RSS
Can whales mimic human voices?
In a newly revealed report, researchers document the sounds of a peppy Beluga who could copy the speech intonations of nearby handlers
A Beluga whale named NOC learned to lower its speech-sounds to mimic those of its human trainers.
A Beluga whale named NOC learned to lower its speech-sounds to mimic those of its human trainers.
Brandon D. Cole/CORBIS
T

he story: In May 1984, a diver at the National Marine Mammal Foundation in San Diego was puzzled after climbing out of the water. "Who told me to get out?" he asked his confused colleagues — none of whom had said a thing. It eventually transpired that the word "out," or at least what sounded like it, had been uttered by a nearby Beluga whale named NOC. Apparently, the white, modestly sized sea mammal had learned to mimic the speech patterns and timbre of his human handlers by lowering his natural pitch several octaves. The team, led by researcher Sam Ridgway, began recording NOC's speech-like sounds, rewarding him with food, and have recently made the audio recordings available to the public. (Listen below.) "We do not claim that our whale was a good mimic compared to such well-known mimics as parrots or mynah birds," writes Ridgway. Don't get too excited about the prospect of human-whale conversations: Researchers concluded that NOC was merely trying to replicate the odd sounds he'd heard and not making any real progress in terms of learning language.

The reaction: "It sounds like a drunkard playing a kazoo," says Ed Yong at Discover Magazine. But NOC's noises are surprisingly sophisticated. It's little wonder why Belugas are often referred to as "sea canaries." According to researchers, NOC "went to a lot of trouble to make the sounds," says Jennifer Viegas at Discovery News. The whale, who passed away five years ago, had to "vary the pressure in his nasal tract while making other muscular adjustments and inflating the vestibular sac in his blowhole." Listen to NOC's efforts:  

EDITORS' PICKS

THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER

Subscribe to the Week