Home Biologist Carleton Marine Biologist’s Find Key for Emmy Award-Winning Whale Doc

Carleton Marine Biologist’s Find Key for Emmy Award-Winning Whale Doc

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Shane Gero is the Founder and Principal Scientist of the Dominica Sperm Whale Project and has spent 15 years following and studying a clan of some 40 sperm whale families in the Eastern Caribbean.

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Shane Gero’s research into the social lives of sperm whales provided many of the most spectacular moments in National Geographic’s Emmy-winning documentary Secrets of Whales.

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But the Ottawa-born marine biologist and scientist-in-residence at Carleton University has his eyes – and ears – on an even bigger prize.

“After spending thousands of hours listening to whales, it’s really hard not to wonder, ‘What are they saying? “”

Gero played a key role in the four-part series, which won the Emmy for Best Documentary two weeks ago for National Geographic and Red Rock Films. Gero is the Founder and Principal Scientist of the Dominica Sperm Whale Project and has spent 15 years following and studying a clan of some 40 sperm whale families in the Eastern Caribbean.

“When this show came out, friends that I hadn’t seen in decades found me and said, ‘I remember when you were in grade 7 and I said you would become a marine biologist.’ , Gero said.

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Carleton University marine biologist Shane Gero's research on sperm whales was key to the Emmy-winning documentary The Secrets of Whales.  Photo courtesy of the Dominica Sperm Whale Project.
Carleton University marine biologist Shane Gero’s research on sperm whales was key to the Emmy-winning documentary The Secrets of Whales. Photo courtesy of the Dominica Sperm Whale Project. jpg

“Every child falls in love with nature between the ages of 6 and 12, be it insects, birds or dolphins. I was that kid. I remember watching (the TV show) Danger Bay and thinking, “Wow! Do marine biologists live on an island and take a boat to work every day? It’s incredible !'”

Gero’s research has revealed the previously unknown depth and complexity of sperm whale family life. As solitary males roam the depths of the ocean, families are centered on females, with mothers and grandmothers teaching young whales the tricks necessary to survive in their own corner of the ocean. As the documentary says: They play, love and cry.

“I think that’s one thing the show got really well, is how incredibly rich their family life is. And, for that to become a reality, they have to have this incredibly complicated communication system or language to enable that, ”he said.

Photos and videos from film producer Brian Skerry capture the astonishing and rarely seen behavior of whales, which spend 85% of their lives in the darkness of the deep ocean, 600 meters deep.

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As if sperm whales weren’t amazing enough, they have the biggest brains of any animal on earth and have been around in the sea for 50 million years, much longer than humans have walked upright. An adult male weighs 80 tonnes and is longer than an OC Transpo articulated bus. Sperm whales can hold their breath for two hours and dive regularly to 1,000 meters, twice the depth of the CN Tower, in search of their main food source, the giant squid.

“They go immensely deep, so deep that we have a hard time creating the technology that we put on their backs because everything cracks and lets water in,” Gero said. “Most submarines can’t dive that deep.”

Using underwater microphones and iPhone-sized transmitters with suction cups on the whales themselves, Gero recorded the intricate clicks whales use to communicate, first identifying themselves as than members of a clan, then of individual families, then to individual whales. Sperm whales are the loudest animal on earth. At 230 decibels, the clicks can rupture the human eardrum and can be heard by sperm whales thousands of miles away.

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It’s this code that Gero hopes to crack as part of a new venture, the Cetacean Translation Initiative (CETI), which brings together scientists and technologists from around the world to record and possibly decipher the language of whales. This is the research that Gero hopes to transform our understanding of our place on earth, in the same way that happened after the Apollo 8 photo “Earth rise” or Jane Goodall’s research on chimpanzees.

“There were things biologists shared with the world that really got people noticed. Like when Jane Goodall spoke about the use of tools by chimps and communicated that we are fundamentally different, but there are some compelling similarities that we can all relate to.

CETI is leveraging scientists from Harvard University, Imperial College London, University of Haifa, and Texas A&M University to develop deepwater buoys and machine learning to capture and analyze the speech of whales. By recording 24/7, 365 days a year, Gero hopes to overcome what he calls the “dental office problem”.

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“If you’re trying to learn English and only listen in a dentist’s office, you might think ‘root canal’ is a critically important issue,” he said. CETI hopes to capture whales communicating in different contexts, doing different things, to reveal a more comprehensive “vocabulary”.

A family of sperm whales hangs in the water taking a nap.  Secrets of the Whales is an Emmy-winning documentary airing on Disney +
A family of sperm whales hangs in the water taking a nap. Secrets of the Whales is an Emmy-winning documentary airing on Disney + jpg

“We’re going to use the most powerful machine learning tools we have so that we can start playing audio that is starting to make sense. This story about the life, culture and communication of sperm whales inspired all of these amazing new partners to come together and try to say, “What is important to whales and what do they say when they come together? talk ? It really has the power to pivot people’s perspective on our obligation to the natural world. “

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In the meantime, Gero hopes the documentary inspires people to look at whales differently and understand the critical need to protect the oceans. Even simple actions like limiting the use of plastic or emailing a politician can have an effect, he said.

“Literally everything we do day to day impacts the ocean, even if you don’t live next door. Almost every whale that washes is filled with plastic. It’s an easy decision that we can make on our own: how do we reduce the amount of plastic we use? I know it sounds like a tired post, but it’s one of the easiest things people can take action on.

“But we also need to report when we feel unsatisfied with the way our world is functioning. One of the most important things you can do in your country is to contact the government and tell them that it is important to you. It doesn’t sound individually important … but thousands or tens of thousands of emails about how Canada is protecting its oceans do matter. This collective action is really powerful.

Secret Lives of Whales, narrated by Sigourney Weaver and with fellow Canadian deepwater explorer and “Titanic” director James Cameron as executive producer, is available to stream on Disney +.

Shane Gero, a marine biologist from Carleton University, listens to hydrophones recording the sounds of a family of sperm whales off the coast of Dominica in the Caribbean Sea.
Shane Gero, a marine biologist from Carleton University, listens to hydrophones recording the sounds of a family of sperm whales off the coast of Dominica in the Caribbean Sea. jpg

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