A Conversation With Whales
By James Nestor
The New York Times Op-Docs and Annapurna Pictures are presenting a virtual-reality film, “The Click Effect,” about the free-diving researchers in this Opinion essay. To view it, download the NYT VR app on your mobile device, if you don’t already have it. (Go here for Android, and here for iPhone.)
I HELD MY BREATH AND SWAM DEEPER, 10, 20, 30 feet. I heard a thunderous crack, then another, so loud they vibrated my chest. Below my kicking feet, two sperm whales emerged from the shadows, each as long as a school bus.
The cracking was coming from the whales; it’s a form of sonar called echolocation that species of dolphins, whales and other cetaceans use to “see” underwater. With these vocalizations, called clicks, the whales were snapping three-dimensional images of my body, and those of my diving companions, from the inside out — scanning us to see if we were a threat, or if we were food.
As we kicked down deeper, within just a few feet of the mother whale’s gaping mouth, the click patterns changed, becoming slower, softer. They sounded to me like “coda clicks,” the sounds sperm whales use to identify themselves to others in the pod. The whales were probably introducing themselves. They were saying hello.
Fabrice Schnöller, a French engineer with a degree in biology, was leading the dive. For the past six years, he has traveled the world’s oceans seeking out these face-to-face encounters. His goal is to record close-up audio and video data of sperm whales passing one another coda clicks, which he believes contain coded information, possibly a language.