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Evidence of Beluga Intelligence Raises Questions about Captivity

A growing number scientific and anecdotal reports suggest that there is much more to a cetacean’s brain than the captivity industry might care to admit

 NOC, the ‘talking’ beluga whale who has become posthumously famous after the release of a report revealing his speech, had the same legal standing as the computer or handheld device that you are using to read this article. After his capture from Churchill, Manitoba, in Canada, he became a piece of property, owned first by the Navy and later the National Marine Mammal Foundation (NMMF). He was used in various acoustic experiments for years and was denied the right to control any aspect of his life: the right to bodily integrity; the right to privacy of any sort; and any other right which you and I (thankfully) possess.

photoname Photo of Painting by Opal-On-BlackRecently, 18 wild belugas were captured off the coast of Russia. They could soon become the
property of the Georgia Aquarium and other such facilities in the United States.

Recently, 18 wild belugas similarly lost their freedom. They were captured off the coast of Russia and are currently being held in a pen in the Black Sea. They could soon become the property of the Georgia Aquarium and other such facilities in the United States. The freedoms they once enjoyed - to traverse the oceans with their families; to socialize with whoever they chose; to live their lives as they wish - have been removed from them, potentially forever.

In both cases, as with every other captive cetacean on the planet, this removal of freedoms and designation as property is in the name of ‘education’, ‘science’ and ‘conservation’. Regardless of the validity of these statements, the question becomes whether the complete removal of rights from these individuals is ethically defensible. The justifications given, whether stated or implied, are that beluga whales are not capable of having emotions, complex thoughts, and do not otherwise possess those human qualities which entitle us to the basic rights of life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. But are these justifications grounded in scientific fact? Are beluga whales indeed lacking these qualities?  

There is a burgeoning body of both scientific and anecdotal evidence suggesting that there is much more to a cetacean’s brain than the captivity industry, comprised of places like SeaWorld and the Georgia Aquarium, might care to admit. These businesses thrive on perpetuating the image that dolphins and whales are suitable for human entertainment and as experimentation subjects. The industry openly flaunts their control over them, displaying them in shows where they are forced to perform degrading tricks every day. The industry profits from their captives to the tune of billions of dollars each year, generating significant motivation to continue withholding rights from cetaceans.

If the Georgia Aquarium had to prove that belugas have no more emotional or cognitive abilities than a footstool, they would fail, and would not be able to justify keeping them captive. The onus should be on the industry to prove, beyond a doubt, that cetaceans are nothing more than stimulus-response automatons before being condemned to concrete tanks.  

NOC’s spontaneous human speech mimicry is significant in the question of whether belugas belong in captivity. To the scientists at the NMMF, it was an interesting manipulation of his vestibular air sacs and phonic lips, which they conceded as requiring significant effort on NOC’s part to accomplish. More significantly, however, is the fact that underpinning those physical sounds was an apparent motivation — or a desire — to communicate with humans.

According to Thomas White, director of the Center for Ethics and Business at Loyola Marymount University and author of In Defense of Dolphins – The New Moral Frontier (2007), having desires and the power to make choices in one’s life is indicative of a complex mind and the possession of a sense of self —or self-awareness. While self-awareness tests have not been conducted on beluga whales, other cetaceans with similar brain size and structure have passed these tests. There is good reason to believe that belugas would pass as well.   

Contributing to the evidence of self-awareness in belugas is the fact that NOC was not imitating random sounds, like the water filtration system in his tank, or the clanging of feed buckets – he was mimicking sounds coming from humans, which could indicate that he recognized humans as being ‘other minds’. White argues that the ability to recognize other minds is “… a necessary trait of a sophisticated consciousness” and that this ability renders one vulnerable to feeling the emotional pain of being treated unfairly or cruelly at the hands of another mind. “…harm that may result from (a dolphins’) contact with humans could be intensified by the awareness that we are beings with the power to act differently, but choose not to.” Each of us has experienced this kind of exquisite pain, and it is likely that NOC felt it as well.  

When asked about what could have motivated NOC to go to such great efforts to make human-like sounds, the lead author of the report, Sam Ridgeway, offered the following: "The whale often heard divers talking over underwater communication equipment… I think that vocal animals like feedback. Perhaps this figured in his motivation.” If one looks beyond this response, however, it does not take a great logical leap to suppose that perhaps NOC had something to convey to the human scientists. The fact that he repeated the word “Out” over and over, while a diver was in the tank with him, does not appear to have figured into Ridgeway’s official conclusions. It is precisely this sort of conclusion that the Georgia Aquarium is banking on — one that places beluga whales into the category of ‘property,’ rather than ‘thinking, feeling, communicative being.

A charming piece of anecdotal evidence provides a further clue into the cognitive abilities of a beluga whale. In this video the whale bobs its head to music being played outside of its tank. According to neurobiologist Aniruddh Patel, dancing, or the ability to perceive rhythms and synchronizing body movements to what is heard, is the product of a complex set of processes — one that was, until recently, among the coveted hallmarks of exclusively human abilities. The act of dancing to a beat is surprisingly complex — it requires creating and responding to a model inside one’s head in relation to what is being heard externally. It indicates the ability to predict and expect. It also indicates that belugas could be vocal learners, just like people. Vocal learning suggests evolution of complex languages — another indication of cognitive complexity.

The evidence suggests that, at the very least, there is a chance that beluga whales are intelligent, have desires, and are self-aware. Because it is impossible to prove that belugas are essentially inanimate objects, they should not be considered and treated as property. If your footstool repeated the word “Off” to you, would you still rest your feet firmly upon it? If you saw some indication that it used complex language, that it could dance, and that it wanted to dance: would you unequivocally deny it the ability to do so?

The captive cetacean industry is trying it’s best to avoid these kinds of questions, instead claiming that they “love” animals and it is through a sense of caring and concern that they must keep these beings captive. They cannot prove that cetaceans do not have emotions or intelligence, yet they are still allowed to deny all freedoms.

When a whale tells a person to get out of his tank, it is easy to think that it was some sort of strange coincidence or that it was an animal looking for ‘feedback’. But it is just as easy, and perhaps easier still, to recognize that the whale looking back at you from within the tank is another self-aware mind.  

The people at the Georgia Aquarium have made up their minds about keeping belugas captive. Have you?

For updates on the Georgia Aquarium permit and other cetacean captivity issues, see

A previous version of this story incorrectly located Churchill in Alberta instead of Manitoba.

Laura Bridgeman
Laura Bridgeman is director of Sonar, an organization that advocates for dolphin and whale personhood, and Campaign & Communications Specialist at Earth Island's International Marine Mammal Project.

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Those who wish to pet and baby wild animals “love” them.  But those who respect their natures and wish to let them live normal lives, love them more.  ~Edwin Way Teale, Circle of the Seasons, 1953

By Mary R. McConnell on Wed, December 26, 2012 at 3:33 pm

I’m just wondering if NOC was saying “out” to the divers in the pool, as in telling them to get out of his pool, or was NOC saying get ME out of this pool. 

I am horrified on a daily basis what places like SeaWorld do to these incredibly intelligent beings.  Should the day come when roles are reversed, I hope I am long gone.

SeaWorld and all it’s many executives and shareholders will have a lot to answer for.

By Monica Gilbert on Wed, December 26, 2012 at 9:01 am

I will only say that I believe marine life should be studied intensively,but only in their environment and on their terms.We humans are a pious, self serving lot, and we have a lot to learn about living with all of Gods creation.To all those who advocate confinement for human entertainment,I would only say: pray that there is no intelligent life somewhere in the universe capable of placing you in the same box

By Brian McCarthy on Sat, December 15, 2012 at 2:10 pm

One correction. Churchill, the place where NOC was captured, is in Manitoba, not Alberta. Alberta is completely landlocked.

By GDiFonzo on Mon, December 10, 2012 at 5:52 pm

If the captive industry would get up to speed in comunicating with the whales / dolphins like the sci fi postulates and partner with them . we might learn so much more about each other .  We humans Have small minds even the brightest of us is very limited at best   but some of us are becoming aware that we are close to a collapse of our society . based on our current societal wants , not needs   the whales have been around much longer than we have without issues that could destroy the planet   that seems intelligent to me

By james jordan on Sun, December 09, 2012 at 11:05 am

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