Learning a New Language … Under the Ocean

(Key Stage 1: Citizenship)
The seas and the oceans on Earth are full of wonder. From great white sharks to the tiniest plankton, land-dwellers like us know very little about our watery friends. Maybe we should listen to what they are trying to tell us …

From On Tortoises, Monkeys and Men by Anthony L. Rose

I spotted five squid floating in shallow waters, near shore. We immediately switched to our snorkels, to avoid scaring them with noisy scuba gear. There were four small 6-inch-long individuals and one squid nearly 2 feet in length, perhaps a mother and her offspring. We slowly approached the group until we got about 10 feet from them. In unison, they all quivered when they saw us and went pale grey to colourless. The larger one then pulled away and momentarily displayed a spotted-brown pattern of blotches to the group. They immediately responded with similar patterns. All then went transparent again, and the four retreated while the big squid slowly approached to within 4 feet of us, tentacles first. She was inspecting us, looking us over, while the little ones watched from a safe distance.

Suddenly the big squid began displaying with all sorts of spots, stripes and patterns—colours shifting from a blush of red to grey and brown to metallic blue. She was trying to communicate with us, greeting, questioning—Nice day, huh? What are you and what are you doing here? Why can’t you speak? We hung motionless, unable to respond.

After two minutes of questioning, the big squid became pale grey again, turned around, and slowly bobbed back to the others. She then displayed in deep reds and browns with large blotches and spots. The leader was reporting back. The little ones replied, reproducing her messages, matching her colours.

All five went transparent and slowly, tentacles first, approached us. At 4 feet distance, they stopped and, as a group, large and small, repeated the brilliant displays of the first encounter. It was incredible! They had discussed us and decided to try again. In all the colours of their rainbow, five self-aware aliens from another world talked to us. As they repeated the inquiry with exquisite precision, the message boiled down to a simple one —Hey, stupid, who are you? It was magical—if only we could have replied.

The experience confirmed that these animals have individual feelings and personalities and are much more complex than we normally credit them with.

Choose an animal or bird—it can be one that you live with, or you can pick one from the wild—and find out how they talk to each other. Do they make sounds? What do those sounds mean?

How do they communicate in other ways? Do you know what those communications mean? For example, what does it mean when a dog wags his or her tail or a rabbit thumps his or her hind legs?

Draw a picture of your chosen animal and write down some of the ways he or she communicates next to the picture.

If animals could talk to each other about how humans look after the planet, what do you think they would say?