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Orcas Learn To Mimic Human Speech

There’s something compelling about whales, driving humanity to bridge the linguistic divide between cetaceans and H. sapiens.

One of the first serious attempts to communicate with them began when psychonaut John C. Lilly hired Margaret Howe to shack up with a dolphin named Peter in the Virgin Islands. Margaret’s mission was to get Peter to utter a few human words, encouraging Peter with play, swimming, and the occasional interspecies handjob. While Margaret easily grasped dolphin, Peter’s grasp of English wasn’t as firm. Sadly after the experiment ended, Margaret was out of his life and Peter committed suicide.

In May of 1984, the U.S. Navy made an unexpected discovery of a beluga whale, Noc, with a knack for mimicking human speech. Noc was part of the Navy’s arctic initiative known as “Cold Ops”, its purpose was to enlist beluga whales to perform tasks or assist human divers underwater. Here’s what Sam Ridgway and company wrote in their paper, Spontaneous Human Speech Mimicry by a Cetacean: “After seven years in our care, a white whale called NOC began, spontaneously, to make unusual sounds. We interpreted the whale’s vocalizations as an attempt to mimic humans. Whale vocalizations often sounded as if two people were conversing in the distance just out of range for our understanding.”

Of special interest were Ridgeway’s remarks to Smithsonian Magazine’s Charles Siebert on his relationship with Noc and other belugas in the program. “They come to think of us as family, and that’s the reason they stay with us. We have no way of completely controlling them, and yet they do their job and come back. They kind of view themselves as part of a team. Or at least we view them as seeing themselves as part of a team.”

Bringing us to a new paper, courtesy of José Z. Abramson and company, entitled Imitation of novel conspecific and human speech sounds in the killer whale (Orcinus orca). In layman’s terms, some scientists taught orcas to mimic human speech.

The simplified methodology involves teaching a “do this” command to the orcas so they know to imitate what’s being said by their instructor. While the orcas do face challenges when it comes to enunciation, this illustrates a another step towards potentially communicating with these magnificent beasts or them communicating with us.

We oughtn’t be entirely surprised after Dr. Ann Bowles, co-author of  Differences in acoustic features of vocalizations produced by killer whales cross-socialized with bottlenose dolphins, observed wild orcas speaking dolphin. She concluded orcas socialized with bottlenose dolphins used more clicks and whistles, than pulsed calls typical of orca communication. Furthermore, she was quoted in ScienceDaily, “Killer whales seem to be really motivated to match the features of their social partners”.

After years of abuse, captivity and exploitation, humans should feel flattered orcas and beluga would still deign to consider us as social partners, mimicing our vocalizations in hopes of strengthening interspecies social bonds and fostering goodwill.

Perhaps after humans, or whales, discover an interspecies Rosetta stone to ease communication in a couple of decades, we will equip cetaceans with speech-to-text gadgets so they can tweet “Make Oceans Clean Again” to us landlubbers. Or help humanity resolve any future misunderstandings between us and space whale probes without a need for time-travel.

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