There’s lots of talk this week about a “talking” beluga whale who died five years ago at a U.S. Navy facility. And it’s all grist to the mill of the Georgia Aquarium and other marine zoos that are pulling out all the stops to persuade the government to give them a permit to import 18 belugas they’ve captured in Russian waters.
The plan is to put them on display at their own aquarium and at various other marine zoos, including SeaWorld.
The new study in the journal Current Biology tells the story of Noc, a beluga, who was captured in 1977 and spent most of his life at the National Marine Mammal Foundation. In 1984, researchers discovered his ability for mimicry, and recorded lots of his vocalizations, which they’ve now written about in detail, and which the news media seem quite captivated by.
For its part, the Georgia Aquarium has wasted no time taking to the airwaves, too, to explain that this study demonstrates why the aquarium should be allowed to put more belugas on display in various marine zoos around the country.
William Hurley, the chief zoological officer of the aquarium, showed up on Fox and Friends, to make the case to TV host Steve Doocy.
“There’s no doubt [that] beluga whales are facing certainly an uncertain future in the Arctic, the ice changes, and environment changes, so if, you know, you don’t have some of these animals in your care to learn from, you don’t have these animals to train and have wonderful relationships with, and sort of figure out the secrets of how they do what they do, you don’t know enough to save them or protect them from the things that — in decades you know ahead of us.”
Fox’s Doocy, not surprisingly, swallowed all of this, hook, line and sinker, never challenging the assertion that belugas are facing an uncertain future in the Arctic. (They’re actually doing better than many other animals. And the whales being held by the Georgia Aquarium were captured from a healthy, thriving population in Russia’s Sea of Okhotsk.)
Nor did Doocy question the claim that these 18 belugas are going to teach us how to protect their families in the wild. (In fact, there’s no evidence of that at all. And we already know how to protect them: Leave them alone!)
Here’s the whole Fox News interview:
Belugas have, in fact, long been known for their remarkable ability to sing in a wide range of vocalizations. They’re also very adept at mimicry, which is probably how baby belugas, like humans, begin to learn the “language” of their families.
But while Noc was in captivity for many years, and his vocalizations were recorded in detail, he didn’t teach his captors anything at all about life in the wild – let alone about beluga “language”.
We’ve probably learned more, in fact, not from captive belugas but from the ones whom scientists have been able to follow in the wild. Just a few weeks ago, for example, we published an interview with Catherine Kinsman, director of the Whale Stewardship Project, who spent considerable time watching over Wilma, an orphan beluga who had been approaching tourists off the coast of Nova Scotia.
Kinsman said that belugas are highly social, “very chatty” animals with big brains that are designed for sophisticated communication, and who live and travel in large extended families. Wilma, who was on her own, appeared to be “chatting” with anything that had a voice.
The years she spent in close contact with people had another unusual effect. She seemed to be mimicking the sounds of the boats.
She was making two vocalizations that sounded like propellers: first the “vroom” of a motor, and then the high-pitched hydraulic whine of an engine being lifted out of the water or being lowered into it.
And then there were so many people, especially children, calling out “Wilma” in a sing-song voice that she appeared to develop a vocalization that was like the vowel sounds of “Wilma” – a kind of “iii-aaa.”
And since belugas are among the most intelligent, self-aware animals on Earth, one can only wonder what Noc might have been trying to say to the people who held him captive for so many years.
Like maybe, “Get me out of here!”?