A killer whale called Wikie has become a star after being taught to "speak". But there is a dark reality behind the feat.
A captive orca named Wikie has been taught to speak certain English words through her blowhole but the experiment has been labelled "tragic" by animal rights activists, said news.com.au.
Housed in an aquarium in Antibes in France, the 16-year-old female whale was trained to be able to mimic words and make fart-like noises, according to a study published on Wednesday in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
"I certainly wouldn't have put my name on that study," said Dr Ingrid Visser from the Orca Research Trust in New Zealand. As a marine biologist she has spent much of her life studying orcas and said the research has "no consequence" or benefit to the animal or conservation efforts.
In the experiment, Wikie copies words and phrases such as "hello", "bye", "one, two, three" and the name of her trainer, Amy. A high-pitched and eerie voice uttering the name "Amy" is quite clear in the audio released by the study's researchers.
'That place is a bit of a tragedy'
"Vocal imitation is a hallmark of human spoken language, which, along with other advanced cognitive skills, has fuelled the evolution of human culture," the researchers wrote.
"Comparative evidence has revealed that although the ability to copy sounds from conspecifics is mostly uniquely human among primates, a few distantly related taxa of birds and mammals have also independently evolved this capacity."
It's an interesting, and rather remarkable feat. While the whale's attempts to parrot human language via her blowhole are far from perfect, you can certainly make out what Wikie is trying to say.
But the audio is as striking as it is heartbreaking, and for people like Dr Visser it's a reminder of the cruel conditions Wikie and the 59 other captive orcas in the world are kept in.
She has visited every facility in the world that houses captive killer whales, including the one in Antibes where a couple of years ago she met Wikie and her calf used for the experiment.
"That place is a bit of a tragedy," she told news.com.au. "It is a barren environment for any orca to be kept in and I think it's quite ironic that the (marine park) industry is helping to show that these animals are intelligent yet they don't recognise with that intelligence comes the responsibility of looking after them properly."
The Wikie experiment was conducted in Marineland Aquarium in southern France — the same aquarium that, in 2015, faced criticism after one its killer whales died during flooding.
The whales can often exhibit strange behaviour linked to the stress of captivity.
"The orcas in the Marineland park have atrocious teeth and that comes from chewing on the concrete tanks and steel gates and I saw that happening when I was over there," Dr Visser said.
For her and other conservationists, the study — which received international media attention this week — is another sad reminder of the psychologically damaging effects of captivity on these very intelligent animals.
Orcas are huge and highly social creatures who can travel more than a hundred kilometres a day in the wild and have been recorded diving to depths of up to 700 metres. Yet 60 of them are currently cooped up in small tanks in captivity, deprived of communicating in their natural language.
Orcas have been shown to have their own unique dialect among pods. "They have their own culture as well, it's not just dialect," Dr Visser said.
Push for change
Wikie was born in captivity and marine parks that house these animals for entertainment often claim whales like Wikie would now struggle to survive in the wild. But Dr Visser says conservationists like her aren't just calling for them all to be dumped into the ocean.
"We're not saying that, what we're saying is that these animals should be viewed on a case-by-case basis and where feasible, and where possible, they should be transitioned through a sanctuary and if possible released back out to the wild," she said.
However many of the remaining aquariums that hold captive killer whales are resistant to such an idea.
Last year France's Marineland vowed to fight a ban on breeding killer whales and dolphins in captivity introduced by the French government — and ultimately, they succeeded.
The ban was overturned this week.
It followed a similar ban in California in 2016 which outlawed the breeding of killer whales in captivity, as well as the circus-like shows that have them performing for crowds. Around the same time SeaWorld vowed to cease breeding orcas in captivity.
Much of the progress in recent years was spurred by the release of the documentary Blackfish in 2013 which showed how killer whales can turn violent and anxious in captivity. However there is no record at all of orcas being aggressive to humans in the wild.
"You put it in the framework of where we were pre Blackfish and where we are now, it seems quite glacial but it's actually going at light speed," she said. "There's progress being made."
According to the researchers behind the Wikie study, the results "show that killer whales have evolved the ability to control sound production and qualify as open-ended vocal learners."
But Dr Visser doesn't think the research is as meaningful as it has been portrayed in media.
"I don't think the animal is talking as the media has picked up on, there is obviously an attempt by the animal to copy," she said.
"We already knew orca were very good mimics from studying them in the wild, so it hasn't really added to our body of knowledge.
"Besides, if they're intelligent enough to do mimicry, then what the hell are we doing keeping them in these concrete tanks?"