Lost in the shuffle, the news that a white beluga whale named “NOC” could speak rudimentary English was never published until colleagues encouraged Sam Ridgway, of the National Marine Mammal Foundation, to publish the news that many are not aware of – whales can mimic human speech just like a parrot. A new paper in Current Biology tells the story of a whale named NOC, who copied sound so well, researchers at first thought they were hearing humans talking from a distance.
“The whale vocalizations often sounded as if two people were conversing in the distance just out of range of our understanding. These ‘conversations’ were heard several times before the whale was identified as the source.”
One diver recalled how he exited the water as commanded wondering, “Who told me to get out?” before realizing it was NOC repeating a familiar command.
Sam Ridgway examined archival sound recordings of NOC “speaking” and compared them to the sounds made by human voices. The analysis of the sounds made by NOC revealed remarkable similarities to human speech patterns, indicating that the whale was trying to “reach out” to his human captors.
Researchers have heard whales speak before but NOC was the first instance where researchers carefully studied the odd occurrence. They found that the whale learned his speech from listening to divers communicating over underwater equipment.
According to Discovery:
“The study revealed an amplitude rhythm in NOC’s vocalizations that was comparable to human speech. Fundamental frequencies in the whale’s vocalizations were also in the same range of human speech and were several octaves lower than the whale’s usual sounds.”
NOC, who was about a year old when he was captured off the Pacific coast in 1977, spent 30 years at the National Marine Mammal Foundation in San Diego before passing away five years ago. Scientists note that for reasons unknown, he stopped making human sounds at the age of 3 or 4 years old. They noted that the method NOC used to create the human-like sounds was not the same as the method whales use to make normal “whale sounds”.
“NOC also went to a lot of trouble to make the sounds. The researchers explain that the whale had to vary the pressure in his nasal tract while making other muscular adjustments and inflating the vestibular sac in his blowhole.”