equine clicker training

using precision and positive reinforcement to teach horses and people

ASAT Conference 2016: Ken Ramirez on “Bubble Rings and Beluga Whales”

beluga blowing bubbles 3I first heard about the beluga whales and bubble rings a few years ago when someone mentioned them at ClickerExpo, but I never heard the whole story about how the training was done. So I was pretty excited that Ken was going to talk about this at ORCA.  In this short talk (approx 30 minutes), he described how the project came about and how the training was done.

If you’ve never heard of a “bubble ring,” you can see what they look like by watching some videos that are available on youtube (just search on bubble rings and beluga whales) or searching for images of bubble rings and beluga whales.   Bubble rings are air bubbles that are blown (usually from the mouth) underwater by different types of cetaceans and seem to have no apparent function except for play. The animals will blow them and then interact with them in various ways.

The story started in 2005 when a well known photographer was visiting the Shimane Aquarium and took some pictures of the beluga whales blowing bubbles. The pictures were very popular and soon visitors were coming to the aquarium specifically to see the whales blowing bubbles. The problem was that the whales seemed to blow bubbles at random times and with varying frequency.  They might go for days without being observed doing it.   Because there was so much interest, the aquarium management asked (told?) the head trainer to teach the whales to do it on cue.

The trainers tried to capture the behavior by reinforcing the whales when they saw them making bubble rings, but were not making any progress. At this point the head trainer contacted Ken to ask for help.   He started out by offering long distance help but ended up going there in person.   Training a behavior for the first time often involves some experimentation so it’s a difficult thing to coach long distance.  He felt it would they would be more successful if he was able to be on site so he could observe the whales and work with them directly.  He did ask the trainers to do some training before he arrived and had them teach the whales to station, accept cues underwater, and spit when cued.

Teaching the whales to blow bubble rings on cue turned out to be an interesting process because there were several different steps they needed to take to shape the behavior. Since he had never trained this behavior before, he thought it was a great opportunity to try out some new techniques and use some of the new information he had been exposed to as part of the ClickerExpo faculty.  Some specific ones he mentioned were micro-shaping (Kay Laurence), capturing using creative engagement (Virginia Broitman), and an understanding of poisioned cues (Jesus Rosales-Ruiz and Karen Pryor).

Here are the steps he used to teach the behavior.

  1. He taught the whale to spit underwater. The whale already had a spit cue, but had been spitting into the air. Now he had it spit underwater. He had a nice video showing this. In the video he is in front of the whale holding a fish. The fish was originally intended to make it easier to tell when the whale was spitting as it would move when water came out of the whale’s mouth. He said the fish also ended up functioning like a target so the whale knew where to spit.
  2. He taught the whale to hold air in its mouth. The bubble rings are formed when the whale spits air, but the whale stationed underwater had no air to blow out. So he started by teaching the whale to allow him to put air (from a tank) into its mouth. In the beginning, the whales would just allow the air to leak out so they had to learn to hold it in the tops of their mouths. He showed us what this looked like.
  3. Then he asked the whale to spit (underwater) while air was in its mouth. When the whale did this, it spit out bubbles, but they were not bubble rings, more like a mass of tiny bubbles. So then Ken and the staff had to figure out how the whales form the rings. Luckily they had video of the whales blowing bubble rings and could see how the whale moved its mouth as it formed the ring. He showed us a video and you can clearly see one area, above the mouth, that gets kind of “sucked in” as the whale prepares to blow the bubble ring.
  4. They shaped the lip movement of the whale so it matched the lip movement they observed in the video of it blowing bubble rings. This was tricky to do as it was difficult to get the timing right. If they clicked too early, it would interrupt the process and the whale would not blow the bubble. If they clicked too late after the bubble had been blown, the whale did not know what behavior was being marked. They had to click just before the whale actually blew the bubble ring.
  5. Once they started to get some bubble rings, the whales seemed to catch on and were soon blowing bubble rings quite easily. At this point they were still using the stored air that had been delivered by the trainer. Now they wanted to teach the whales to get their own air by going to the surface, getting air and coming back down.  They did this by practicing a few times in the usual manner (he would deliver air and then cue the whale to make a bubble ring). Then he cued the whale to blow a bubble ring without providing any air. Ken said that when he did this, the whale looked kind of puzzled. So he gave it some air and cued again. Then he repeated the cue without giving air and waited. The whale looked puzzled and then went up to the top, got some air, came down and blew a bubble ring. I think he said it only took two tries before the whale figured out it needed to get its own air. After that he no longer had to give it air.   They did have one whale (they trained three) that never learned to go get air on its own.
  6. Ken had done most of the training himself, but once the whales were blowing bubble rings on cue; it was time to have the resident trainers try to cue it. But when they cued the whales to blow bubble rings, the whales just spit. It’s a great example of how animals revert back to earlier versions of a behavior if the conditions change. They solved this by putting blowing bubble rings on a new cue (on that had no association with spitting) and the trainers were able to use the new cue without any problem. He did mention that they often had to delay reinforcement because the whales liked to watch or play with the bubble ring. They would wait until the whale oriented back to them.
  7. Ken finished by saying that it was a straight forward shaping project (ok… it sounds rather complicated to me), but that being exposed to new ideas had been crucial to his success.   He also pointed out that his own ideas about how to train were much clearer because of his own experience teaching and presenting information to others.


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