One of the aspects of killer whales that is most tantalizing and fascinating is their communications with each other. These are a series of specific calls—each one used solely within their familial groups—as well as chirps and other sounds, notably the clicks that comprise their echolocation. Scientists began figuring this out in the 1970s while studying the now-endangered Southern Resident killer whales in the Pacific Northwest’s Salish Sea, listening in with a hydrophone as they talked to each other underwater.
Some years ago, I picked up one of these hydrophones and began recording orca sounds, riveted by what I was hearing. Below is one of the recordings I made (in June 2018) that captures the variety of their vocalizations.
One of the things that these scientists ascertained is that killer whales have a level of sophistication in their communications that is only comparable to that of humans in the animal kingdom. They proved, for example, that orcas have dialects in whatever language it is they have—something that is unique to them and homo sapiens. Moreover, they found that these dialects adhere to their social organizations.
As I explained in my 2015 book Of Orcas and Men: What Killer Whales Can Teach Us:
Each distinct population has its own “dialect,” its own set of stereotyped calls that it uses when communicating with fellow pod members. The immediate linguistic function of these calls is not entirely known, although in one study of the structure of the calls, it was concluded that many of the sequences of the calls relayed broad motivational information and that certain sub-classes of vocalizations apparently contain “more subtle information on emotional states during socializing.”
However, there are also calls that killer whales use repeatedly in speaking to each other, the immediate function of which appears to be a kind of beacon, so that the whales know the precise location of each other while hunting and just traveling generally, although these calls also appear to contain information indicating pod identity. Some of these calls are used across the entire clan of Southern or Northern Residents, while others are specific to individual matrilines and appear to indicate those identities.
Similarly, the surface simplicity of the killer whales’ communications, as Justin Gregg would argue, does not appear to qualify these communications for the term “language” as we know it, since it is not clear at all that there is any great complexity to them.
However, that is more a function of what we do not know about killer whales than of what we do know; what we know about their communications, as well as the large and complex brains behind them, certainly leaves open the possibility, if not the likelihood, that there is more going on there than meets the eye or ear.
… Val Veirs, a retired physicist who has been listening and gathering orca sounds for several years, believes that breaking the communication barrier, as unlikely as it might be, could open opportunities for human education not just in relation to orcas but in relation to the natural world they inhabit. “They do have a certain kind of long-term memory because they know how to organize their lives around the comings and goings of things that are not easy to understand,” Veirs says. Presumably, that’s why the mothers live so long, because they pass on geographic and other wisdom. “So maybe they have some long-term wisdom that if you could communicate with them, they could say, ‘We have an oral tradition in our world, and our oral tradition says that at one time you couldn’t catch any fish here, because it was ice all over the place, and then the ice went away, and then the fish started to come up here where the fresh water is.’ Maybe they’ve got all that encoded.”
There might be lessons simply in long-term survival there, too, Veirs says. “Why are they so specialized?” he wonders. “Given that they don’t have any real competitors, maybe ecological niches are a way that species can carve out a way to avoid competition. Maybe that gives you a certain kind of stability that allows, say, the residents to coexist with Ts without competing with them.”
Dolphin neurophysiologist and ethicist Lori Marino, too, has speculated about what killer whales might be able to teach us, should we ever breach the communication gap: “One, I’m not sure we ever really will,” she warns. “But you would hope that what you’d want to learn is something about who they are, and maybe something about whether they share an internal world – their phenomenology, or their subjective experience. I think just the idea of being able to have communication with them that we can confirm as communication – right now, we do communicate, but we don’t speak the same language so we never really know – but the idea of just knowing that there could be an exchange where both parties willingly know what is going on, I think that would be quite amazing.
“I don’t know if we will get there. I just think that their communication system is probably more complex than we can imagine. I think we could get closer, but people have been trying for decades, and we still haven’t really figured out much.”
Nonetheless, of all the animals she has studied, Orcinus orca is the one that most inspired Marino’s awe. “They were the brainiacs of the planet well before we were,” she says. “The thing is, one of the things that you can learn from cetaceans is that there are ways to survive when there are many different types of species of the same kind. I mean, we’re so used to putting ourselves apart from the great apes, we’re the only hominids around, and that gives us a false sense of who we are. The seventy-seven species of dolphins and whales and porpoises have been sharing the ocean for tens of millions of years, and managed to do that.
“Look at the orcas: They manage to partition resources, even when they live in the same region. So they’ve figured that out. They’ve done it better than we have. But it tells you that if you have a big brain and you’re really complex, then you can do it.
“We went off that track, separating ourselves from nature, thousands of years ago. And I think part of the problem is that when you don’t allow yourself to be connected, then you can’t expect to really understand other species. Part of not understanding orca communication is the presumption that it’s got to be much less complex or less deep than our communication. And once you start from that point of view, you’re not going to get very far. But if you start from a different place, you just might.”
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