Whale Magazine :
Beluga Whale Imitates Human
by Randall L. Eaton, Ph.D.
We made many visits to the Vancouver Aquarium to conduct behavioral
studies of orcas, and to prepare students for identification and
description of behavior of wild orcas. It's always a good idea for
students to compare and contrast different species so I encouraged
them to spend some time observing the aquarium's belugas, small
angelic-like whales closely related to the orca and other delphinids.
When the students told me that they thought the male beluga was phonating his name, I came to the aquarium with recording equipment, and sure enough, he was saying "Logosi." This was the first instance recorded of any cetacean spontaneously imitating human language clearly in "real time," at a frequency immediately discernible to the human listener. The discovery is immensely significant because it suggests that it might be possible to teach vocal language directly to belugas.
Captive since infancy, Logosi was about fifteen years of age and may have lived longer in captivity than most whales. He was contained with two females in a small, elliptical pool used for periodic tourist shows involving all the belugas. The pool was the usual sterile environment, effectively just a large bath tub, lacking stimulation except from trainers and tourists. Logosi was especially attracted to humans at the underwater viewing windows, and he spent as much or more time at them interacting with people than with the female belugas, which avoided the windows, apparently because Logosi claimed them aggressively.
Much of the time Logosi swam in large circles around the tank stopping at a window with a person outside. His preference for interaction with people at the windows was usually interrupted only by the tourist shows in which he performed. When we told the aquarium personnel that Logosi could say his name, one trainer was already aware of this and mentioned during the beluga show that Logosi "`knows how to say his name." The trainers frequently say "Logosi" over a loud-haler during the shows which entail reinforcement of all belugas with frozen herring, their staple diet. Logosi had heard his name above and probably below water countless times in close association with being fed, but no one had deliberately taught him his own name.
Though food reinforcement might conceivably explain the unintentional conditioning of Logosi's imitation of his name, it could not account for all his predictable behavior interacting with us and other humans at the windows. Initially, Logosi faced and made eye to eye contact before pressing his melon, the bulbous forehead containing sinuses which figure in sound production normally transmitted from the apex of the jaw bones, against the window and transmitting sound through it to the human. With the melon against the glass communicating sound, he'd gape, opening and closing his mouth as though imitating the jaw movements of talking humans. It's important to stress that belugas do not emit sounds from their throat. They have no vocal cords, but rely exclusively on the complex system of sinuses in the melon which contract and pass air through passages between them to make sound.
After a period of eye contact, transmitting sound through the window and gaping, Logosi turned his head sideways placing it against or close to the glass as though he were listening to the vocal response of humans. As some people did turn their ears to the window while Logosi phonated, he may have been imitating the behavior of listening humans. While apparently listening for human voice, Logosi did not produce sounds or gape. Whether or not humans vocalized, Logosi would resume phonating from the frontal position for awhile before returning to the listening stance, and so on for up to several minutes at a window.
The sounds transmitted through the glass resembled garbled human voices as heard underwater, perhaps an imitation of what Logosi heard from humans through the glass and water medium. Only "Logosi" was clearly perceptible. To test our perhaps too hopeful impressions, we played tape recordings of Logosi's sounds to naive listeners who said they could hear the word "Logosi" and described the rest as garbled human voices, perhaps Russian. The calls of free ranging belugas have been likened to the sound of children playing in the distance.
Belugas have quite large brains. Using John Lilly's logarithmic scale of brain to body weight, the beluga's brain ranks larger than that of the human, orca and sperm whale. And belugas are extremely vocal, possibly the most vocal cetacean. Early on in the whaling era they earned the nick-name "canary of the sea." They are adapted to feed in the murky waters of coastlines and rivers, where vocal communication could be important in locating food and cooperating to avoid predators including the orca, polar bear and man. All of which suggests that the beluga is as fine a candidate for interspecies communication research as exists among whales and dolphins.
In playback experiments, D. Morgan documented that in wild belugas both syntax and context are important, and that certain specific sounds and certain combinations have specific meanings. In short, his results further corroborate our assessment that belugas are ideal subjects for exploring the possibility of linguistic communication with another species.
Before the scientific report on Logosi appeared, an animal newsletter got wind of our discovery of the "talking whale." The editor hounded me for more information, and reluctantly, I gave him some facts of the case and why, we felt, belugas could make ideal subjects for research in interspecies communication.
Hungry for more information and a big scoop, the editor contacted the Vancouver Aquarium, and was put in touch with the curator, who raved in the ensuing story that Logosi couldn't `talk,' that, like a parrot, he was only imitating human voice. We hadn't said anything different. Since then, a Purdue scientist has discovered that parrots are doing much more than parroting, but in any case, the curator discredited us for making claims that Logosi could talk - which was the editor's doing, not ours - while making all kinds of broad generalizations about how no animal has human intelligence or the capacity for language. As if he knew.
The sadly comic aspect of the story was that the curator went ahead
to say, contrary to our impression, that Logosi's sounds resembled
Chinese more than Russian. Logosi was captured in Siberian waters
frequented by Russian ships, and anyone who has listened underwater
with a hydrophone to radio broadcasts amplified by shiphulls, may
appreciate that a beluga whale might conceivably become imprinted to
the sound of Russian. As fate had it, the editor's inquiries
and subsequent story prompted the curator, who hadn't noticed us
until then, to oust us from the aquarium. Our research could no
longer be conducted there because the nonsense about `talking
whales' caste a poor, meaning unscientific, image on the curator and
the facility. But they couldn't prevent us from coming as paying
Nonetheless, our plan to set up a slide screen outside Logosi's tank, which he could view through the submerged window, and present slides of objects while broadcasting their English names to see if he would begin to develop a vocabulary and eventually ask for certain pictures or combine words to describe new images, a step towards use of language, was thwarted. Entirely at our expense and effort, with no bother to the aquarium or its business short of permission to hang a hydrophone in Logosi's pool and set up a screen outside it, not only might we have been able to make some serious progress exploring his linguistic capacity, we would have generated much interest in the aquarium.
To this day, only musician Jim Nollmon has seized the opportunity to employ these highly vocal, large, brained cetaceans for interspecies communication work. Oddly enough, the Vancouver Aquarium had since incorporated Logosi's "talking" into its publicity program.
We procured an ideal location on Decatur Island in Puget Sound to keep Logosi and continue research with him. The Vancouver Aquarium even agreed to sell him to us, but Logosi died before we could relocate him.
Discouraged by a series of setback resulting from human resistance to our interest in interspecies communication, we relocated to Ashland, Oregon. It was inevitable, I suppose, that not much later the National Enquirer would appear. After losing an inherited fortune trying to keep the whale work alive, and surviving by our bootstraps, we weighed the risks of the National Enquirer effectively discrediting legitimate research findings against the possible advantages of reaching millions of people and our use of the $2,500 royalty offered for an interview and a couple of photos of Logosi.
The reporter asked me questions while he tape-recorded our conversation, and I did my utmost to make statements that were accurate and precise, beyond distortion or readily taken out of context. He kept digging for one thing, for me to say that Logosi was a talking whale. And the more he tried dredging this out of me the more anxious I became. I stopped the interview to ask him to agree in writing that I would have the right to veto anything in his story. His song and dance routine was well rehearsed, and he kept assuring me that he'd quote only what was on the tape, nothing more, and offered me a legal contract to that effect.
He took us out to dinner after the interview, and what transpired that evening confirmed my doubts. The guy had a few too many drinks, thank God, and as the night wore he shared with us stories about his reporting adventures for the Enquirer, to which we were most attentive.
The Enquirer had assigned him to write a story about a shrine in India where, twice daily, when the priests came to pray, the cobras also appeared and prayed, a reference to the snakes holding their heads up high to face the altar. Quite a story. At the shrine, our man found no cobras during prayer hour, so to complete his assignment he hired a couple of locals to search for snakes, but they found only one, insufficient to serve his purpose of constructing a photo with priests and several snakes together at prayer. He could concoct the story easily enough, but not without a credible photo. Next he set out to employ the service of snake charmers who would line up their cobras against a backdrop of praying priests.
On the way back to the temple with four snake charmers holding cobras in baskets on their laps, the Indian driving the taxi ignored our man's warnings to slow down, and hit a deep rut which threw everyone in the car including the four cobras against the roof. With four cobras loose in the car, the reporter thought to throw his camera bag out the window before he opened the door and jumped for his life as the car careened off the road into a pond. The last he saw of them, the driver, charmers and snakes were swimming for shore.
His mission failed, but that was just one of several stories about how the Enquirer manages to convert fiction into fact for its readers. Next morning I wired the officers of the Enquirer demanding that nothing I said be used by them.
The day may come when we can talk about "talking" animals without threat of censure, condemnation or distortion. On the one extreme are whale enthusiasts who have seen the Hollywood movie, "Day of the Dolphin," with its "talking" dolphins, and read some of John Lilly's work, on which the fictional movie plot is based. Perhaps they grew up on TV's "Flipper," but altogether they have failed to separate fact from fiction and when someone tells them that dolphin language has not been deciphered or that Lilly didn't conduct conversations with dolphins, that he never did and certainly never said so, they are shocked.
On the other extreme are the super-humanists who, without considering the information and theories behind the scientific efforts to establish interspecies communication with cetaceans proclaim that only humans have language and that no other species possibly could have the intelligence to ever acquire or use language. An example is the college president where I taught. He heard from my students that animals are intelligent, and that some may have language or advanced communication. Jack asked the students to ask me if any animals had written a symphony lately. My answer was that if ability to compose a symphony is what separates humans from animals then very few people qualify.