non-human intelligence
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Contact with Non-Human Intelligence of the Aquatic Kind: Will Extraterrestrials be Next?

In popular culture, an abundance of movies and literature explore humanity’s desire to communicate with non-human intelligence, whether existing here on Earth or in the form of civilizations from other galaxies.

Now, a team of scientists including researchers with the SETI Institute recently claimed to have established communication with a form of non-human aquatic intelligence. However, they aren’t talking about aliens from a water-based planet; they’re talking about whales in our oceans.

Last December, the Whale-SETI team announced they had studied humpback whale communication to aid in creating a tool in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

A female adult humpback whale named Twain in Southeast Alaska exhibited a positive response to an underwater speaker playing a recorded humpback ‘contact’ call into the sea. During the research, Twain circled the SETI team boat and responded with a ‘greeting signal’ in a conversational style for 20 minutes. Known as a ‘whup/throp’ the researchers assert that Twain responded to every playback call and accurately matched the interval variations between each signal.

The SETI team’s results demonstrated that Twain took part both physically and acoustically in three phases of interaction (Phase 1: Engagement, Phase 2: Agitation, Phase 3: Disengagement), independently documented by researchers.

The overall research indicated that Twain was actively engaged in the exchange during Phase 1 (Engagement), less so during Phase 2 (Agitation), and disengaged during Phase 3 (Disengagement).

So how does communicating with whales help us understand communicating with extraterrestrial civilizations?

These initial findings highlight several important factors, which include the importance of using playback signals that are noticeable by any intelligent species, as well as changing and adjustable, all attributes that the researchers involved in the study say should be applied in studying interactive nonhuman species communication.

“Because of current limitations on technology, an important assumption of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence is that extraterrestrials will be interested in making contact and so target human receivers,” said Dr. Laurance Doyle of the SETI Institute, a co-author of a recent paper detailing the research, said in a press release. “This important assumption is certainly supported by the behavior of humpback whales.”

The first contact account and examination of the encounter are detailed in a recent issue of the journal PeerJ titled “Interactive Bioacoustic Playback as a Tool for Detecting and Exploring Nonhuman Intelligence: ‘Conversing’ with an Alaskan Humpback Whale.”

“We believe this is the first such communicative exchange between humans and humpback whales in the humpback “language,” said lead author Dr. Brenda McCowan of U.C. Davis. “Humpback whales are extremely intelligent, have complex social systems, make tools – nets out of bubbles to catch fish -, and communicate extensively with both songs and social calls,” said coauthor Dr. Fred Sharpe of the Alaska Whale Foundation.

Dr. Brenda McCowan (Left) and Dr. Fred Sharpe at work onboard the Blue Pearl (Image credit: Jodi Frediani).

Similar to using Antarctica as an Earthly testing ground for Mars missions, the Whale-SETI team is investigating intelligent communication systems in terrestrial non-human species to create filters applicable for use with potential extraterrestrial signals and will use math to figure out how complicated the messages are.

The team also includes Dr. Josie Hubbard, Lisa Walker, and Jodi Frediani, who are experts in animal intelligence, analyzing humpback whale songs, and studying the behavior and photography of humpback whales. The team is preparing another paper about how humpback whales communicate without sound, like making bubble rings near humans, which is soon to be published.

Chrissy Newton is a PR professional and founder of VOCAB Communications. She hosts the Rebelliously Curious podcast, which can be found on The Debrief’s YouTube Channel. Follow her on X: @ChrissyNewton and at