Meet NOC, the Beluga Whale Who Tried to Sound Human

Author: Steve Woods
Published: October 22, 2012 at 12:48 pm

Looks like Koko the female gorilla that can communicate with her handlers via sign language may has some aquatic company.

NOC, a beautiful 9-year-old male Beluga whale who hung out in the waters off the coast of San Diego, appeared to be trying to communicate with researchers who had been tracking his patterns. And in ways Koko could never achieve - by modifying his 'voice' in ways normal Beluga whales don't typically do.

National Marine Mammal Foundation researchers Sam Ridgway, Donald Carder, Michelle Jeffries and Mark Todd were already aware that Beluga whales are good at mimicking sounds. After all, Belugas are known as the "canaries of the sea" for their oral re-interpretations of interesting sounds around them.

After getting word that a diver near the facility came out of the water wondering why someone was telling him to "get out", the research team zeroed in on NOC as the culprit, hooking the whale up with gear to listen to his vocalizations. And the team was amazed by their findings.

NOC, according to the research team, was the first known animal to take it upon itself to spontaneously try and mimic the way we humans talk. The cadence of NOC's sounds were different than other Belugas, with a "amplitude rhythm ... comparable to human speech". This is no natural phenomenon, or a genetic mutation making the whale different than his other pale friends.

Ridgway, President of the Foundation, stated "Our observations suggest that the whale had to modify its vocal mechanics in order to make the speech-like sounds" they heard. In other words, he had to reshape the cavities in his head to achieve the sounds.

Some on the team believe that NOC was attempting to mimic the sounds he'd heard from divers communicating using special underwater equipment. After some snack-related coaxing to get NOC to speak up and often, the team managed to record this audio file:

For reference's sake, this is what a typical Beluga whale sounds like...

Unfortunately, NOC has passed away since the recording of his vocalizations. After some renewed coaxing, the researchers published their results in a recent issue of Current Biology, under the heading "Spontaneous Human Speech Mimicry by a Cetacean".

What are your thoughts? Do you think other Beluga whales like NOC can (or even should) be trained into the use of a simple vocabulary?


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Article Author: Steve Woods

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