Interview at the Moscow Zoo Dolphinarium

Interview at the Moscow Zoo Dolphinarium

26 May 2011

Two white (belukha) whales from Chukotka, Platon and Yulya, have been sharing the dolphinarium at the Moscow Zoo with several dolphins for more than ten years. Ecologist and senior trainer at the dolphinarium Vera Sochina spoke with our science editors about the characters and habits of these large and very charming animals.


Friendship between whales and dolphins


Most whales are gregarious animals and do not like living alone. How does this characteristic of white whales exhibit itself in your dolphinarium?


White whales enjoy the company of humans as long as they pose no threat. And they get along very well with the dolphins despite the fact that they never encounter them in the wild. During the shows, all the animals are kept separate from one another, in different pens, and take turns performing so that they do not interfere with each other. But in the evenings and on days off, the gates are opened and the animals swim wherever they like. But even when they are separated from one another, their urge to be with others is so great that they sometimes break the cage to get to each other. Our female dolphin Ellie is very fond of playing with the white whales and enjoys riding on their backs. She finds the smallest chink in the enclosure, unties any knot in the rope to get into the white whale section and play with Yulia and Platon.


Do the male and female have different personalities?


Yulia, the female, is very sociable. She likes to play with the walrus and she likes fur seals. She spends a lot of time watching the sea lion Masha swimming in her enclosure. She goes up to the net that separates her pool from Masha’s and looks over there. Platon, the male, very much keeps to himself. He has his home, his own routine, and he doesn’t poke his nose in anyone else’s business. Females are generally more social than males.


In other words, it has to do with their different social roles in nature? I have read that white whales are matriarchal, and that females live separately from the males.


Here the roles are often reversed. With white whales, like with humans, a lot depends on their mood, on the way they feel. Sometimes during training Yulia dominates. She tries to teach Platon good manners, she might bite back or push him. Sometimes, on the contrary, Platon is in an active mood while Yulia is thoughtful and dreamy and sometimes reluctant to come out for the show. I can’t say that Yulia is the boss and Platon plays second fiddle. They are equal. Perhaps this is because white whales live in large herds where a hierarchy develops naturally. When there are only two of them their habits are different than they would be in nature.


Are their habits very different from those of wild whales? What habits have they retained? What do they do in the dolphinarium they would also do in the wild?


Whales are very intelligent and playful animals. They often make up new games and they seek out contact.


Sometimes during a training session you simply sit on the bridge and watch as the whales or dolphins show you new tricks: swing their tails, slap their fins or jump out of the water spinning in different directions. It can boggle your mind – how they do it. All that the trainer has to do is show a sign of approval. They say that in the wild, white whales do not jump out of the water. However, that is not quite true, judging from the photographs taken by researchers studying white whales in the White Sea. Of course, they don’t jump as high as in some dolphinariums, but they jump all the same. Sometimes they jump out of the water when they play.


Small whales often slap the water with their tail to express their negative mood.


Finding a common language


How do you communicate with the animals?


You’ve no doubt heard various sounds the white whales make – squeaking, screeching. It’s not for nothing that they are called sea canaries. At the same time, the human ear is not equipped to hear most of the sounds the whales emit. On the other hand, whales are thought to have a very bad ear for the human voice and perhaps don’t hear it at all.


So it is useless to shout “good job.” We use high frequency whistles to communicate with dolphins and whales. The whistles have frequencies that both people and whales can hear.


The animal comes to learn that the sound of the whistle is a sign of approval. It knows that the whistle means that if it comes to the trainer it will get a small fish or be stroked. The relative importance of the various rewards may vary for every animal. Some like to be stroked, others do not.


How do white whales spend their time between training sessions and shows?


All the small whales are very playful. They even play with the water. Sometimes in between training sessions, Yulia throws water up in the air, catches it and then throws it up again.

We often catch Yulia playing with a pebble even though she is five metres long and weighs over one ton. She is a very large animal and you have to wonder how she can enjoy playing with a pebble that she found at the bottom of the tank. She brings it up, then lets it fall to the bottom, then brings it up again. She’ll do this over and over.  


They are very happy when a diver gets in the water. The white whales go up to him, give him a slight push and watch his reaction. If there is no reaction they approach him from the other side and pull at the tube. Each time the diver replaces the old net or fixes the enclosures Yulia goes up to him  “standing” with her head downward. She watches him as he works. It’s as if she’s trying to figure out how she is going to take it all apart later. If she manages to steal something during the repairs – a tool or a piece of net or rope -- it’s impossible to get it back from her, even for a fish. It is her toy. She swims with it and plays with it.  


Do they always enjoy training sessions?


No, they often refuse. Because they are highly intelligent, you have to have a special way with them. The trainer never knows what they are going to spring on him. On some days, play is more important for them than training. They know what is going to happen and that the man is sure to come. If Ellie breaks the gate and joins the white whales it is very difficult to lure them out to train and perform their routines. They are used to balls and performing and all our tricks, no matter how hard we try to vary them and introduce new routines.


You have to strike a balance to keep the shows from seeming like work. You need to be playing with the animal just as the animal is playing with you. You can’t perform the numbers mechanically. As soon as it becomes routine, they lose interest in performing the tricks, even the spectators can notice it. A whale or a dolphin is your partner who is giving the performance together with you; it should not be treated as a subordinate. So if you want to be a successful trainer, you need to find a common language with the animal, not try to establish your dominance and make the animal do what you want. Animals are very sensitive to the way you treat them.


From the life of whales


Let’s talk a bit more about the life of whales. Do they sleep in the same way in the dolphinarium as they do in the wild?


Unfortunately, I cannot compare the way they sleep here with the way they sleep in the wild. Here each of them has a favourite place to rest. They do not sleep like us, they have no fixed sleeping hours. They have periods of activity and periods when they are less active. During such periods they stop and close their eyes. Scientists say that only half of their brain sleeps, one hemisphere is switched off while the other is awake. The reason for this is that breathing for them is not a reflex like for humans. You and I can talk, eat, run, sleep and breathe at the same time because with us breathing is a reflex. Our spinal cord controls the breathing process without the brain taking part. For whale, breathing is not a reflex. They have always to think when to breathe and when not to breathe, whether there is water in the blow hole or some other hindrance. They do not breathe like land animals, they first exhale and then inhale.


How do they look when they sleep ?

Outwardly their sleep is pretty much the same as that of humans. The whale lies on the water with its eyes shut. It submerges a little, then surfaces a little. This is what the awake part of the brain controls. Our animals show some differences. That’s the way Platon sleeps: exhale-inhale, drop to the bottom, lie on the bottom for a while then surface very, very slowly, he is obviously drowsy, then again exhale-inhale and sink to the bottom. Yulia always sleeps on the surface. She also likes to sleep in the cold in winter. White whales are northern animals and they do not mind low temperatures, so they have a choice. Part of the pool is under a roof and the temperature there is always above freezing even in winter, and the part of the pool where Yulia and Platon live is outside. The whales can go outside in any weather, look at the sun and breathe fresh air. But of course in winter we give them more food, especially to those who either live outdoors or like to go outdoors from time to time. They have a thick layer of fat and they have never caught cold.


What do they eat?


All sorts of fish. We try to diversify their diet and give them up to five different types of fish. In winter the diet is fattier: we add herring, mackerel, and capelin. In summer we give less fatty fish, and add smelt, pollack and squid. Yulia eats up to 25 kg a day and Platon 30-35 kilos. He is considerably larger, over five metres long. Their age is about the same. Platon is 2-3 years older. Both are sexually mature.


What kind of fish do they prefer?


Big fish. They like fatty fish. But if you give them a large humpback salmon they don’t mind that it is not fatty. Sometimes we simply spoil these animals. In the evening, when the training and shows are over, part of the feeding routine is when the trainers go up to their animals and give them part of their ration while socialising with them. Not as a reward for any specific behaviour. Again, this is to avoid routine. In such situations, we can bring them a large fish as an experiment, to see the expression in Yulia’s eyes when she eats a huge salmon.


Could it be because it looks like a real fish that they would hunt?


No, it’s been a long time since they’ve hunted. In fact they don’t know how to hunt. These are animals whose behaviour has changed dramatically. They are different from white whales in the wild in many ways. If you release a dolphin, a white whale or a killer whale out of the dolphinarium, there is 90% chance that the animal will die, because it has been adapted to a different life. They learn to eat dead fish here. They have different criteria for judging what is and what is not food. In the wild, they eat something that moves, is shiny and is the right size –  all characteristics of a living creature. Here the criterion is very different: they get the fish from humans. Not all animals would eat a fish dropped on the bottom, even if it is a whole herring. At least that is what my experience tells me.  


Everybody knows the story of the Keiko dolphin that was being groomed to return to the wild. Well, he did not start eating live fish immediately; at first he was scared. We feel that our animals would also be scared of a live fish. My female dolphin certainly would be. She is even afraid of a whole herring.


The whale trains the trainer


White whales appear to be smarter than dolphins. Is that the case?


Yes, many people feel that they seem smarter than dolphins. This is because the pace of a dolphin’s life, so to speak, is much faster than that of humans. The number of actions a dolphin can complete in the time that it takes you to whistle is simply staggering. We simply cannot keep up with them; we are much slower than dolphins. That is why dolphin trainers always have quick reaction times. Not everyone is cut out to work with dolphins. With an ordinary person who doesn’t understand what a cunning and quick animal he is dealing with, the dolphin will do whatever they want.  


For example, you are feeding a dolphin. If you are untrained, the dolphin will slowly bring you to another corner of the pool within a couple of days, moving imperceptibly, inch by inch. You won’t even notice that you are shifting your position. Very often it is the dolphin who trains the trainer.


The easiest and best-loved trick of the dolphin is jumping. An experienced trainer sees how high the dolphin jumps. After several days the dolphin barely jumps above the surface. It does not happen all at once because the dolphin knows that if it suddenly starts doing low jumps, the trainer will get angry and go away. This is the punishment that most sea animal trainers apply: turn away and walk away, demonstrating that the game is over. The trick is called “time out.” So the dolphin lowers the height of the jump little by little, so that an inexperienced trainer is not aware of what is happening. The dolphin swims back to claim his reward as if asking, “Why don’t you like my work today?” It is a battle of brains.


The white whale is less agile and it thinks at about the same speed we do. It approaches a task like some sort of mathematician.


Does it mean that somebody who works with the white whale can be more phlegmatic?


It depends. To use human terms, Yulia is very diligent. She tries hard to do everything well, so that everybody is pleased during the training or the show. She saves her pranks until later. She may break the enclosure at night and let the dolphins out. But when she works it’s a no-nonsense thing for her. Not that she never cheats. We have a number when the white whale jumps out of the water, takes a bunch of flowers from the trainer’s hands, falls back into the water, does a dance and then gives the flowers back to the trainer. During the summer season when there are many shows and many things to think about – the order in which the animals perform, making sure that all of them get enough vitamins to be in good form – Yulia trains me imperceptibly. She manages to get me to bend over when giving her the bunch of flowers. Little by little, you don’t even notice how it happens.


Pity for narwhals


Which, in your opinion, are the most unusual whales?


The most studied whales in the world are killer whales. They have very interesting behaviours, a developed social structure and they recognize members of their families. They are indeed highly organised animals. But I don’t think they are the only whales that have such qualities.


There are at least 85 species of whale. Some species a lot of people have never heard about, but they are very interesting and very rare, for example, beaked and toothed whales. For example, I like the Commerson’s dolphin. It is small and cow-like with a black and white body. All these species merit attention, but for some reason they are studied much less. Dolphins, for example, use their tails to herd fish into a shoal, then push them to shallow water before eating the fish. If this is not coordinated action what is?


The white whale has also been studied. If not for this research, we would known much less about these animals. But they used to be studied because they were a target of the whaling industry.


By the way, do you know that the white whale belongs to the narwhal family? They are unlike dolphins and killer whales.


There are just two species in the narwhal family –  the white whales (belukha) and narwhals. Very little is known about the narwhal. There are practically no photographs of them and yet it is a very interesting species. No one has explained why that whale has developed a horn. Some think it needs it to measure temperature and other things, some think it needs it to break ice. But nobody knows for sure. That’s the animal that needs to be studied.