WHO told me to get out? the diver asked as he surfaced from a tank in which a white teenage beluga whale named NOC lived. His colleagues shook their heads. No one had given the command. Then, they realised something special had happened. For years, researchers at the National Marine Mammal Foundation in San Diego, California thought they heard voices when under the water. It sounded like people talking in the distance. But it was this moment that they finally realised something special was going on. The whale was talking. Or at very least mimicking human sounds. So they recorded and studied the sounds NOC made. What they found and published in Current Biology today has amazed the world. It is the first recorded case of a whale trying to talk like a human. Trying. In fact, he sounds a little bit like a kazoo. Or the Swedish Chef from the Muppet Show. But it’s the trying bit that counts. NOC s conversations began in the 1980s. They reduced in frequency over four years and stopped altogether once he was sexually mature. He died five years ago after 30 years at the National Marine Mammal Foundation.
Scientists say the whale changed the way it produced noises in order to make its voice sound more similar to those of its keepers.
“We do not claim that our whale was a good mimic compared to such well known mimics as parrots,” but it is an example of a whale learning human speech patterns, National Marine Mammal Foundation president Sam Ridgway said.
Our observations suggest that the whale had to modify its vocal mechanics in order to make the speech-like sounds. Whale voice prints were similar to human voice and unlike the whale s usual sounds. The sounds we heard were clearly an example of vocal learning by the white whale.
“It seems likely that NOC’s close association with humans played a role in how often he employed his human voice, as well as in its quality.”
So why did the whale talk?
I think he was looking for feedback, Mr Ridgeway told NBC. These animals make a lot of sound, and they like feedback.