Tom Brakefield/Getty Images
Andrea Romano
February 01, 2018

If you’ve ever read a book or watched a film about orca whales — whether it was “The Cove” or even “Free Willy” — you know these majestic creatures are incredibly intelligent.

Able to learn and understand certain gestures, people have witnessed how orcas can mimic human movements: when we wave, they can wave back. But one orca has surpassed expectations by becoming the first killer whale to actually mimic human speech, the Telegraph reported. That is, as much as a whale can do.

Wikie, a 14-year-old female orca living in Marineland Aquarium in Antibes, France, can be heard on several audio recordings saying “hello” and “goodbye,” counting to three, blowing raspberries, and even calling out her trainer’s name, Amy.

The whale’s accuracy in mimicry was judged by studying the audio waveforms rather than simply by sound alone.

These sounds were also accompanied by a visual cue, a gesture given by her trainer. Wikie learned the phrases using the common technique of positive reinforcement: Whenever she did well, she received a fish or an affectionate pat.

Among themselves, orcas have a complex language of their own. According to the Telegraph, while they don’t have the same vocal ability as humans, they have their own dialects, accents and cultures based on where they come from in the world. These idiosyncrasies are learned by imitation.

This might be why orcas are actually so good at learning habits of other animals (including humans). As the Telegraph reports, “previously killer whales have been observed mimicking the barks of sea lions and the whistles of sea dolphins.”

Joseph Call, professor in evolutionary origins of mind at the University of St Andrews and a co-author of the study that recorded the sounds, told The Guardian that even though Wikie could mimic these sounds, there’s “no evidence that [orcas] understand what their ‘hello’ stands for.”

While the study itself is fascinating, the issue of keeping orcas in captivity remains a controversial issue. Many people on Twitter have mixed feelings about Wikie being used in the study at all.

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