One thing about UBC’s , is that if you browse long enough you’re bound to find something fascinating that you didn’t know you were looking for. While gathering content for the Digitization Center’s I came across an image from 1969 of a man leaning down towards a pool, he was and the whale was reaching its head up from the water toward him. From the title of the image I discovered that it was Paul Spong, and that he was conducting auditory whale research. In this blog post I’ll share what I learned about Paul Spong and his fascinating, if unconventional, research.
Often described as a hippy, Dr. Paul Spong holds a PhD in Psychology from UCLA. During the late 60’s, he was a researcher at the Vancouver Aquarium as well as an assistant professor of Psychiatry at UBC (Werner, 26). Shortly after a public lecture in which Spong stated that Skana was deprived of stimulation at the aquarium and should be released from captivity, his contract with the aquarium was cancelled and he was dismissed from his research position and later from UBC as well (Werner, 26-7). The next day, in true 60’s hippy-activist fashion, he “planted himself on a velvet pillow outside the entrance to the aquarium” surrounded by instruments, “demand[ing] entry to the aquarium so that he could swim nude with Skana and play her music” (Werner, 26-7).
Originally, Paul’s research hinged on a method that involved Skana choosing between two cards in order to test her observational skills. If she chose the correct card, she was rewarded with food. Spong reports that, at first, Skana scored very well, but after a while she began to choose the incorrect card every single time! Spong believes that she got bored and was choosing incorrectly as a form of protest (Werner, 29-30). It was after that point that he introduced her to music.
In 1969,published an article highlighting Spong and his research at the Vancouver aquarium (before his dismissal). The article explains some of his research methods, observations, and appears to be the source of the images that sparked my interest in writing this post about Paul:
“moving rhythmically” in response to a Beethoven violin concerto. Spong’s research and relationships with Skana emphasized how intelligent and social these beautiful creatures are, and just how captivity can affect their wellbeing.from 1972 shares an interview with Dr. Spong. In this interview he recounts some incredible observations and interactions he had with Skana, including witnessing the whale squirting water in and out of her mouth, and
When asked whether orcas make the same sound in captivity that they make in the wild, Spong responded:
Spong recalls Skana’s incredible reaction the first time he played her Beethoven (p. 11):
This “We Call Them Killers”, seems to be an extension of the initial research that Spong conducted with Skana and depicts two orcas, Haida and Chimo, having similarly engaged reactions to musical stimuli. The article recounts a scene from the film in which Spong plays the flute for the two whales, to which they “lazily splash in the water and join in with their own musical offerings, which sound like a cross between a cat’s meow and a dog’s whine” (Aldergrove Star, September 1973):features an article that highlights a 15 minute short film produced by the National Film Board of Canada that Spong took part in creating. The film,