Orca's language

Jim Nolman playing music to wild orcas. A further step to a better understanding. Photo Nollman

From "Apetalk & Whalespeak : The Quest of Interspecies Communication"
 by Ted Crail. Contemporary Books inc. Chicago 1983


The saga of Namu started on a blustery June night off the British Columbia coast.
Two fishermen caught in the storm snagged their net on a reef during the blow. They abandoned their net to get under cover and didn't come back until the next day. 
Their own misadventure led to a greater misadventure for an adult orca and a baby killer whale as well. 

The larger whale, later called Namu, could work its way in and out of the net but the baby wouldn't follow. True to some sort of ethic, the larger whale would not abandon the baby. The fishermen realized they had something and looked for a way to make money out of this odd affair. It happened to fit in neatly with the long-term quest of Edward ("Ted") Griffin, owner and director at the time of the Seattle Public Aquarium. Griffin had been trying for years to capture a whale, calling it his "ruling passion." How much of the passion carne from curiosity and how much from a showman's realization that he would have one of the stellar attractions of the world is a question only Griffin himself can answer. It might be guessed the pull was strong from both directions.

Griffin had been out with "boats, helicopters and tranquilliser guns," trying to take a whale alive in Puget Sound, but it hadn't worked out. Now he was the beneficiary of a fluke. He put together $69,000 in a hurry and created "the Tinkertoy flotilla," named for its flimsiness, which was to bring the captive Namu down the coast to Seattle. 

At the beginning, Namu was in a completely vulnerable system, awaiting transfer to a pen they built. When a force of forty killer whales turned up, presumably responding to distress cries of the captive, the Tinkertoy works was not much of a bet to survive an attack.

A force of killer whales coming in a rush can be the most chilling sight in the sea. 
They are a more formidable force than a frenzy of sharks. It's quite true that the orcas do not attack humans, but they attack the great baleen whales, who are far larger than they are, by biting at their mouths and seizing parts of their tongues as snacks. 
There is nothing genteel about an orca attack, and the force bearing down on Griffin's small party must have been terrifying when they first hove into view. A really sharp commando team of orcas could have gnawed the Tinkertoy works to a shambles, freed Namu, and scattered like Israelis from a raid. But they didn't. Whatever their degree of braininess, 
the orcas couldn't figure out the strengths and weaknesses of a human engineering system. The protections for Namu were duck soup to penetrate, but the orcas never guessed it and Namu never guessed it either. The whales charged the nets— and stopped. Charged again—and stopped. Why?

Griffin concluded that Namu could have been imprisoned, with no hope of freedom, in "a sack of tissue paper." 
The whales, Griffin concluded, depended on their sonar system, and the system, while it detected the barrier, didn't tell them how vulnerable it was.


Namu was shifted to a stronger, still makeshift pen for the long journey down the coast to Seattle. The distress calls from the captive kept a siege of orcas near the flotilla. This attack force, or fanfare of whales (you could look at it either way), was beyond the wildest dreams of the most hyper aquarium publicity man. A cow and calves joined the trailing orcas, and reporters rhapsodised over the "family" that couldn't bear to see Daddy shanghaied.
Once Namu was safe in Seattle and wintering in a cove on Rich Passage, contained by a submarine net, Thomas Poulter began to amass night and day recordings. 

Sleuthing his way through the sounds on the tapes, he couldn't have predicted, at the outset, exactly what this was about to demonstrate in terms of whale talk. When the female killer whale Shamu was added, it provided one of the elements needed to see if there was significant communication. 

They would analyse what the whales said to each other. But a surprise was in store. Poulter soon realized they had recorded not only the captive whales but non-captive orcas as well. 
He concluded that the exchanges were taking place between captives and  non captives at distances up to seven miles.
Poulter deduced that something extraordinarily complex was taking place in the sounds passing back and forth, over a range of miles, between whales who seemed to have a great desire to stay in touch. 

 


It was the complexity and variation of the sounds that led him to describe them in a different way than he had the instinctual sounds of all sorts of marine mammals he had previously catalogued, from the bearded seal and white-capped sea lion to the narwhal. While the orca exchanges might have been interpreted as similar to the baying of one coyote to another, Poulter was excited because he felt something deeper was implied in the tapes. 

Describing the individual signals as lasting from half a second to five seconds each, he provided figures on their two-octave range and then suggested :

 "The male killer whale therefore has an extremely complex signal framework which can be recognized against almost any background noise and which he can accent, abbreviate, punctuate, syllabify, hyphenate, prefix, and give numerous endings and inflections without affecting its ease of recognition.... I suspect the different signals do make sense to other killer whales.... It is believed significant that many more modifications of Namu's signals occur when he is exchanging vocalization with a female killer whale than with another male."


Poulter concluded that there was a statistically valid case for "language" based on the Namu-Shamu tapes. The deliberation with which he insists on that mass of punctuating, syllabifying, hyphenating, and prefixing indicates how strongly he is asserting that really, now, this is a very complicated sort of communication indeed.

Why, then, shouldn't the Namu-Shamu tapes themselves become the Rosetta Stone?
Let the computers work on them, coordinating them with vast transcriptions of human talk and additional sounds and signs from killer whales, until equivalencies are worked out and we have translated the language of the orca. As neat as this may sound to the interspeciesist, Poulter didn't think it would happen. 
Not only were the killer-whale signs complex, but they were so complex that he couldn't imagine a whale vocabulary being sorted out for comparison with a human vocabulary and a whale syntax being lined up with the human syntax.

"If we had the nearest equivalent that exists in the English language for each of those signals," Poulter said, "I suspect that we would still be orders of magnitude away from being able to make any combination of them that would make sense either to us or to the killer whale."

After a long, quiet, closely reasoned essay on his findings, Poulter ends with what amounts to a cry of triumph. "Yes!" he suddenly affirms. "We believe that marine mammals talk and that what they talk about makes sense to other marine mammals of the same species."

If we are right in assuming great complexity— not simple signalling—in the Namu-Shamu tapes, the position is somewhat the same as for the Mayan codex's (hieroglyphic scrolls). 
When the Spanish burned the Mayan scrolls in a great pyre intended to abolish pagan thinking, they were astonished to see the Mayans weep as the flames destroyed a library that had been built up over many centuries. What the Mayans had to say in those scrolls must be much closer to our own tongue than the expressions of whales, and yet the best of human intellects working with a few surviving codex's fought fruitlessly for most of five centuries to effect a translation. Only in the last few years has it been claimed that the Mayan scrolls are "giving up their secrets." 

Many a Mayan scholar roundly condemned the Spanish because they had not salvaged a translation at the very beginning. 
There were, after ail, still Mayans who could have read them when the conquests began. Later, not a soul was left on earth who understood.
Since killer whales were not on the whale fleet's hit list, a comfortable number still exist in the world. It is still possible that if we are unable to make a translation of the Poulter tapes ourselves, we may come into an age when we have conveyed some version of our own language to an orca. And the whale, in turn, might go over the Namu-Shamu tapes and explain their content to us.
The case seems not quite so desperate as somehow losing out on that Last Mayan.

From "Apetalk & Whalespeal The Quest of Interspecies Communication"
 by Ted Crail Contemporary Books inc. Chicago 1983

 


Namu's Sad Story

(...) Namu and Griffin performed together for 11 months until Namu contracted a bacterial infection which damaged his nervous system. A few days before his death he became unresponsive to people and on June Namu crashed head-on at full speed into the wire mesh of his pen, thrashed violently for a few minutes and then died.

Griffin had become so enthralled by money and fame that despite his experience with Namu's intelligent and friendly nature he still decided to capture more killer whales for oceaniums. In 1965 he began a partnership with Dan Goldsberry to capture even more killer whales from the Pacific Northwest. (...) 


TO KNOW MORE

Orcas of the Salish Sea
http://www.orcanetwork.org/nathist/salishorcas2.html

The Whales behind the tank glass" 
http://www.geocities.com/RainForest/Andes/3843/capt.html

Captive orcas
http://www.rockisland.com/~orcasurv/changing.htm


http://www.historylink.org/output.cfm?file_id=2718

http://tursi.yiffco.com/dolphins/cc_orcas.htm

Music with whales
http://www.interspecies.com/pages/whalmusi.html


Bibliography 

Poulter, T. C. 1968. "Marine Mammals". In: Sebeok, T. A. (ed. ). "Animal Communication". Indiana University Press, Indiana, pp. 405-465.

Ford, J. K. B. 1989. "Acoustic behavior of resident killer whales off Vancouver. Island, British Columbia". Can. J. Zool. 67: 727-745.

Ford, J. K. B. 1991. "Vocal traditions among resident killer whales (Orcinus orca) in coastal waters of British Columbia". Can. J. Zool. 69: 1454-1483.


 

Back

Retour accueil