Jun 15, 2014

Whale Talk

When my daughter was a wee toddler, she used to pretend to talk on the phone. She'd grab any random object, rarely the toy phone for some reason, and begin to chatter. She'd pace around the room with, say, the remote control glued to her ear and she'd go on and on. They weren't words, really. She didn't even employ her limited vocabulary. What it unmistakably was was mimicry. She was a little me. Every gesture. Every inflection. It was unmistakably me talking on the phone to some friend. It was hilarious. And it sounded an awful lot like this beluga whale named Noc.

This article in Smithsonian Magazine makes for compelling reading. I am endlessly fascinated by cetaceans and have been since I was a child, particularly whales. In the fifth grade, I wrote a play about whaling for my social studies project. The whale won. It dragged the harpooners overboard. This was long before I'd read Moby Dick. That would not happen until I was in high school. I think I just liked the idea of the whale as protagonist -- that and the woman pretending to be a man (me) so as to seek a life of adventure. I've also been a feminist for as long as I can remember.

As an adult I've been whale watching many times and invariably see things you almost never see, like humpbacks opening their giant mouths right next to the boat to swallow the plankton they've trapped with their giant air bubbles. And mothers and babies breaching and playing. I've seen a lot of whales. And dolphins. They like to swim along with the boats. They wave. They chatter. They're adorable.

I've always felt a sense of communion with cetaceans. Sometimes I hear them in my head. It's not unusual to hear messages from whale consciousness or dolphin consciousness for my clients when I'm doing readings. I believe them to be highly intelligent. In fact, I think the whole conversation about whether they're as intelligent as humans misses the point. I believe they're probably much smarter. Definitely wiser. And yet they deign to interact with us. In fact they're very social.

I've long felt that whales and dolphins were whole brain thinkers. They make my head feel funny. So I found this interesting.

Episodes of animal mimicry have long been dismissed as “mere parroting,” a disparagement that recent research on the intelligence of parrots and a number of species, including whales, reveals to be rather narrow-minded on our part. Through a process known as “parallel evolution,” whales—some 55 million years our seniors—first developed a brain comparable to our far more recently evolved one. It’s a brain that has structures involved in functions such as self-recognition, memory, advanced socialization and language, enabling a fluency in some forever other and yet deeply parallel parlance.

“Vocal imitation, vocal learning, is a very sophisticated cognitive process,” says Lori Marino, a senior lecturer in the department of psychology at Emory University who specializes in cetacean intelligence and brain evolution. “For an animal to imitate another species takes a level of self-awareness, a level of understanding of their body and your body and the acoustics of it. Manipulating one’s vocal tract to produce a desired effect is very, very sophisticated.”

“Yes, their brains are different,” Marino adds. “The cortex is completely different. And that’s what makes them so fascinating. The old line was that their brains are just these big masses of tissue for hearing, just giant audio receivers. But there’s so much integrative cortical tissue there that does more than just receive. It brings things together, synthesizes and does complex processing in ways we obviously don’t understand yet. But it’s not as though we have this huge complex whale brain and no commensurately complex behavior. They are individuals. They have lives to lead and social relationships. They have families, and they have really good memories. And that’s something places like SeaWorld don’t want to touch because then you start getting into issues that people can really relate to.”

. . .

“Belugas in captivity actually mute their senses,” Samantha Berg, a trainer at SeaWorld from 1990 to 1993, told me recently. “It’s so loud around them, and they don’t need to use their echolocation because they’ve been in the same tank every day and already know all the boundaries of their world. When I was working with them, my impression was that they weren’t all there, as though they were deeply bored, disinterested. They were like people with post-traumatic stress disorder. I don’t know what belugas are like in the wild, but it was almost as though they were staring at me through a veil. Like they weren’t really home.”

Some years ago, when we visiting Hawaii, I took my daughter to Sea Life Park. She was 3 and bored and it seemed like the thing to do, but I think that was the death knell for me in terms of SeaWorld type amusements. They're cruel. And yet, the sea mammals are so loving, even in those environments.

At one point, my daughter and I were observing a couple of dolphins who were in one little cove, separate from the others. They did not feel right to me. They really did seem bored and listless. Then a family went into the water for one of those very expensive dolphin interactions. Suddenly the two dolphins we were watching snapped to attention. They became very animated, even though they weren't the ones interacting with the family or the staff. That was in another area. And I felt my whole head light up. It was such a focused intensity and so beautiful, I hated for it to be over.

We definitely learn a lot from these creatures, even when they're being enslaved by theme parks or the Navy. They really want to communicate with us. But I'd still rather see them in the wild.

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