the sonic creature
Excerpted from Erich Hoyt's ORCA -The Whale Called Killer Camden House Publishing 1981, Ontario [Reprinted with permission of the publisher]



In 1967 [Paul] Spong was hired by the University of British Columbia to study the sensory system of killer whales at the Vancouver Aquarium.

"I approached the whales as a clinical experimental psychologist," said Spong, "getting them to do things as if they were no more than laboratory rats." He and co-researcher Don White first measured orca's visual acuity. They found that a young male named Hyak could see about as well underwater as a cat could in air. They tested a young Pacific white-sided dolphin and obtained similar results. "Cetacea's use of vision is probably very specialized," Spong theorized, referring to his 1969 report written together with White. "In the wild, orca probably uses his eyes only to orient himself above water and when auditory information is not enough underwater. Living in the ocean, these social mammals use sound to navigate, find their food and stay in touch with each other. It's a very complex and varied world of sound. And we put them in concrete pools where the isolation and reverberations from their own voices tend to silence them."

At the Vancouver Aquarium, Spong began to play sounds to individual whales. From the beginning of his studies, he had discovered that food as motivation was not always enough. A hungry whale might withhold a response as determinedly as a satiated animal. "So we decided to reward Hyak with three minutes of music every time he swam or vocalized, " said Spong. "We used one tone at a frequency of 5 kHz to signal'trial onset'for the swimming and another tone, 500 Hz, for the vocalizing."

Hyak began to swim more every day, but Spong and White still had problems getting him to vocalize. After nine months of isolation, his vocalizations had become rare. "We tried playing a tape recording of his own sounds. No response. Then we tried recordings from another whale. Immediately, Hyak began to vocalize. After that, we had no problems shaping vocal responses to the 500 Hz signal. Yet Hyak got bored very quickly -- and we found this held true for Skana and other captive orcas. " Spong drained the last of his beer. "It was far out, mate. We had to keep changing the tunes to keep him swimming and vocalizing."

Spong's attitude toward the whales began changing in early 1969. "For more than a year, I'd been working with Skana at the Vancouver Aquarium, but we were 'ust getting to know each other and share physical contact. Skana enjoyed having me rub her head and body with my hands and my bare feet.

Spong ordered another round of beer. "Early one morning, I was sitting at the edge of Skana's pool, my bare feet in the water. She approached slowly, until she was only a few inches away. Then, suddenly, she opened her mouth and dragged her teeth quickly across both the tops and the soles of my feet. I jerked my feet out of the water!

I thought about it for a minute and, recovering from the shock, put my feet back in. Again, Skana approached, baring her teeth. Again, I jerked my feet out.

"We did this routine 10 or 11 times until, finally, I sat with my feet in the water and controlled the urge to flinch when she flashed her teeth. I no longer felt afraid. She had deconditioned my fear of her. And when I stopped reacting, she ended the exercise."

It was about then that Spong began to think the whales were conducting experiments on him at the same time as he was on them. "Eventually, my respect [for orca] verged on awe," Spong wrote later. "I concluded that Orcinus orca is an incredibly powerful and capable creature, exquisitely self-controlled and aware of the world around it, a being possessed of a zest for life and a healthy sense of humour and, moreover, a remarkable fondness for and interest in humans."

In 1970, Spong decided to investigate the creatures in their natural habitat. He brought his family to Alert Bay, went out by boat to look for the whales and found them. He started coming up every summer. In contrast to the free orcas, he said, Skana seemed lonely and bored, and her pool looked small. Every time Spong returned to Vancouver, he visited Skana and talked with Vancouver Aquarium director Murray Newman about obtaining the whale's release. The aquarium's position was that releasing Skana after so many years in captivity (since 1967) would be irresponsible because the whale might die without her pod. If she could find her pod, went the argument, would she even be accepted? Asked whether Skana could survive, Ellis said that he believed an ex-captive would have no trouble catching ling cod, at minimum. "It might take her a week or two to adjust, but she could go for a long time on the fat she's got on her." Spong suggested a gradual release programme, staying with Skana until she readjusted to the wild. But both Ellis and Spong admit that it is unlikely that any aquarium 11 consent to free its relatively rare and costly killer whales. More than any other exhibit, the orcas attract the paying customers.

By the time I met Spong in Alert Bay in 1973, he had become an outspoken advocate for the rights of all whales and was dropping his scientific pursuits to campaign full-time to save them.

Ten years before Spong began working with killer whales, John C. Lilly had begun to study captive dolphins. By 1968, his personal involvement was similar to Spong's, and he could no longer, in his words, "run a concentration camp for my friends." It was Lilly who started people thinking that whales and dolphins might be conscious, intelligent creatures. Through the 1960s and 1970s - the era in which aquariums went from old fish-tank museums to sprawling marine mammal oceanariums and entertainment complexes everyone working with captive dolphins and orcas read John Lilly religiously and talked about " the possibilities. " On the Four Winds that summer of 1973, Lilly's The Mind of the Dolphin was easily the most-thumbed volume aboard. Scientists read him and so did the public. He was controversial, yes, but exciting.

Trained as a neurophysiologist, Lilly had begun, in the late 1950s, by mapping dolphins' brains and attaching electrodes to the various brain centres. Many of the first animals died, but one, a certain No. 6, managed to "get through" to Lilly. No. 6 was quick to comprehend the experiments that stimulated his brain's pleasure centres. One day, he began mimicking laughter and other human sounds. Lilly expanded his research to investigate dolphin intelligence. The earlier numbered dolphins gave way to Lizzie, Elvar and Peter. They had gone, literally, from being numbers to becoming friends, individual beings with whom Lilly shared his excitement of learning about another species.

In1961, Lilly published Man and Dolphin, his first book on dolphins, about which there is still much debate. The first chapter began boldly: "Eventually, it may be possible for humans to speak with another species." He went on to theorize about how it might be done. The ideal subject would be a species with an intelligence comparable to man's. But how to define intelligence? Scientists have yet to come up with a satisfactory definition. Perhaps the most that can be said is that the development of human intelligence has been critically dependent on three factors: brain volume, brain convolutions and social interactions among individuals. Toothed whales - orcas, sperm whales and dolphins - compare with or sometimes surpass humans in all three areas. Homo sapiens' intelligence is associated with his hands and, specifically,the opposable thumb. Speculating on the nature of whale intelligence, Lilly wrote that "without benefit of hands or outside constructions of any sort, [whales and dolphins] may have taken the path of legends and verbal traditions, rather than that of written records. " Whales and dolphins are sonic creatures. Perhaps their brains function as giant sound computers.

Zoologist Roger Payne of the New York Zoological Society and his wife, Katy, began recording humpback whale songs in 1967. After more than a decade of research, Payne wrote in National Geograph'c: "So far, the study of humpback whale songs has provided our best insight into the mental capabilities of whales. Humpbacks are clearly intelligent enough to memorize the order of those sounds, as well as the new modifications they hear going on around them. Moreover, they can store this information for at least six months as a basis for further improvisations. To me, this suggests an impressive mental ability and a possible route in the future to assess the intelligence of whales."

Analyzing tapes made each year, the Paynes discovered that the whales constantly change their songs, "which sets these whales apart from all other animals," according to Roger Payne. "All the whales are singing the same song one year, but the next year, they will all be singing a new song." The Paynes found that the whales change their songs gradually, from year to year, incorporating some of the previous year's song into the new one. Over several years, the song evolves into something completely different.

Lilly's dolphin research provides other evidence of Cetacea's sound abilities - although critics challenge his interpretation of the data. Lilly found that the bottlenose dolphin could match numbers and durations of human vocal outbursts and could even mimic human words and simple sentences. But their responses were often speeded up and sometimes beyond the limit of man's hearing. It seemed logical to Lilly that since sound travels 4 1/2 times faster in water than in air, dolphins would process and send sound at about 4 1/2 times the speed that man could and would also use a frequency band about 4 1/2 times that of man's. Lilly, therefore, simply slowed down the tape to decode the dolphins'responses. Eventually, he came to believe that they were trying to communicate with him. They would vocalize out of water - a concession to man, according to Lilly, something rarely done in the wild or among themselves. Lilly also cited the persistent efforts of individual dolphins to imitate various human sounds--laughter, whistles, Bronx cheers and even certain simple human words.

Captive killer whales also seem able to reproduce a wide range of sounds, some of them humanlike. A talent for mimicry is probably important for their survival in the wild. Like the young of many birds and primates who mimic their parents, shaping their "accents" to fit the groups' norm, orca calves probably mimic their pod-mates to perpetuate a set of signals unique to their social group, by which they could recognize one another at a distance.

Orcas at the Vancouver Aquarium, according to Spong, seemed as eager as Lilly's dolphins to interact with man. Spong said that they would vocalize at him out of water, and when music was played to one of them, the srenaded whale would come over to the side of the pool, lift its head out of the water and then turn it slowly from side to side as it oriented to the sound.




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