It’s a whale of a tail and all those clicks that sonar picks up underwater let us know that whales are telling it. But what are they saying to each other? Scientists think they may have finally deciphered whale talk.

For decades scientists have been intrigued by the variety of sounds emitted by sperm whales, partly due to a popular theory that suggests that the sounds might contain information about the animals’ size. But historically it has been extremely difficult to demonstrate that these curious clicking noises can reveal information about the physical characteristics of the massive marine mammals. Now, researchers at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego are unlocking some of the mysteries of sperm whale sound production.

The roots of the unique study began years ago in Alaska, after sperm whales developed the ability to steal black cod off “longlines,” deep sea fishing gear that features a main fishing line draped across the ocean and fastened with shorter lines bearing baited hooks. Frustrated black cod fishermen began to realize that their longline fishing boats were attracting groups of whales, which typically forage alone, to their longlines, somehow alerting the animals like a dinner bell.

To help fishermen and scientists better understand this behavior, Scripps researchers deployed acoustic recorders on longlines in 2004 off Sitka, Alaska. The scientists discovered that the clicks emitted by the whales are produced more rapidly as they approach their targets of interest and are among the loudest and most intense sounds produced by any animal. Researcher Aaron Thode says, “The sounds can be louder than a firecracker.”

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