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Human-Cetacean Communication                                   This page is


Standard Approach in Aquaria:


Positive-reinforcement: teaching a stimulus and rewarding a desired response:

*      Human whistles at the instant a cetacean does a desired action (jump high, come to trainer, retrieve item, etc.),

*      Then human provides food and/or stroking as a more tangible reward seconds later when cetacean comes to human.

*      Human does not whistle or reward when trainee does not meet firm criteria

*      Human raises criteria gradually, always within natural ability and variation of the trainee, so behavior becomes more advanced. (Shaping)

*      With some animals like dogs, clickers have been used in place of whistles.


Standard References include:


Ken Ramirez, Shedd Aquarium (Illinois), 1999. xiv+578 pages.

Animal Training: Successful Animal Management Through Positive Reinforcement

ISBN 0961107499 prices, libraries, search in book


This book has text by Ramirez, and reprints dozens of articles by trainers throughout the United States. He thinks it is distracting and unnecessary to know what animals think, since it is hard even to know what humans think.


Both books quote the late philosopher Gregory Bateson as saying that positive reinforcement "is a method of communicating with alien species."


When trainers whistle to reinforce a cetacean's behavior, and others are present, some articles discuss confusion over which cetacean the reinforcement whistle applies to. Trainers generally decline to use a unique whistle for each cetacean, even though some species seem to use distinct whistles themselves. Trainers call individuals with visual shapes (hourglass, circle) rather than sounds.


One article mentions adding mats of neoprene and Corprene (a composite of cork and rubber) to a tank for research, to reduce echoes which would otherwise distract cetaceans.


Karen Pryor, Ringpress (England), 2002, xvi+202 pages.

Don't Shoot the Dog: The New Art of Teaching and Training

ISBN 1860542387 prices, libraries, search in 1999 edition


This book has many examples of humans teaching humans, and humans teaching animals, with positive reinforcement. It also has comparisons to other methods. She believes both animals and humans think about their responses, and learn faster after grasping a concept. She notes that animals' reactions to her training cause her to change what she does, so she recognizes that they train her.


Humans expect to be trained at school, work, and some volunteer programs. Elsewhere Pryor recommends training humans with positive reinforcements, without telling them that the positive reinforcements are aimed at change, because they will dislike being trained. For example a human who is enthusiastic during some topics or activities and bland during others will encourage the first topics more than directly requesting them. The implication is that people respond well to pleasurable feedback from another person, but don't want to admit how effective it is at making them change.


Pryor says:

*      I found myself fascinated... with what could be communicated between us--from me to the animal and from the animal to me (p. xii)

*      Killer whales are famous for anticipating shaping. Their trainers all have the same joke: You don't have to train killer whales, you just write the behavior on a blackboard and hang it in the water, and the whales will follow the script. (p.46) [Morton '02) says it another way "They can read your mind."]

*      I can sympathize with biologists who want to observe the natural behavior of animals without disturbing or interfering with that behavior in any way, and who thus reject gross interference such as training... But I remain convinced that shaping sessions offer a fruitful way to combine both approaches and that both field and laboratory workers who can't or don't consider this tool may be missing a bet. (p.156)

*      Subjects like to learn through reinforcement not for the obvious reason - to get food or other rewards - but because they actually get some control over what is happening... animals brighten up (p.160)


Dolphins in Aquariums Communicate with Technology:


*      Dolphins used underwater buttons with 4 choices ('12)

*      Dolphins pointed narrow echolocation beams onto an array of hydrophones which acted like a touchscreen  ('08, video)

*      Dolphins used touchscreen to show they recognized a musical note ('05)

*      Other species also communicate with technology


Reverse Training


As noted above, Karen Pryor recognizes that dolphins train her, to adjust how she interacts with them. People willing to have less control can give cetaceans more chances to train people:


*      A cetacean can positively reinforce a human for desired actions: The cetacean whistles at the instant a human does something desired (provide toy, do gymnastic feat, play music, etc.), then pulls rope to dispense nut or grape as tangible reward.

*      Sides of a tank can have rows of signs visible above and below water, symbolizing common interactions and specific trainers. Going to a sign is a request by a cetacean for a specific trainer or interaction.

*      A cetacean can teach movements to a human, who is outside a glass wall of a tank. The cetacean can whistle and reward a human when the human learns and does what the cetacean chooses. Initially a human in the tank can signal to the human outside, so cetacean sees initial skills of humans. Initial skills may be gymnastics, yoga, pilates, dance, music, etc.

Cetacean-Human Vocabulary


Basics. Human groups which don't know each other's language have usually developed contact pidgins: "minimal vocabulary and grammar," which both groups can use. Some pidgins are derived from both languages, some from just one.


Research by Batteau, Herman and Reiss (below) shows that cetaceans and humans can develop a contact pidgin of whistles when humans want to.


Linguistics generally uses "Language" specifically to mean human words, though some also include human sign languages (Lieberman 2015, Chomsky 2005, Chomsky 2015). It is not clear what to call a joint communication which does not use words, but this page will temporarily call it a contact pidgin.


A contact pidgin created by mutual agreement is the most practical. However people can also study natural cetacean sounds. offers over 200 hours of video and sound recordings of cetaceans, so anyone can try to correlate behavior with vocalizations. They have humpbacks, sperm or cachalot whales, pilot whales, melon-headed whales, blue whales, fin whales, Fraser's dolphins, spinners, bottlenose, orcas, common dolphins. Woods Hole offers 2,000 sound recordings of 60 species of marine mammals; total time may also be over 200 hours, though there is no ability to correlate sounds with behavior.


One-Way Whistle Communication with Cetaceans


*      Herman in Hawaii created a contact pidgin of at least 34 whistles with female bottlenosed dolphin Phoenix.

*      34 are listed in Herman, "Cognition and Language Competencies of Bottlenosed Dolphins", in Schusterman et al, Dolphin Cognition and Behavior,1986, p.230.

*      33 are listed in Herman et al, "Comprehension of Sentences by Bottlenosed Dolphins," Cognition, 1984, p.144.

*      23 are listed in Herman, Cetacean Behavior, 1980, p.415)

*      Trainers elsewhere use gestures which cetaceans lack hands to reproduce. Trainers elsewhere also merge object and action in one command (take ball to hoop).

*      By using whistles, Herman created a system capable of 2-way communication. By splitting commands into object and action, he could reorder commands without fresh teaching (take hoop to ball).

*      Another step would be to create a few standard whistles or pulsed sounds (like an alphabet) and combine them to create as many words as needed.

*      Herman's goal was to prove Phoenix understood communication and sentence order, not maximum vocabulary. He defined whistles for:

*      13 mobile objects: Ball, Pipe, Hoop, Person, Fish, Frisbee, Surfboard, Basket, Net, Loudspeaker, Water jet, Dolphins Akeakamai and Phoenix

*      4 fixed objects: Gate, Window, Panel to choose tape recordings, Channel between 2 tanks

*      10 transitive verbs: Mouth-grasp, Tail-touch, Fin-touch, Go over, Go under, Go through, Toss, Spit, Fetch, Place in (last 2 also take indirect object)

*      4 modifiers: Right, Left, Surface, Bottom

*      3 feedback: Correct (yes), Wrong (no), Erase previous command

*      Herman knew the dolphin understood these whistles when he put them together in new combinations, and the dolphin did what he asked without further training 80-90% of the time.

*      Herman had earlier taught 6 whistles to a female bottle-nosed dolphin, Kea, "for three objects (ball, ring, cylinder) and three actions (touch, fetch, mouth)", and the dolphin followed his instructions:

*      "immediate generalization of response that occurred. In addition to mouthing the three familiar training objects in the presence of the mouth name, Kea correctly mouthed on their first appearance a plastic water pipe, a wooden disc, and the experimenter's open hand. The same type of immediate response generalization occurred for touch and fetch... Kea understood the concepts of 'touchingness,' 'mouthingness,' and 'fetchingness.' " (Cetacean Behavior, 1980, pp. 413-418)


Kea was taken by others and released at that point in the research. Herman does not say what happened to Phoenix, and his later publications do not discuss the whistle communication, so further work was probably classified. Herman did get funding from the US Navy, starting in 1985. These whistles can develop into a contact pidgin, since both humans and dolphins can create the whistles.


He says it was hard for humans or machines in 1980 to hear whether the dolphins created the same whistles, to make requests of the humans. In fact understanding whistles does not seem that hard: many humans recognize dozens of bird whistles. Or a series of bursts like Morse code can be used instead of whistles. Morse operators learned to transcribe bursts of sound fluently.


Dolphins also use bursts and clicks. In echolocation, "a target object with complex shape and surface structures will reflect back an echo with many highlights. Highlights are more distinct and easier separated if sound emissions are short and sharp... Clicks are usually emitted in trains where the inter-click-intervals (I-C-I) are a little longer than the two-way travel time to the target object. The approximate distance from which a dolphin emits sound can be calculated by the I-C-I of recorded sonar sound." (Berglind



Two-Way Whistle Communication with Cetaceans


*      Batteau (1964 at 12:10) developed machines for the US Navy, which translated human voices to higher frequencies for dolphins to hear and translated dolphin voices to lower frequencies for humans to hear. The work continued at least until 1967 when the Navy classified its dolphin research. Batteau died, also in 1967, before he published results.

*      Richards, Wolz + Herman (1984) trained a dolphin to make distinct whistles for objects, "so that, in effect, the dolphin gave unique vocal labels to those objects"

*      Reiss + McCowan (1993) taught dolphins 3 whistles (ball, ring, rub), which the 2 dolphins produced, and even combined, when playing with the ball and/or ring, or getting a rub.

*      Herzing (2014) created 3 whistles for "play objects (Sargassum... scarf, and rope)", and found that wild dolphins understand them, but has not found if dolphins produce the whistles.

*      US and Russian navies assign dolphins to detect mines and humans, and recover lost objects underwater. There are no published reports on the level of detail used in the instructions, but numerous videos show their abilities.


Yes, No, Maybe.


*      Ramirez (1999) says that trainers make a signal for a wrong action which he calls No. Similarly he defines Yes as praise from the trainer for a desired action. However this Yes and No are much more value-laden than factual Yes and No.

*      Herman and Forestell said they taught dolphins to signal whether an object is present in or absent from their pool, which they called Yes and No. (1985).

*      If a more general Yes/No can be taught, humans could pose a variety of questions to cetaceans, about the fish they like, noise levels, boat speed and preferred locations, etc. Presumably one can teach a general Yes and No by varied questions: Ball present? Ball large? Sound loud? Sound high-pitched? No one has published on the subject.

*      Smith, Shields and Washburn (2003) report that a dolphin distinguished high frequencies, low frequencies and Uncertain. They taught Uncertain by providing a response which gave a reward sooner than the wrong answer, but not as fast as the right answer, and the dolphin used it for frequencies close to the cutoff between high and low, in the same ways as humans did in a parallel test (Smith 2010).


Keyboard Communication. Several researchers have used underwater keyboards, which humans and dolphins can touch to signal an action (Reiss, Herzing, Xitco). A dolphin defined a key as "I want a small fish" and researcher Reiss (2011) ignored it. Otherwise humans choose the few activities symbolized and seem to provide the keyboard less than an hour per day, which limits it.


Body Language. Herman and Tavolga (1980) report Bastian's experiments having a female dolphin communicate to a male dolphin, telling him to push the right or left paddle. They were in the same tank, and a barrier blocked sight of each other but not sound. The female's body seemed to send the signal, so body language may be part of how cetaceans communicate. This would explain how they can read humans as well as each other. Evans and Bastian (1969, pp.432-433) could not find evidence whether the female intended to signal the male, but did conclude the male read some signal from the female. They never published the detailed results for others to evaluate. They thought it was significant the female made the same sounds whether the male was in the tank or not, but do not discuss whether she was vocalizing to the humans at that point, and dismiss the significance of communicating with body language. The authors say that among humans most evidence about intentions is "linguistic in nature" (p.429), so dolphins' lack of words means humans cannot know dolphins' intentions. By contrast, others believe humans read body language (consciously or not) to judge intentions, more than words.


One-way Sign Language. Herman summarizes other communication research with animals (accessed 2015, undated, latest reference 1999). For 30 years, from the 70s to the 90s he created a gestural vocabulary of "30 to 40 words" for one dolphin, Akeakamai. These were "gestures of a person’s arms and hands", so this was not a contact pidgin, since it was not designed so that dolphins could to produce it too. As of 1980 (p.416), the first 22 gestures covered the same words as Phoenix' whistles above, except Gate, Window, Panel, plus 2 words Phoenix did not have: Go left and Go right. He lists 4 of the words Akeakamai learned later: basket, question, present, absent. The same gestures could be given on a TV screen, and were immediately understood and followed.


Shared Music. Philosophy professor Rothenberg tried to create human-humpback communication through music, "the main thing is to listen to what's going on. If you want to interact with an animal musician, you want to play something that leaves space for them" (0:59). He says the humpback responded with musical variations on his playing (3:52). His recording ("Never Satisfied") and unclear audiograms are published (pp.236-239).


Linguistics Research.


*      Noam Chomsky, an expert in linguistics, researches how human language works for humans. He says studying communication with other species does not help us understand humans, but may help us understand other species,

*      "we learn nothing about humans from the facts that apes can be trained to mimic humans in some respects."

*      "it’s possible that training apes to do things with signs can teach us something about the cognitive capacities of apes."

*      "ape-language experiments... might teach us about ape intelligence by training apes to deal with problems that are outside their normal cognitive range."


Similarly we learn little or nothing about Tibetans when Bolivians learn Tibetan or Tibetans learn Spanish. However either lets Bolivians and Tibetans communicate ideas about living on cold plateaus. Shared whistles or other symbols between humans and cetaceans would let us communicate about common issues in local waters.


*      Published communication experiments with cetaceans have had an entertainment focus, like "Fetch Ball," so the value of the communication seems limited. The same effort teaching "Flounder unhealthy," and "Loud noise here at dawn" can warn cetaceans to avoid polluted fish and pile driving. Cetaceans can also identify pollution to us.


*      Navies have taught dolphins and belugas to retrieve objects and identify enemy intruders. Whether the instructions are "communication" or "stimulus," they act as contact pidgins. It is likely navies can tell dolphins what to search for, in what direction, and how far, though nothing is published.


*      Herman mentions humans' unsuccessful efforts to decipher cetacean sounds. None of it was done by experts in linguistics. He ignores how nearly impossible it is (without translators) to decipher the flow of any foreign language, even to break it into words. Babies learning English take up to a year to recognize that louder syllables often start a new word. Then they are guided by adults until they recognize enough words to catch these when spoken, which breaks up the flow into identifiable portions. The great difficulty of understanding without mutual guidance is the reason for contact pidgins.


*      Lieberman and Chomsky disagree a lot on linguistics, but both say language developed 40,000-100,000 years ago; Lieberman says mental skills developed for millions of year, and language flowered when our necks got long enough to make certain vowels clearly. Chomsky says our physical nature was long good enough, so the reason language flowered must have been a mutation which added to our mental skills. Chomsky also says human language is a "completely unique capacity, there's nothing analogous to it anywhere in the animal world. There are animal signaling systems, but they're completely different in design and use, and just every dimension" (2:05). He says "there is every reason to believe that this [human language] developed pretty suddenly as an optimal communication system" (4:50). If so, we'd expect other species to have optimal systems for communicating, just as eyes have evolved in vertebrates, octopuses and insects. The difficulty is creating contact pidgins between these different systems.


Brainstorming - Possibilities in the Wild to Improve Cetaceans' Condition?


*      Teach "Loud noise here at dawn" to warn cetaceans to avoid sonic tests, pile driving, and other loud human activities. Cheaper and better than canceling tests when cetaceans are in the area.


*      Easily shared concepts include:

*      Counting (each small number can be represented by an ideophone, such "one" represented by 1 click or whistle, "two" represented by a pair of clicks or whistles, "six" as two groups of 3 clicks each: ||| |||, etc.); Killian et al. (2003) found that a dolphin understood numbers of items presented visually, and cetaceans are likely to understand numbers presented in sound.

*      Common items (fish species, objects, individuals, up, down, north, south, east, west, styles or pieces of music, etc.)

*      Enthusiastic (good, happy)

*      Time of day (distinctive whistles at the same times every day)


*      Ask cetaceans to report harassment by humans?

*      Learn an association between whistles and arabic numbers, to read and report boat license numbers (chimpanzees learned arabic numbers), or

*      Identify size of boat, location, time of day

*      Warn cetaceans to avoid polluted fish

*      Test prey fish to determine pollution levels

*      Create agreed symbols (visual or sound) for each species that cetaceans eat, and for healthy/unhealthy.

*       Present symbols like "Flounder unhealthy," to warn cetaceans to avoid polluted fish. Cetaceans could also identify pollution to us.

*      Encourage cetaceans to let researchers approach closer to photograph and monitor health?

*      Minke whales in Australia approach humans spaced along a rope. The reinforcement seems to be that Minkes enjoy watching humans.

*      When water is too cold for people, will whales voluntarily approach a boat offering attractions?

*      Cetaceans have been attracted by various stimuli,

*      Belugas in Churchill have been attracted by the Beatles (2015)

*      Dolphins at Herman's research center in Hawaii (1980) chose music with a lever, "including dolphin sounds, whale sounds, human voices, music, etc."

*      Takaki (1998) also mentions "levers that control lights or bubbles"

*      Pryor (1980) mentions "providing of means for control of the environment by the animals themselves."

*      Trail distinct buoys (different shapes, materials, sizes); play different music when whales approach different buoys

*      Provide audio connection (VOIP, Skype, etc.) among whales in different parts of the world (e.g. belugas St Lawrence + Churchill). Law and Kitchener suggest audio also with aquarium cetaceans (Int.Zoo Yb 2016 51:1-16

) to provide them social stimulation