What a killer whale named Ramu taught John Hall, a Navy scientist who later became research director for Sea World

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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 animal.

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 giant mouth.

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 to cheat.

What did this all say to you about the nature of the animals.?

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 conservation.

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