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
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
"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
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
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.