Chinese Scientists Are Using Sperm Whales to Hide Secret Military Messages

sperm whale
Representative image. Sperm whale family. Chinese scientists are developing a way to use sperm whales to send encoded military messages. iStock

Scientists in China have found a way to hide messages in the calls of sperm whales. The discovery could allow the military to use whales to send encoded messages hidden from any eavesdropping enemies.

Jiang Jiajia, from Tianjin University, and colleagues was leading research into how to camouflage underwater signals, making them harder to detect, the South China Morning Post reports. They were looking at sperm whales and their ability to use echolocation—using sound waves to locate and identify objects near them. Because these pulses are found throughout the world's oceans, they are normally filtered out by reconnaissance systems looking for signals from submarines.

If the team could find a way to utilize these pulses, they could potentially send messages that would be extremely difficult to detect.

In research published in IEEE Communication Magazine, the team said there are two ways to hide signals in whale pulses—changing the signal to include encrypted information or making the signal weaker.

The former is problematic because it would stand out from other naturally occurring signals, Jiang told SCMP. However, the second method holds promise. Researchers could build a coding system around the whale sounds. They could then edit whale sounds so they are indistinguishable from other whale calls. When they are received by the coding system, they can be deciphered. The main drawback for this approach is that it would be difficult to send a message over a long distance.

Timothy Peacock, a lecturer in history at the University of Glasgow, United Kingdom, told MailOnline the system has the potential to make underwater communication more secure—but not just yet. "If they can get the technology to work then it may be possible in theory," he said. "Whether it would be practically applied and ultimately worth the cost is another question. The US Navy experimented with a similar project between the 1950s and the 1970s to look for communications by emulating whale sounds.

"In some cases this attracted whales to the source of the sound which was testament to the feature. They abandoned the project because they found it was too difficult to ensure the messages got through and the whale species were on decline."

He added that if and when the technology does become a reality, countermeasures will quickly be developed to pick up these signals.

This is not the first time marine animals have been used for military purposes. A number of countries, including Ukraine and Russia, have dolphins that are trained to detect any unusual activity in their territorial waters. Earlier this year, it emerged a Ukrainian bottlenose dolphin captured by Russian forces had died after going on a "hunger strike" after refusing to defect—a saga dating back to the invasion of the Crimean Peninsula by Russia in 2014.