Hoover, the “talking” harbour seal

“Imitation is as crucial to the acquisition of speech as it is to learning gesture,” writes Christine Kenneally in The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language. As infants we mimic our parents’ or guardians’ language as part of a natural process of learning our unique version of it, going from babbling to building novel sentences in a remarkably short period of time. (Birds, bats and dolphins are also said to go through a babbling phase.)

As we get older we remain impressed by skilled mimicry, be it impressions of other accents or the more peculiar ability of certain non-humans to make sounds like we do. We are amused and intrigued by any creature that can mimic human speech despite considerable anatomical differences. Videos of “talking” cats and dogs abound on YouTube, to say nothing of birds and elephants.

A more surprising example is the seal. Kenneally’s book includes a charming account of Hoover, a harbour seal who became famous for his human impersonations:

Hoover didn’t “talk” until he reached sexual maturity, but once he started, he improved over the years. He spoke only at certain times of the year (not as much in the mating season) and would reputedly adopt a strange position in order to do so. He didn’t move his mouth. Terrence Deacon [Anthropologist at the University of California, Berkeley] recounts stumbling across Hoover while walking near the aquarium one evening. He thought a guard was yelling at him (“Hey! Hey! Get outta there!”).

Harbour seals may seem unlikely mimics, but they have a wide range of vocalisations — especially among sexually mature males. You can read a short account of Hoover’s life story at the New England Aquarium website, which also has a short audio clip of Hoover “talking”. It’s a very funny, slurring sound, like the gruff scolding of an ill-tempered janitor.

Evolutionary biologist Tecumseh Fitch hosts a few more files of Hoover’s “speech” on his page at the University of St Andrews. Fitch says that Hoover’s ability is all the more interesting because “vocal learning of complex sounds” has not been found in any non-human primate, and the animals skilled in such learning — such as song birds and cetaceans — do not use the same organs that we do.

Hoover died in 1985 but his legacy continues in his grandson Chacoda, AKA Chuck, who seems to have inherited this remarkable ability.

Edit: Another note on Hoover’s vocalisations, and accent, from Terrence Deacon’s book The Symbolic Species:

Opinions were mixed on where and how he learned these phrases. Some were convinced that he learned them from the staff, or was taught by them as he began to vocalize in ways that sounded speechlike; but the story that seemed to ring true was that he sounded just like the old fisherman who originally took him in, years before. I thought from the beginning that he had sort of a down-east, old-salt accent.

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10 Responses to Hoover, the “talking” harbour seal

  1. wisewebwoman says:

    I can’t play the YouTubes Stan due to Dialup Dementia but will save them for my forthcoming trip back to Highspeed Heaven.
    My dog does her best to talk to me, yawning her mouth open and trying to work her vocal cords, particularly when I’m on the phone which must be very disconcerting to the person on the other end as it sounds awfully rude…and saying it’s my dog sounds highly suspicious. ;^)
    XO
    WWW

  2. Stan says:

    WWW: How sweet of your dog, to pick these occasions to try to have a chat. I wonder what triggers it — the conversational tone in your voice and the lack of a visible listener, maybe? It’s an endearing sound, a dog’s imitative yowl. I think that if I heard it over the phone I would accept the speaker’s explanation rather than imagine alternatives!

    The audio files I mentioned in the post aren’t YouTube pages; they’re .wav and .aif files (ranging in size from 35–750 KB). One of these files does appear on YouTube, again courtesy of the New England Aquarium. When you get to Highspeed Heaven, here are a few more short videos you (and other readers) might enjoy: Training sea lions to re-enter the wild; a yowling dog in Errol Morris’s documentary Gates of Heaven; and (presumably) normal vocalisations from a harbour seal, recorded by a scientist who used to know Hoover.

  3. I first heard of Hoover on the BBC quiz show QI. He did sound rather like an incoherent Bostonian. Although it is the auditory version of Pareidolia it is still fun!

  4. Stan says:

    Jams: It’s nice to hear that Hoover received some TV attention so long after his death. I imagine he was quite the local celebrity in the early 1980s. I wouldn’t call his vocalisations pareidolia though, since that phenomenon involves the perception of order in random data, and Hoover apparently mimicked humans deliberately.

  5. Claudia says:

    Fascinating! Still I will not share this with my Inuit friends who depend on seals for food, clothes and income from seal’s products. I don’t want them to add guilt to their problems now that the European Union has banned seals products. The new law says that Natives still have the right to hunt seals but the South is not buying anymore out of fear of not selling anywhere. It’s so sad.

  6. Stan says:

    That is unfortunate for your friends, Claudia, and you’re surely right not to share Hoover’s story with them, since it would cause more pain than amusement.

  7. [...] a short piece I wrote in January about a “talking” harbour seal, I mentioned Christine Kenneally’s book The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language. [...]

  8. [...] do harbor seals have vocal cords? [Yes, and they're well [...]

  9. Donn DeBoer says:

    When I saw Hoover at the N.E Aquarium when I was a kid, I just thaught it was normal for harbor seals to talk. However whenI was an adult I went to another aquarium and saw other harbor seals and asked the attendent “why don’t they “talk?”. She didn’t know what I was talking about, and certainly thaught I was crazy, until I asked another attendant who said “You must have seen Hoover”. Only then did I appreciate what Hoover was.

  10. Stan says:

    Thanks for sharing your story, Donn. It must have been great to meet Hoover, even if his sounds didn’t seem all that remarkable at the time! Credit to the second attendant for knowing what you were talking about.

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