'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.

News
peopleFrankie Boyle responds to referendum result in characteristically offensive style
Arts and Entertainment
Highs and lows of the cast's careers since 2004
News
news
New Articles
i100... with this review
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
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

Cover Supervisor

£75 - £90 per day + negotiable: Randstad Education Group: Are you a cover supe...

Marketing Manager - Leicestershire - £35,000

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (CIM, B2B, MS Offi...

Marketing Executive (B2B and B2C) - Rugby, Warwickshire

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly successful organisation wit...

SEN Coordinator + Teacher (SENCO)

£1 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Job Purpose To work closely with the he...

Day In a Page

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam