'Who told me to get out?': NOC the talking whale learns to imitate human speech in attempt to 'reach out' to human captors

Acoustic analysis of the sounds made by a beluga whale revealed remarkable similarities to human speech patterns, indicating that the whale was trying to “reach out” to his human captors

A captive white whale that made unusual mumbling sounds when he was in the presence of people may have been trying to mimic his human companions, scientists have found.

An acoustic analysis of the sounds made by a beluga whale called NOC has revealed remarkable similarities to human speech patterns, indicating that the whale was trying to “reach out” to his human captors, scientists believe.

Although there are anecdotal accounts of whales sounding like “ children shouting from a distance”, this is the first time that scientists have produced hard evidence that they are capable of trying to imitate human speech.

One of the first indications that NOC was able to sound like a human was when a diver swimming alongside him in his pen came to the surface and asked his colleagues “who told me to get out”?

 

NOC, who died five years ago, was about a year old when he was captured off the Pacific coast of Canada in 1977. He was kept in an open-ocean pen at the US National Marine Mammal Foundation in San Diego, California, where he took part in scientific research on cetacean acoustics.

Sam Ridgway, a researcher at the foundation, analysed the archived sound recordings made when NOC was alive and compared them to the sounds made by the human voice, such as the speech patterns and multiple harmonics of spoken words.

The comparison revealed a remarkable similarity that was even more remarkable given that whales vocalise between themselves by blowing air through their noses rather than the larynx in the throat, which is how humans make vocal sounds.

Editorial: If a whale spoke to us, what would it say?

“Our observations suggest that the whale had to modify its vocal mechanics in order to make the speech-like sounds. Such obvious effort suggests motivation for contact,” Dr Ridgway said.

The sound recordings revealed that NOC’s vocalisations were pitched at fundamental frequencies several octaves lower than normal whale sounds, and much closer to those of the human voice. NOC’s sounds also had a rhythm similar to human speech patterns.

“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,” Dr Ridgway said.

It was in 1984, after seven years in captivity at the San Diego foundation, that NOC started spontaneously to make the unusual sounds which the scientists soon interpreted as him trying to mimic the people around him.

“Whale vocalisations 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,” Dr Ridgway said.

“The whale was recognised as the source of the speech-like sounds when a diver surfaced outside this whale’s enclosure and asked ‘who told me to get out?’ Our observations led us to conclude that the ‘out’ which was repeated several times came from NOC,” he said.

It appears that NOC made extraordinary efforts to make contact with his human captors given that he had to vary the pressure in his nasal tract to mimic the voices he heard around him, while as the same time inflating his vestibular sac, a fold of skin found near his blowhole, which is not normally inflated in such an extreme way.

However, within four years of learning to sound human-like, NOC gave up mimicking the people around him and went back to sounding like a whale, emitting echolocation pulses, high-pitched whistles and an assortment of noises variously described as “squawks, rasps, yelps and barks”. 

It appears that NOC’s attempt at communicating with his captors was a brief childish flirtation that he soon grew out of. Or perhaps he thought it was a lost cause.

The study is published in the journal Current Biology.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Robert De Niro, Martin Scorsese and DiCaprio, at an awards show in 2010
filmsDe Niro, DiCaprio and Pitt to star
News
i100
News
In this photo illustration a school student eats a hamburger as part of his lunch which was brought from a fast food shop near his school, on October 5, 2005 in London, England. The British government has announced plans to remove junk food from school lunches. From September 2006, food that is high in fat, sugar or salt will be banned from meals and removed from vending machines in schools across England. The move comes in response to a campaign by celebrity TV chef Jamie Oliver to improve school meals.
science
Sport
England captain Wayne Rooney during training
FOOTBALLNew captain vows side will deliver against Norway for small crowd
Life and Style
Red or dead: An actor portrays Hungarian countess Elizabeth Báthory, rumoured to have bathed in blood to keep youthful
health
News
peopleJustin Bieber charged with assault and dangerous driving after crashing quad bike into a minivan
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
peopleHis band Survivor was due to resume touring this month
News
people'It can last and it's terrifying'
Life and Style
fashionModel of the moment shoots for first time with catwalk veteran
Sport
Radamel Falcao poses with his United shirt
FOOTBALLRadamel Falcao's journey from teenage debutant in Colombia to Manchester United's star signing
Life and Style
fashionAngelina Jolie's wedding dressed revealed
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Front-Office Developer (C#, .NET, Java,Artificial Intelligence)

£30000 - £45000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: Front-Of...

C++ Quant Developer

£700 per day: Harrington Starr: Quantitative Developer C++, Python, STL, R, PD...

Java/Calypso Developer

£700 per day: Harrington Starr: Java/Calypso Developer Java, Calypso, J2EE, J...

SQL Developer

£500 per day: Harrington Starr: SQL Developer SQL, C#, Stored Procedures, MDX...

Day In a Page

Chief inspector of GPs: ‘Most doctors don’t really know what bad practice can be like for patients’

Steve Field: ‘Most doctors don’t really know what bad practice can be like for patients’

The man charged with inspecting doctors explains why he may not be welcome in every surgery
Stolen youth: Younger blood can reverse many of the effects of ageing

Stolen youth

Younger blood can reverse many of the effects of ageing
Bob Willoughby: Hollywood's first behind the scenes photographer

Bob Willoughby: The reel deal

He was the photographer who brought documentary photojournalism to Hollywood, changing the way film stars would be portrayed for ever
Hollywood heavyweights produce world's most expensive corporate video - for Macau casino

Hollywood heavyweights produce world's most expensive corporate video - for Macau casino

Scorsese in the director's chair with De Niro, DiCaprio and Pitt to star
Angelina Jolie's wedding dress: made by Versace, designed by her children

Made by Versace, designed by her children

Angelina Jolie's wedding dressed revealed
Anyone for pulled chicken?

Pulling chicks

Pulled pork has gone from being a US barbecue secret to a regular on supermarket shelves. Now KFC is trying to tempt us with a chicken version
9 best steam generator irons

9 best steam generator irons

To get through your ironing as swiftly as possible, invest in one of these efficient gadgets
England v Norway: Wayne Rooney admits England must ‘put on a show’ to regain faith

Rooney admits England must ‘put on a show’ to regain faith

New captain vows side will deliver for small Wembley crowd
‘We knew he was something special:’ Radamel Falcao's journey from teenage debutant to Manchester United's star signing

‘We knew he was something special’

Radamel Falcao's journey from teenage debutant to Manchester United's star signing
'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

James Frey's literary treasure hunt

Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York