I have a list tucked away in a dark and hidden fold of my mind. It’s a list of places, phenomena, events, architecture, and accomplishments that, if I were to die without seeing or doing or fulfilling, I would be a very pissed pile of ashes lying in an urn somewhere. Of course, because I’m also a little superstitious with things I’m passionate about, I don’t like talking about the items on that list until I’ve crossed them off. (What? atheists can be superstitious too. Just don’t ask me to rationalize it.)
Recently, I crossed the following item off my list: to see whales in their natural habitat. You know, not on a whale watching cruise, or captive orcas and belugas in an aquatic park, but just whales hangin’ out, going about their business in their natural surroundings. It worked out because of two things: I live right by the Pacific Ocean, and every time someone visits me from out of town, I use showing them around as an excuse to trek to a certain lighthouse that juts out into the ocean on the northern coast of California, and is known for people having spotted a migratory whale or two, far in the distance.
This was my third trip to the lighthouse – I figured if I went often enough, I would get lucky at some point. And I would have been happy spotting just a whale or two in the distance, I really would. But what I saw was something else altogether. When we got there, I stood against the railing at the lighthouse as per usual, and focused so hard on the distance, hoping to spot some movement, that I may have missed what followed, if whales weren’t as big as they are. Right along the craggy coast – right under where we were standing – a dark, long cloud started to emerge from the depths of the water, and move closer to the surface. Then another. And another. And another, until there were adult gray baleen whales everywhere, in packs of about six, moving right at the surface and along the coast. And the calves – oh! The calves. Frisky, playful, curling above the surface, splashing each other with ocean foam until they were rounded off by the adults. It was a sight I’d only ever dreamed of.
We stood there for the good part of an hour, watching the whales. And when one of the calves cooed – or whistled or hooted, whatever it is that whales do – I all but climbed the railing and fell into the water. (Which would have been terrible, because I have the swimming prowess of a sandwich. And because, you know, whales.)
“Ooh, that whale calf cooed,” Boyfriend said excitedly, which surprised me, because he isn’t really a nature-ocean-wildlife kinda guy. Of course, the surprise didn’t last very long, because he immediately clarified the cause of his excitement.
“I wonder what its accent is like.”
“Its accent? What accent?”
“Did you know that whales are among the few mammals apart from humans, who have distinct accents depending on where they live? Dolphins do too, as do goats, and maybe even cows.”
Yeah. We mammals are cool like that. Hardly any of us can fly, and even those of us who manage to live underwater keep coming up for air. But oh! We have accents!
When whales communicate with one another, they use patterns of tongue clicks, which scientists call “codas.” Some of these patterns are unique, enabling whales to not only understand what another whale is saying, but also identify which whale, specifically, is speaking. (And I still have trouble recognizing my mother’s voice on the phone.) In 2011, researchers from Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia, found that the patterns of codas differ between communities of whales that belong to the same sub-species, but live in different regions. Every whale in the world has a unique five-click pattern – their version of a fingerprint – but that apart, whales who cruise in the Pacific Ocean, for instance, have a different “regional accent” from whales who chill in the Caribbean Sea. Furthermore, some whales, when held in captivity, even try to pick up human voices and accents. (Here’s an audio clip from The Telegraph that captures one such instance.)
Of course, if whales can have accents then dolphins – in fierce competition for the title of ‘Most Intelligent Animal’ since the beginning of time – can’t possibly be far behind. Researchers have found that dolphins living along the east and west coasts of Scotland have different accents. Their system of communication – or language, if you will – involves tail slaps, barks, whistles, groans, and clicks. And the patterns they use differ based on which side of Scotland they prefer. Then, of course, there are the dolphins of the Cardigan Bay, between Wales and Ireland, who communicate in an accent that is completely different from that of Scottish dolphins.
In 2006 some farmers from Somerset, UK, who clearly had little else to do with their time, noticed that their cows mooed differently based on where they had been brought in from. Experts from the University of London were called in immediately, and confirmed that Somerset cows moo with a Somerset drawl, because apparently they pick up on the intonation of not just other cows, but people too. Goats, similarly, have distinct regional accents, and if a kid is transferred from one herd to another in a different region, it learns to switch its accent depending on which adult goat it is interacting with. (Not unlike my niece and nephew who normally speak in their natural, California-American accent, but switch seamlessly into an exaggerated Indian accent when mocking their parents.)
Here’s the thing, though: us mammals, we aren’t unique even in this respect. Songbirds too have been observed to chirp in different accents. And when it comes to regional exclusion and snobbery, they’re way ahead of us. Their accents, it turns out, differ mostly along lines of town and country. City dwelling birds have higher pitched voices that have evolved so they don’t echo off tall buildings. But I’m pretty sure this also makes the urban twits feel pretty superior to their, well, country cousins, who chirp along lower pitches.
Of course, no animal – no whale or dolphin or goat or bird – has a thing on a certain Patrick Stewart when it comes to accents. I present to you Sir Patrick Stewart, demonstrator par excellence of the variations in cow accents across the length and breadth of Britain. Trust me, you have to hear this.