Talking Dolphins

We recorded real live dolphins! Why? How? And what did they say?

As the Update Aquatic draws closer, we’ve been trickling out features in Java Edition snapshots and beta updates for our other platforms. Already, players can dive into Minecraft’s oceans to encounter one of the friendliest sea-dwelling beasts: the dolphin!

As part of preparing this ocean mob for primetime, we sent Mojang’s lead sound designer Samuel Åberg to record some actual dolphins as they splashed about at Kolmården Wildlife Park.

“A trainer helped me communicate with them,” explains Samuel. “Using hand signs, she encouraged them to make different kind of sounds. I had no idea of the extreme variety of sounds a dolphin can make: whistles, clicks, farts, claps, hisses. A lot of their communication goes way, way, way above frequencies any human ear can pick up.”

Dolphins have two sound sources, both situated in the upper nasal passage, some centimetres below the blowhole. Clicks are mainly generated on the right side, and whistles on the left.

To even be able to hear some of these sounds, Samuel had to use special equipment: underwater microphones, called hydrophones, and a “click detector”, which translates the dolphins’ high frequency clicks to hearable levels.

“Dolphins use these clicks to navigate underwater,” Samuel explains. Dolphins have a fine-tuned ability to detect when their clicking sounds echo back at them off nearby surfaces, giving them a sense of the distance and size of the objects around them. It’s an ability called echolocation. “To me it sounds sort of like a creaking door,” says Samuel.

“The noises dolphins make above water - which, by the way, do not always come from their mouth, but also from their blowhole - sound a bit different than what I expected,” says Samuel. “I grew up listening to the famous dolphin cry from the TV-series Flipper. Turns out that sound actually was a modified kookaburra call!”

The dolphin from the TV series, Flipper. Voiced, apparently, by a bird. My childhood is a lie.

It was a pretty inspiring lie for some, though! Dr Mats Amundin also watched Flipper as a kid. “Then I knew what a wanted to do in my adult life!” he says. Now he studies the dolphins at Kolmården Wildlife Park! Who better to teach me to talk dolphin?

But translation turns out to be a tricky issue.

As Samuel found out, we can instruct dolphins using a mixture of hand gestures and sounds (a language pioneered by the marine biologist Louis Herman), but this falls a long way short of having a proper conversation. Despite the efforts of many scientists to teach dolphins language, Dr Amundin says, “it was rather evident that this was not really their talent.”

Like dogs, dolphins can learn to recognise key words and associate them with actions, intentions or requests. Here’s one giving Kolmården’s Filip Johansson a hug. Photo by Rickard Monèus

Just because we haven’t been able to have a full conversation with dolphins doesn’t mean they are stupid, though, says Dr Amundin: “They have a big, advanced brain - bigger than ours - and they have a high potential for learning. They learn quickly, and they can sort out rather complicated tasks.”

So why the difficulty teaching them to understand us?

“I don’t think that they have a language like ours,” says Dr Amundin, simply. “Our hypothesis is that they mainly communicate emotions and social intentions, and group cohesions. More ‘here and now’ than ‘what are your comments on what happened yesterday at this event’.”

To test this theory, Dr Amundin and his colleagues are recording massive amounts of dolphin sound and feeding it a computer program that will learn the different sounds and analyse how they are organised in relation to each other. Then the scientists will compare this to the dolphins’ behaviour.

Dolphins produce a huge variety of sounds, but it’s tricky to categorize them. When is it the same whistle and when does it become different, with a different meaning? Photo by Kolmården / Miche Seiko

Understanding dolphin communication better is just one aim of Dr Amundin and his team. Another large part of their work is in developing ways to preventing dolphins from being accidentally caught in the nets of fishing vessels. If we can understand how dolphins use sound underwater, we can develop better warning systems for them, allowing them to steer clear of things that can do them harm.

Also, it means we may eventually learn what the sounds we put in the game mean. In the meantime, why not take a dip in Minecraft's great living oceans, stay a while and listen?

Marsh Davies