Circa 1968, Even Killer Whales Dug the Rolling Stones

The story of a captive Vancouver Aquarium orca and his affinity for Jumping Jack Flash
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In the Pacific Northwest, killer whales have always been easy to spot traversing the coast, but in the latter half of the 1960s, humans began to capture the marine mammals for public display. On February 16, 1967, Ted Griffin, director of the Seattle Marine Aquarium, caught 15 killer whales at once. Some died. Others were sold to marine parks. One whale of interest to us, Skana, weighed 3,000 pounds, stretched 14 feet long, was sold to a regional boat show seeking publicity. Its owners resold her for $25,000 to the Vancouver Aquarium, where she lived out her life. Longtime residents of Vancouver remember Skana as the aquarium's star attraction. A decade's worth of photos show her leaping into the air as onlookers fill a small stadium.

Her days were filled with performances.

But early in her captivity, Skana spent her evenings being studied by Dr. Paul Spong, a New Zealand born biologist who devised a simple experiment to test the whale's eyesight. He found that when she tired of distinguishing between two cards he put in the water, she disengaged from the experiment. Never mind if it meant fewer fish rewards. Skana demanded more stimulation. 

Spong discovered that she responded most favorably to sound.

Using an underwater speaker, he played bells, flutes, and whistles, all of which caused Skana to become animated and swim around her tank, or to approach the speaker and rest her head on it.

In time, Spong surprised himself by forming a high opinion of the creature's intelligence. In one talk given for fellow scientists, he aired the possibility that releasing the whale might be best. His remarks were picked up by the media and the aquarium declined to renew his contract. With his severance, he began a nonprofit dedicated to preventing the capture of killer whales in British Columbia, and studying them in the wild, with a particular emphasis on recording their vocalizations. 

Prior to all that, when he was still working with Skala, he spent many hours playing different sounds -- the whale became extremely impatient if he played the same thing more than once. All the while, another recently captured killer whale, Hyak, was kept isolated in a nearby tank. And when Spong decided to gauge that whale's reaction to sound things got even more interesting.

He had the equipment to synthesize any number of different tones.

But in author David Kirby's engrossing 2012 book about Sea World, the 2010 death of one of its animal trainers, and the history of orcas in captivity, he recounts that the marine scientist turned soon enough to another source of sound -- and that, for a moment in 1968, human and orca tastes converged:

Paul played everything for the little whale: Mozart, Miles Davis, the Moody Blues. Hyak seemed to like it all. But what he liked more than anything was music that was new. One day Paul put on an album by the famous Indian sitar player Ravi Shankar. "He was so interested in that, he responded to it so enthusiastically," Paul said. "So the next day, I went down and played it to him again. And we didn't get more than a few seconds into it when he stopped and went straight back to his corner. He sat there and waited for me to put on something else. He'd remembered enough of what I'd played him the previous day, and he didn't want to hear what he'd already heard, again."

...This little whale had an extraordinary acoustic memory, Paul realized. And as with Skana, he believed that Hyak was trying to use operant conditioning to elicit a desired response from the human, not the other way around. Hyak was now consistently demanding new music. Fortunately, in 1968, there was no shortage of it. The Rolling Stone's album Beggars Banquet had just been released, in addition to a number one single, "Jumping Jack Flash." Hyak seemed to love rock and roll. The aquarium's conservative management frowned upon the racket of English long hairs blasting their electric guitars, but Paul figured, what the hell? He'd give the Stones a go. He got the LP out of its sleeve and put it on the record player. "All of a sudden, Hyak swam at me and charged around the pool making great waves that washed over the edges," Paul recounted. "He went down one side, leapt, and then turned the corner and r-r-raced down the other side. Then he shot his body out of the water once again, did a barrel roll, and dove back in. After that he slapped his pectoral fin on the water. He'd sit there and spray great plumes out of the side of his mouth. It was such an amazing transformation of behavior. And I said to myself, wow, he really digs the Stones!"

Hyak liked classical music too, and once "slapped his pectoral fins in time with the melody of the concerto," but I like to think of him all amped up listening to "Jumping Jack Flash" for the first time. In a utopian future when humans could communicate with all Cetaceans, perhaps killer whales will use their gigantic brains and acoustic sophistication to replace homo sapien music critics.

Then again, humpback whales are already selling out album length releases:

humpback whales full.pngHyak died at the Vancouver Aquarium in 1991.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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