Darkwave - Underwater languages at the brink of extinction

Our oldest living ancestors 'speak' a language consisting of clicks, whistles, and pulsed calls. For whales and dolphins, acoustics is the glue of their society. But in the face of catastrophic environmental changes, that language is being lost or reshaped. IDEAS contributor Carrie Haber and the world's leading marine scientists take us into the oceans depths to plumb an enigmatic culture under siege.

Darkwave plumbs the mysteries of cetacean culture and communication (Shot by Ed Ou, edited by Carrie Haber)

6 years ago
Duration 1:29
Darkwave plumbs the mysteries of cetacean culture and communication (Shot by Ed Ou, edited by Carrie Haber)

Is there a whale culture? A voice? A mind? We humans find this idea compelling, and we always have. Ancient myths about whales and dolphins exist in every seafaring society. They have appeared as escorts of Aphrodite, Atargatis and Eros. As the saviours of the Maori, carrying New Zealand's first inhabitants onto the island. And of course, there is Eah-toop the right whale whose back formed the base of the universe for the Nuu-Chah-Nulth First Nation on Canada's West Coast.

But today whales are threatened by us, their language eroding through noise and climate change. Carrie Haber explores how marine scientists around the world are thinking about our evolutionary courtship with these magnificent mammals in the sea. **This episode originally aired September 28, 2016.

Whales have a huge ability to learn and modify sounds according to Dr. John Ford

"Until about ten or fifteen years ago it was a bit dangerous to talk about animal culture in scientific meetings. There were people who were bound to jump out of their chairs and say that human cultures are so different from the kinds of social conventions that developed with animals. So it's not useful to use the same word, it's not useful to compare them. I think that's pretty much gone away, now. With the sort of large-brained social species like whales, like some of the higher primates, we really constrain ourselves in terms of how we can think about them, if we start from the premise that they're fundamentally different from us and there are no lessons to learn from humans. So some of us, myself included, threw that idea out ten years ago at least. And said ok, well there are parallels to that which we can draw between the two kinds of species." – Lance Barrett-Lennard, Head of Cetacean research at the Vancouver Aquarium

Guests in the program:

  • Dr. Hal Whitehead, Professor, Department of Biology, Dalhousie University.

  • Dr. Robert Michaud, Founder, GREMM (Group for Research and Education on Marine Mammals).

Related Books & Websites: 

  • Flukebook - a social media network for whale watchers to report what they have seen.
  • Wild Whales
  • The Dominica Sperm Whale Project -The Dominica Sperm Whale Project is an innovative and integretive study of the world's largest toothed whale. Through thousands of hours of observation of sperm whale families, the population of whales in the Caribbean has given us the unique opportunity to come to know them as individuals within families. Our program is the first to have followed sperm whale families of whales across years. Now 10 years into the program, we have followed many calves from birth through weaning and we now know that some families have been using the region for decades. No sperm whale population has been this well characterized and the detailed behavioural histories of these individuals are rare among mammals, particularly in the ocean.
  • GREMM - Group for Research and Education on Marine Mammals (GREMM) is a non-profit organization dedicated to scientific whale research and marine conservation education.
  • Whales Online - source of all the latest news on the cetaceans of the St. Lawrence. 

Web Extra | Drone footage of adolescent male belugas socializing in Baie St. Marguerite (courtesy of Valeria Vergara, Vancouver Aquarium and Robert Michaud, GREMM )

Drone footage of adolescent male belugas socializing in Baie St. Marguerite

6 years ago
Duration 1:59
Drone footage of adolescent male belugas socializing in Baie St. Marguerite

Carrie Haber did not see a whale until well into adulthood but has been thinking about producing this story since reading Hal Whitehead's book, Voyage to the Whales in high school. Now a documentary series producer for CBC Television, Haber has worked as a writer, director, composer and editor for The National Film Board of Canada, has been a producer with UNHCR in Kenya, Osheaga Music Festival in Montreal and National Arts Centre Orchestra in Ottawa­. She makes her own strange tunes under the moniker, Craven Empires.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Account Holder

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?