion for the cause. As Karim described all the things that a ghost diver needs to be, one of the original team members immediately sprang to mind, Jim Babor. 

Jim recounted the arduous process that is becoming a ghost diver and being active with projects. He started with the project as a safety diver. The deep team would come up from the dive to the nets, and Jim would ascend with them through their scheduled decompression. He then progressed into his technical training and began photographing and documenting the work the divers were doing. Jim shared something that truly captures the essence of the passion needed to be a ghost diver. When asked about some of his most memorable incidents, he recounted the amazing experience of rescuing live animals by cutting them out of nets they were trapped in.. When asked what it felt like to cut an animal out of the net and watch it swim away, Jim was simply at a loss for words. We spoke on the phone and despite Jim’s reflective pause as he gathered his thoughts, it was apparent that the experience resonates with him on a deep level rooted in compassion. For Jim, the Ghost Diving USA launch brings his commitment and journey as a ghost diver full circle.  

Helping to lead Ghost Diving USA into the future is scientific coordinator Norbert Lee, Scuba instructor, marine biologist, and active technical diver. To speak to Norbert is to feel his can-do attitude and realize his aspirations are rooted in protecting and fostering the growth of the underwater world while educating the community about ocean conservation. More importantly, his strong sense of commitment to the team effort shines through everything. In asking Norbert about his journey to becoming the US chapter coordinator, he cited the significance of the mentorship he has and continues to receive. This mentorship comes from a variety of sources including Pascal van Erp, the Hamzas and Jim Babor. 

Norbert Lee’s goal is to collect data about the environmental impact of ghost nets and how their removal impacts the health and growth of a given area. By collecting this data, he is confident he can help to educate the community about the true impact of abandoned fishing gear. He does not want to stop with nets. He wants to help recover lobster pots and other fishing apparatus that continue to catch fish after being left behind. Through educating the community, he does not want to villainize or chastise commercial fishing but rather to build working, symbiotic relationships with fishermen. By working together, Norbert hopes to have the nets removed before they do irreversible damage. 

The Founding of Ghost Diving

Pascal van Erp has a commanding grasp on the issue of abandoned fishing gear. As the founder of Ghost Diving. Pascal’s passion has built a formidable and forward-thinking movement. Speaking to Pascal is a unique experience. He exudes a quiet confidence that only time and experience can build. In researching his work to prepare for his visit and subsequent presentations, it became quite apparent that Pascal is consistent in his message. The message is that Ghost Diving breathes new life into abandoned nets that can be recycled or upcycled. To reuse and upcycle the nets means to actively contribute to the health of the planet for today and more importantly, future generations. 

Next, Pascal emphasizes Ghost Diving is dangerous. He explains that the dangers are not always apparent. Instead, they lurk in the shadows cast by ghost nets. Team dynamics are not only critical but a matter of life and death. Pascal frequently mentions the significance of trust. The ability to trust teammates to maintain composure in the face of adversity. Trusting that if something goes wrong, they can and will continue to problem solve. Trusting that they can and will save your life. The team must always perform at the highest levels. It is critical that the dive is executed according to plan and that the procedure is applied with absolute fidelity. The nets do not discriminate between human life and marine life. They are not forgiving. A diver can meet an untimely fate in the grasp of a ghost net. 

Ghost Diving USA provides a unique and exciting opportunity by planting its roots here. With support from Zen Dive Co., ghost divers will have access to equipment, standard gasses and service that will meet all their needs while ensuring the quality and reliability of these resources. While funding issues had previously plagued Ghost Fishing, the Ghost Diving partnership with Healthy Seas along with other community sponsors helps to ensure the security of the critical funding that makes these projects possible. 

Launching Ghost Diving USA

Zen Dive Co. hosted a launch event for Ghost Diving USA on Thursday, April 28. The energy in the building was electric. Everyone was thrilled to network, build community, and work towards supporting Ghost Diving USA in any possible way. Karim opened the evening by describing the net diving mission that the ghost divers had gone on earlier in the day. He explained in detail that the Moody, a Wickes class destroyer, sits at approximately 45m/150 ft. Conditions at sea were challenging. Spring is a rough season in Southern California. Variable winds cause large swells, and upwellings bring up life giving nutrients. Unfortunately, both phenomena significantly reduce visibility. This dive was no exception. Karim described a thick green cloud in the shallower depths cutting visibility to 4.5–6 m/15–20 ft. This green cloud blocked out all ambient light as the ghost divers descended, and then cutting the nets only made visibility worse. Essentially, there was no ambient light, and visibility quickly became next to zero. The ghost divers were forced to rely upon the light they brought with them. Despite the challenges, the net clean-up was successful, but the work is far from done. The ghost divers will have to return to remove more net. 

Pascal made a brief presentation about the problem of ghost nets. It was incredible to experience a room full of people feeling compelled to act, and everyone looking for the way they could best support the mission. Veronika Mikos of Healthy Seas helped to drive the point home when she explained that through partnerships with organizations such as Bracenet and Aquafil, the recycling and upcycling of nets can help to significantly reduce carbon emissions. Additionally, as the ability to recycle nets and the products made from nets grows, they become sustainable and renewable. The yarn made from the nets can be processed infinitely and never loses quality. 

The most precious resource to any of these projects is manpower. Volunteers. People willing to train hard, think of the many versus the one and ultimately focus on safety. A ghost diver is a technical diver that has successfully completed a series of training workshops that help to best prepare them for what they will experience on a net retrieval dive. The workshops also serve to build team cohesion. Pascal and Karim both explain that the need to work with technical divers is not to be exclusionary. Ghost divers need to be able to handle any situation that may arise at any moment. Technical divers are trained to do exactly that. 

For recreational divers and non-divers alike, there is a place for everyone. Ghost divers cannot do what they do without support. Jim shared with me that his son, middle-school-aged at the time, used to volunteer as surface support. He and a friend would help to bring nets onto the boat and then search through them meticulously for any trapped marine life that could be released back into the ocean. Not only did his son help to raise awareness through multiple award-winning science projects, but he also became a diver crediting his experience helping with ghost nets. The Hamzas and Norbert hope to grow Ghost Diving USA to include recreational limit projects that allow for the training and participation of recreational divers. 

Ghost Diving USA is hitting the ground running. If you are looking for a way to get involved, a great place to start is to follow them on their social media pages. They are on Facebook and Instagram as Ghost Diving USA or @GhostDivingUSA. If you would like to inquire about the application process, you can reach the USA chapter via email at info@ghostdivingusa.org

You can also act right now. Learn about what abandoned fishing gear does to our oceans and talk to others about it. Through raising awareness, you can help remind people that while the surface of the ocean is beautiful, it is what is below the surface that desperately needs our help.

Photo by Sean Farkas

Additional Resources

Ghost Diving International:https://ghostdiving.org
Aquafil:https://www.aquafil.com
Bracenet:https://bracenet.net/en
Healthy Seas:https://www.healthyseas.org
Alert Diver:Ghost Fishing by Michael Menduno. The story of Heather Hamza and her team (2014).


Katie McWilliams is an avid diver, spending every spare moment she can in the water. Currently completing her divemaster and training for her technical pass, she wants to not only further her education and ability to explore the ocean but help with the training of divers. Specifically, Katie wants to focus on spreading awareness of how we can help the health and conservation of the oceans and marine life. Outside of diving, Katie works in moderate/severe special education. She enjoys reading, exercise, off-roading, camping and spending time with her husband, family and friends. 

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