What Are Killer Whales Saying?

People who are listening to the killer whale calls in my previous posting are asking whether we have any idea yet of the meaning. Answer: not as language, but we do know some things.

What we don’t know: We don’t know if they have words or language. We think they have signature calls (names) and recognize each other. We do know they can hear each other over tens of miles (about 30 miles, though some large whales such as fin and blue whales can hear each other over hundreds of miles).

Language in the strict sense means syntax, which means that word placement determines meaning. So, “Put the blue pillow on the red pillow” means something different than, “Put the red pillow on the blue pillow.” Same exact words, different order. That’s language. Some dolphins and some apes have the ability to understand human syntax.

Killer whales are dolphins—the biggest ones. I am not aware of whether they understand human syntax. I would not be surprised. We certainly don’t have the ability to fully understand them. But—.

What is really incredible about killer whale vocalizing is that researchers can easily recognize which pod they are listening to, even when all they are hearing is their calls coming through the computer, exactly like the audio file I’ve posted. Not only do the pods sound different, but there are groups of pods who frequently interact—called communities—and their calls differ from the calls of other communities.
killer whales 2
Different communities appear never to interact, even though their members might get within a thousand yards of each other at times, and the edges of their overall ranges overlap. (The whales calling in my audio file are from a community of coastal fish-eating killer whales who live in the Pacific Northwest of the U.S. and extreme southern British Columbia; their pods are collectively called the Southern Residents; there are 3 pods of Southern Residents, just over 80 individuals total).

Across the animal kingdom, vocalization varies enormously. Some other animals, of course, do not vocalize (squid, thousands of others), some make mechanical sounds (crickets, many others), some have a limited series of calls that are easier to understand, such as “I’m here and this is mine,” “I’m here where are you?,” and “danger” (many birds and mammals), and some have very rich repertoires (elephants, apes, whales, etc.). killer whales 3

Many probably have much richer nuances that they understand, but that we miss. A dog “barks” and “whines” and “growls,” but If I am in my house and my dogs are in the yard I can easily tell whether my dogs’ barks mean they are playing, barking at someone passing, or threatening a potential intruder. They don’t just “bark,” and there is much useful information in how they are barking. I sense that this is the tip of a widespread rich vocal iceberg.

If I think about my dogs or animals such as hawks that I’ve worked with, I would say that gesture, routine, familiarity, natural tendencies regarding food-getting, alertness and the ability to understand what’s going on (we might think of this as very high contextual intellect), and a sense of what is doable and what is dangerous, combine to make other animals true professionals in their livelihoods. They know what they’re doing. But the how and why of rich vocal repertoires does still remain very mysterious. Or at least, beyond our current comprehension.
killer whales 4
Perhaps it’s all babble; though that seems unlikely considering how rich and varied the sounds and how much energy they spend vocalizing. Perhaps as humans gained our exceptional skills at syntactical language and its immense powers, we lost the ability to comprehend a different way of approaching and using vocal information. Perhaps each species has its own languages and dialects and we don’t understand because they work differently from ours and from each others’ and it’s much more complex than it seems.

But what seems to be the case is that animals with complex vocal repertoires manage to get a lot of information across without using syntax much, if at all. The same can be said of the interaction between a human and a dog, for instance.

I think that when there is not a species bridge to cross, when the creatures are among themselves with their own families and cultures and appropriate habitats and familiar territories, the amount that gets across is quite rich.

How it gets across, we still don’t know.

Ecologist Carl Safina is author of seven books, including the best-selling “Beyond Words; What Animals Think and Feel,” and “Song for the Blue Ocean,” which was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. His writing has won a MacArthur “genius” prize; Pew and Guggenheim Fellowships; book awards from Lannan, Orion, and the National Academies; and the John Burroughs, James Beard, and George Rabb medals. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, National Geographic, CNN.com and elsewhere, and he hosted the 10-part “Saving the Ocean” on PBS. Safina is founding president of The Safina Center at Stony Brook University.
  • Howard Garrett

    I would suggest that use of complex systems of symbols is the key characteristic of human languages, and that use of symbolic languages is inextricably integral to development and maintenance of cultures, as described in orcas. In that vein: “The complex and stable vocal and behavioural cultures of sympatric groups of killer whales (Orcinus orca) appear to have no parallel outside humans and represent an independent evolution of cultural faculties.” -Rendell, Luke & Hal Whitehead, (2001) Culture in whales and dolphins. Behav. Brain. Sci. v24(2): 309-382. In sum I think we can conclude that orcas use complex systems of symbols, unlike any other known animal except humans.

    • I also know some elephant researchers who would tell us that elephants are among a select group of creatures with complex vocal messages.

  • batsdude

    They’re saying, “Close Sea Worlds!”

  • Ima Ryma

    The clicks, the whistles, the pulsed calls,
    The groans the moans, the complex songs.
    Cetaceans have the wherewithals
    To message by their call-a-longs.
    Dolphins and porpoises and whales
    Depend on underwater sounds
    For where to navigate details
    Locating where feeding abounds.
    They socialize like families.
    It is their dialects that bind.
    Shooting the underwater breeze,
    No good to say for humankind.

    Cetaceans have something to say.
    Humans may understand some day.

  • Betsy Walker Hasegawa

    Sounds to me like overhearing a raucous cocktail party–Are they saying only serious stuff? “How are you?” Carl, thanks!

  • Rüdiger Hofrichter

    I would asume that they communicate as dophins do with i.e. Sono-pictoral and that their sounds generate a cyma glyph which is linked to a picture and meaning in the brain of an orca tribe. So their singing would be a transfer of a whole movie of pirctures or memories. This would explain the conservative society as they would communicate menories as movies.

    Just a idea, which is logic if you asume that they have a brain with less memory but faster proccesor. The next question is if they want to communicate with humans as the orca is a alpha hunter in the food chain and the human is therefor inferior and the human as a proven trackrecord of whale killer. We might discuss if a orca is willing to kill a human in a seaworld as they might sent pictures of killed whales by humans around the world in seconds. So this could be the answer what orcas talk about and why they dont want to talk to us?

    Maybe they look even down on us?

    I hope we will not wipe out them to early and someone might find a way of communicating with them. ( as talking is not the medium they might understand)

    If all this is true than in their culture are action more worth than words.

    Think about is…

  • Gary Joseph Chandler

    well, It’s known resident pods have 20 calls and transients have 6. I’m surprised, by observing actions after the sounds, nobody has figured out what they are saying. possibly [there’s food over here] [let’s corral this prey] [can I make a baby with you] and stuff like that.

  • n

    i think you go there with the wrong perspectiv, do you ever tried to speak with them in their language, why are you thinking they are intrested in understanding us, i mean maybe its better to learn their language and try to speak with them, their brain is 16 pounds big and their social life is very compilcated they live in familys n stuff like that, please think about that in the first moment it sounds stupid but what is if its possible, i mean we just know 4 percent of the ocean, orcas have hundreds of hunting strategies, they maybe can teach us,

  • n

    do you ever thought about learning their language why should it be helpful to teach them our language with a orca in human prison, think about learning their language!!!! if you understand tham they will teach you if you vcan get them trusting you

  • Nick Annis

    Question really. Where/how can I listen to the sound of a whale, any species, singing the passage “here I am, where are you?” Any leads or thoughts would be welcomed. I am a songwriter, working out a song.

  • Alex Roderer

    I think in the case of killer whales vocalization is only a small part of their “language” I think a big part of how they speak involves movement and sense of touch. I’d imagine since they are so good at sensing how close or far something is from them the position and tone or most important. I’d imagine they also use their body movements to shift water pressure around those they are communicating. I’d imagine they do this by sorta slapping their tails inside the water while circling whoever they are trying to communicate with. Their language probably doesn’t even have “words” as we think of words.

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