We did a hearing study with a killer whale. That was the famous Sea
World rent-a-whale program. You know, you go into an airport and you've got
Hertz, Avis and National? Then there was the Sea World rent-a-whale counter.
At the time Sea World had an excess male killer whale, named Ramu. And we at
the Navy had a need to understand how well killer whales could hear. So we
rented Ramu for a year.
The reason Ramu was available, so I am told, was because he was so bloody
aggressive that none of their trainers wanted to work with him. So they put
him in the back pool and where he kind of languished. He did entertainment
shows and he did a lot of them--that was in the oldest of the killer whales
facilities there, which is, I think now, a walrus facility. It's a small
kidney shaped pool that's by today's standards it's excruciatingly small. And
during the summer he would do up to 16 shows. The same show over and over.
And I don't know this for sure, but my impression was that he just got flat
bored. And he just didn't like it. So he showed his displeasure by munching
and crunching and it moved him in the back. And when I got there, he'd never
done any of this research stuff before. So it was completely new to him.
He really was a fabulous whale. He was a real unique individual. He was
the absolute New York workaholic. I mean, we have all had our hearing
tested--where you put on the headphones and they play a tone and you raise a
finger if you can hear it and if you can't, you just sit like a fool. And then
the tone gets a little softer and a little softer until you can't hear it any
more. And that's at threshold. And then it gets a little louder. You can
hear it again and then you can't hear it. And then they do the other ear.
If you really get into that testing, and really concentrate, it requires
a lot of energy. And it becomes quite tedious to be right down at threshold
where it's so soft you can barely hear it.
This whale Ramu would do that for a hundred trials. He had to position
in a redwood enclosure that was sound baffled. Hold very still. Wait for
the cue sequence. Listen very carefully for a period of time. If he heard the
tone, he then had to back out of the listening enclosure, very carefully, turn
around and go over and press a lever.
If he didn't hear it, he had to just remain stationed for the sequence to
start again. So it required a lot of holding still by this 4,000 pound animal
in a small enclosure. And he would do that for a hundred trials in a row! I
mean it was just remarkable. In fact, he was such a workaholic that when we
would finish with that, I had to be very careful to be ready to move right into
the next thing, otherwise he would become extremely aggressive with me if he
knew we were cutting off the work.
You mean he wanted to continue to work?
Oh, it was unbelievable. When I first started working with that
particular whale, the tank was about 6 feet into the ground and had a wall
about 3 feet above ground. And the top of the wall was very convenient to put
his food buckets on. So I'd put a bucket of food on it and I'd work with the whale and feed him and
would be training him to do this research work. Well, when the bucket was
empty, I'd take it off the wall. That was an obvious visual cue to that
And so after a few days of that, whenever I would pull the bucket off
the wall, I could just see the animal just kind of hump up and really get
tense. But I didn't connect it. Then one day I reached for the bucket and
just before I touched it, he kinda leaned back in the water and he started this
high pitched moan....kind of a warbling rising falling moan, and the whites of
his eyes instantly got blood shot. And it caught my attention so I stopped
what I was doing and I took my hand off the bucket and I kind of leaned forward
and as soon as I did --he visibly relaxed. So, I reach for the
bucket--eeeehe--up comes the moan. Hand down--he relaxes.
I mean it was absolutely Pavlovian, Skinnerian stimulus-response stuff,
you know? Show the dog the bone, get the drool on the floor. Except that he
was very aggressive. So, I thought well I've got to get the empty bucket out of
here. I'm 150 pounds, he's 4000. I got a big brain. He's got a big brain. I
gotta have a bigger brain and be faster. So, I simply took a step and a half
back from the wall to give me a little running start, snatched the bucket and
literally fell backwards, and as I did, he came right up over the wall,
screaming, just screaming--right up to where his shoulder were--where his
pectoral flippers hit the wall, he could go no further, reaching out--just this
I mean, Steven Spielberg, you should be there! You know, it was raptor
all over. But this--18 foot killer whale lunging at me trying to bite me. Of
course I'm lying on the ground, with the blood from the bucket
all over me with this mouth coming down after me. And I just rolled out
of the way, and walked quite a ways around the tank.
And he just was screaming at the top of his lungs and swimming very, very
rapidly around his tank. I mean, you could have surfed on the wall of water,
the wave that he kicked up behind him. So, I gave him 20 minutes to cool off.
I came back with another bucket of fish. And it was like it was a different
whale. He was just totally chilled.
But this was a really bright whale. I mean, they're all bright, but this
whale was really really bright. And occasionally during the hearing study I
think we probably ran 3-or 4 thousand trials. Can you hear this? Can you not?
And every once in a while, about 25 percent of the time, we'd insert what's
called a catch trial where we wouldn't produce a tone---nothing. Just to see
if he was what's called 'prospecting.' Just randomly saying, "Oh yeah, I heard
that" when no tone was pressed.
The first time he did it, I had a little short piece of metal conduit
and I just tapped it on the--as soon as he--when I--when no tone had been
presented I knew he couldn't have heard it 'cause nothing went into the water.
As soon as he touched the level, 'cause he came over quite hesitantly, slowly,
just barely touched the lever and I clanked the wall with it and I was in a
little equipment booth with a plexiglass window and I shut the window. He came
over and he lifted his head and he looked in that window with one eye--it was
like--"who's in there? What's going on here? You got me on that one!"
So, I just gave him a 10 minute time out, came back we went back to work.
By golly it was about five trials later, he did it again. He was prospecting!
And I clanked the wall and I barely got the window shut when he came right
though it. He was so mad--he just shattered the plexiglass with his rostrum,
and sprayed sea water all over--I don't know--100,000 dollars worth of--of
equipment. And-- then backed away. I mean--it was almost like Jaws. He was so
angry and it was because of the cessation of work. And he never again in the
next three or four thousand trials, he never again prospected. He never tried
What did this all say to you about the nature of the
It tells me that they have so much mental capability that they are only
limited in their capability by our ability to communicate with them.
So, what does that say about captivity?
Without belaboring the point, I haven't been a proponent of captivity for
a number of years now. I've been pretty vocal about it. I'll go back to my
comment about the pretty simple minded approach we stumbled on at Point Magoo
(with the Navy). You want to keep an ocean animal healthy? Where do you put
'em? Back in the ocean. That's where they came from. I have some real
problems with captivity. I absolutely agree that at a point in time--and I
think we're past it--that captivity may have provided a strong educational
component. I know from my days as senior scientist at Seaworld, that the motto
was "Entertainment, education, conservation." But entertainment was several orders of magnitude above education and