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Seeking Killer Whale Translators
December 12, 2011 - By: - In: Translation - Comments Off on Seeking Killer Whale Translators

Zooniverse is now recruiting amateur linguists to snoop on killer whale wiretaps. Killer, aka orca whales are oceanic predators with a real gift for gab, using sonar to ping each other over oceanic distances. Each family of killer whales has its own dialect and closely-related families share calls.

Zooniverse, which does all “the internet’s largest, most popular and most successful citizen science projects,” is looking for online help to sort killer and pilot whale calls in order to decode the meanings behind these undersea sounds. This is swarm science at work, where clouds of contributors use an easy interface to help scientists categorize all those squeaks and whistles. For free, because free is good for science.

At Whale FM, participants are presented with a whale call and are shown where it was recorded on a map of the world’s oceans and seas. After listening to a call—represented on screen as a spectrogram that shows how the pitch of the sound changes with time— would-be whale whisperers are asked to match it to other calls from the project’s database. “If a match is found, the citizen scientist clicks on that sound’s spectrogram and the results are stored.” So easy even a citizen scientist like you can do it!

The interface is easy to follow, and a vast improvement over an earlier Zooniverse effort reported on these pages, Ancient Lives, a project to sort and transcribe thousands of little bits of papyri. (In re-visiting this site it was great to see the work they’ve done on improving the user interface for that project. I’m mentioning it here for prefer Greek to whale.
The dataset generated by Whale FM should help scientists to learn the size of the whales’ call repertoire and whether repertoire size is a sign of intelligence. In addition, researchers seek to understand whether the two different types of pilot whales—long fin and short fin—have different call repertoires, and, if so, whether this signifies a distinct dialect.

Looks like a great diving board for those eager to plunge into the soon to be burgeoning field of whale translation. I predict that within the next 5 to 10 years we are going to figure out how to talk to these not-so-gentle giants (They don’t call them killer whales for nothing, right?), and I expect them to be some tough customers.  Once we start talking, I expect it won’t be long before they start recruiting lawyers on contingency considering the bad treatment they’ve generally been getting from humans. I’m hopeful that this will lead to a lot of litigation work requiring whale translation—Killer whale wiretap transcription, fishing net personal injury claims, court interpretation at Sea World, etc.

But I’m not sure, at least in terms of working for free, if I’m cut out for this newly emergent whale translation specialty. I find the tapes chilling to listen to, since they just sound so cold, dark and waterlogged. At Whale FM, with time and location indicated by the map, it’s a little too “I am there,” ear up against a hydrophone suspended in ice water below some freezing, storm tossed sea.

Reminds me of an Inuit séance Knud Rasumssen attended in an igloo one night a century ago, where a shaman took Knud and companions to the bottom of the sea, to the abode of Takanakapsaluk, the Mother of the Sea Beasts. Takanakapsaluk lives is the land of the dead beneath the sea , where giant spider crabs scuttle over dark sediments of sin, in a place where only the spirit language is spoken, and where only great deeds are done. We hear the shaman speaking with the voice of the sea beasts and the undersea gods, and with relief we hear his gasp for air as he finally surfaces through the ice hole.

No Thanks. I’ll take top side of the ice sheet any day. But don’t let me spoil your fun. You go. I’ll wait here by the ice hole for you, watching for bubbles.

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