Disney’s dreams come to life?

Beluga whales

Photo credit: HEILAPIC76

An eerie babble of human voices had started to haunt the National Marine Mammal Foundation in California. It was not until a diver surfaced from the tank and asked “Who told me to get out?” that researchers realised the distorted babble was coming from their charismatic beluga whale Noc. By changing the pressure in his nasal cavities, Noc produced sounds several octaves lower than typical whale calls. The result, as the flood of people who have now listened to the sound recordings published online can confirm, is a wobbly monologue that sounds like a muppet with a cold is singing gibberish into an echoing tunnel.

Although it captured the imagination of the media, this is not the huge breakthrough in human/whale communication that animal lovers would like it to be. As Philip Hoare, acclaimed author of Leviathan or, The Whale, said at the Whalefest last weekend, this was only “a case of imitation, an attempt by this captive whale to please its trainers. Its sort of pathetic, really.”

This is not the end of marine mammal communication studies, however. The key to trying to study how our sentient underwater cousins communicate is to understand that their audial interaction would be completely different in structure, language and purpose from any form of human communication.

And there are projects out there trying to grasp at this possible underwater language. Denise Herzing has the enviable job of being a marine mammal biologist who has spent the past 28 years studying Stenella frontalis, the Atlantic spotted dolphin population living off the coast of the Grand Bahama Island. Herzing and her research team have collected a library of communication data between this population of about 100 dolphins, 60 of which she recognises by sight. This data distinguishes the range of sounds these dolphins make (whistles, buzzes, squawks, screams, barks) with the associated behaviour (mother/calf reunions, babysitting, courtship, distress, excitement, discipline, sexual play, aggression) and the age class and gender of the individuals.

These sounds are now, to an extent, understood. For example, individual dolphins produced a special signature whistle that is very possibly used for identification- a unique greeting to say “It’s me!” which mothers would use to call back lost calves.

However, being the curious, sociable primates we are, this research is reaching further than simple observation. Herzing is refining portable underwater communication devices to recognise and generate dolphinese whistles, hoping to create a dialogue with the aquatic creatures she has dedicated her life studying. “Maybe it will lead to an extensive artificial language,” Herzing says “But the real breakthrough would be if the dolphins introduce their own vocalizations and whistles.”

Anthropomorphism, when humans project their own personalities onto animals, is a threat to projects like this, especially when portrayed in the media like Noc’s incoherent babble. These creatures have been developing their behaviour, language and culture in their oceans for thousands of years before we climbed out of our caves, and the result is a completely different structure that we have to respect, and not push, in order to understand. Herzing’s work represents hope for better interaction and integration with the sentient species in our seas, where we may be able to see the world as a place we share, and not control, with these creatures. “I think it could be our salvation,” she says. “Because if we don’t start including other creatures in the formula, there is not going to be a planet.”

Originally published in the Student, October 2012.

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