Monday, May 26, 2014

The Story of One Whale Who Tried to Bridge the Linguistic Divide Between Animals and Humans

“They come to think of us as family,” Ridgway said. “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.”

Ridgway said he didn’t remember there being anything particularly strange or different about Noc over the course of the first seven years preceding his sudden speech episodes. He did describe him as being somewhat lazy and unfocused at first during open-sea training sessions, often delighting in purposely delaying the proceedings through an avoidance behavior known as “mucking” (diving down to suck invertebrates from the seafloor). Sometimes he’d just bow out completely, swimming the 70 miles back to his enclosure in San Diego Bay.

“My office was on the end of a pier in San Diego Bay,” Ridgway recalled over coffee that morning. “Noc had his home enclosure next to the pier. I would hear these ‘talking sounds’ late in the day as I headed down the pier toward the parking lot. I assumed these talking sounds resulted from a conversation on one of the two adjacent piers about 150 feet away from me.”

Also that May, two Navy divers were making underwater repairs on the Point Loma whale enclosures. Throughout these sessions they would talk with their onshore dive supervisor through an audible underwater communications device known as a “wet phone.” In the middle of that day’s outing, one of the divers, a Navy veteran in his late 30s, Miles Bragget, abruptly surfaced and asked a puzzled supervisor: “Who told me to get out?” Informed of the incident later, Ridgway and his team decided to start keeping a closer eye and ear on their beluga recruits.

“After a set period of time,” Ridgway explained, “or after the divers completed a task, the supervisor would typically order them out. It was also not uncommon for Noc to be in the vicinity when the underwater communications systems were being used. But Bragget had come up at a point when the supervisor had said nothing. It turns out that Bragget heard Noc. The ‘out’ he thought he’d heard, we realized, had come from Noc. He repeated the word several times.”

“I didn’t observe Miles’ initial interaction,” Jeffries said of Bragget, who died in 1990, “but I was at the facility that day. I remember when Miles got out of the water he was sure the dive monitor and the guys around the pens were kidding him when they said they did not call him out of the water. He thought they were pulling his leg. But we realized pretty quickly what was going on, maybe because of the way Noc reacted to the divers, watching them from his pen, following them, focusing on Miles in particular. Belugas are very aware of people and their actions, especially Noc, and Miles had a nice touch with Noc. He was a gentle man. And once we figured out that it was Noc, we were all excited, laughing, and, I think, completely humbled by this amazing animal.”

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