Teaching Dolphins A Basic Language

Years ago, at the University of Hawaii, in the Kewalo Basin Marine Mammal Lab, I worked with four bottlenose dolphins. It was an experiment to teach them basic acoustic sound and gestural language forms. Elele and Hiapo was a male and female pair about four years old. Phoenix and Akeakamai were two twelve-year old-females. We had an immediate bond, a telepathy. Their eyes pierced mine as no human ever had. It was a thorough cerebral and spiritual connection that almost bypassed an earthy connection. I already asked myself back then, maybe this is what God feels like?

They had been tutored in a basic vocabulary of named objects, requested actions, and basic sentences. Studies have shown that dolphins have the ability to understand the semantic and syntactic structure of words and sentences. These four could follow instructions. Instructions were given either by a live person giving basic sign language, or by images of signers projected onto video monitors that were seen by the dolphins by underwater windows.

Elele and Hiapo were trained with basic auditory and visual cues. A dolphin keyboard was developed which allowed the dolphins to interact with their trainers and handlers by pressing, one or more of a series of lighted signs, for requests for more input, or answers to trainer’s questions.

Phoenix, who was before trained, in the comprehension of an artificial acoustic language, was used in a test to observe if the dolphin could vocally repeat a sound that she had heard. Each part was either a linear tone sweep or a continued frequency tone. The goal was to have Phoenix listen to a form sound broadcast into her tank underwater and for her to produce a vocal imitation of that sound. She was highly successful at matching the form sound duration and only moderately successful at matching frequency and contour of the sound.

Melody Perception was also part of the daily training routine. Dolphins can recognize melodic contours of music already after the melody has been transformed or broken up in a number of ways. These tests revealed that the dolphin’s auditory capabilities surpassed those of most species.

Phoenix and Akeakamai could follow an action of indicative pointing and could carry out a specific action to a person or object to their right, left or an object or person behind them. Phoenix chose the correct indicated object at about 33%; Akeakamai performed her task considerably better choosing the correct destination by 64%.

I was interested in dolphin’s response to sound, being the creative life force along with breath and water. Sound came forth out of the womb of silence and produced all things. Akeakamai taught me to create inner sounds so that we can create outer manifestations because sound requires breath and water. It is the holy unformed component that we can shape into any manifestation if we know how to combine breath and sound. This dolphin also taught me that I had to change paths, change my breathing patterns, and change my sound. I really enjoyed the work with these four dolphin souls. Thinking back perhaps, they taught me more than I could ever have taught them.

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