The killer whale who was recorded mimicking human speech

Today, news stations and papers announced that Wikie the captive orca has spoken!

From the B.B.C –

A killer whale that can mimic words such as “hello” and “bye bye” is thought to be the first of its kind to copy human speech. The female learned to “speak” a handful of human words by copying a trainer at a marine park in France.

The animal’s repertoire includes the name “Amy” and “one, two, three”.

Whales and dolphins are among the few animals other than humans that can learn to produce a novel sound just by hearing it.

“In mammals it is very rare,” said Dr Josep Call of the University of St Andrews, a co-researcher on the study.”Humans obviously are good at it… Interestingly, the mammals that can do best are marine mammals.”

The researchers set out to find out whether killer whales could learn new vocalisations by imitating others. They studied a female named Wikie at Marineland Aquarium in Antibes, France. She was taught to speak human words through her blowhole and can be heard in recordings mimicking words such as hello and Amy, and counting one, two, three, using squawks, shrill whistles or raspberries.

Killer whales are known to live in groups with unique vocal “dialects”. They may copy other members of their kind in the wild, although this needs to be tested.

“The killer whale that we studied in captivity was capable of learning vocalisations of other killer whales and also human vocalisations by imitating them,” said Dr Call. “Therefore this result suggests this is also a plausible explanation for how killer whales in the wild learn the vocalisations of other killer whales and how they develop their dialects.”

Wikie made sounds while partially immersed in water with her blowhole exposed to the air. Sounds made under the water may be quite different. And since this was just the one whale, the researchers are unsure whether there are more copy-cat killer whales in the wild.

Vocal imitation is a hallmark of human spoken language, yet in other animals it is strikingly rare. Dolphins and beluga whales are among the few mammals that can copy sounds from other species or each other. Some birds can mimic human speech, notably parrots, but also some members of the crow family.

Dr Jose Abramson, from Complutense University of Madrid in Spain, a co-researcher on the study, said basic “conversations” with Wikie may one day be possible. “Yes, it’s conceivable … if you have labels, descriptions of what things are,” he said. “It has been done before with a famous grey parrot and dolphins using American sign language; sentences like ‘bring me this object’ or ‘put this object above or below the other’.”

However, he said we have to be careful about imposing human concepts on animals, as there is more to gain by trying to understand the natural way each species communicates in its own environment.


Wikie has been exploited since day one

When Wikie was only eight years old, she “became the youngest orca to be artificially inseminated…in a collaboration between Marineland [Antibes] and SeaWorld. The resulting offspring did not survive.” In March 2011 she successfully gave birth to Moana – Wikie was nine years old.

Just two years and eight months later, when Wikie was still only twelve years old, she produced a second calf. Keijo was born in November 2013 and is believed to be inbred, having reportedly been sired by Wikie’s recently deceased half-brother.

In the wild, orca do not typically give birth to their first calf until they are around 14 years of age and they usually only produce one calf every three or more years.

At Marineland Antibes, Wikie does not have a normal social group. Her half-brother Valentin died during the time when the orca tanks at Marineland Antibes were flooded with mud and Valentin’s mother Freya died just four months before her son. Wikie is now the only remaining female at the entertainment park, kept in a tank with her two male offspring and Inouk, her only surviving brother. ( ref: Orca Aware)

This is just another trained behaviour, she does not understand what these sounds mean and she is not having a ‘conversation’ with her trainers.  It may capture the headlines but it does nothing of any value.

What does it encourage? More ticket sales? More exploitation?

I wonder what she would say if we were intelligent enough to understand her kind.

Please join us for Empty The Tanks – May 12 – London


Claire Bass, UK director of the Humane Society International, said Wikie’s ability to imitate human speech “is as tragic as she is fascinating”. She is certainly further proof that these are highly intelligent mammals whose captivity in marine parks in the 21st century should come to an end. She is also a painful reminder that in the wild where these awesome animals swim free, they communicate with each other using complex language and even group-specific dialects, natural communication that is utterly denied them in captivity.”

UPDATE: B.B.C  release another article with responses.

Read – World’s first talking killer whale: The dark reality behind the ‘talking’ orca