'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
A model of a Neanderthal man on display at the National Museum of Prehistory in Dordogne, France
science
News
Richard Dawkins dedicated his book 'The Greatest Show on Earth' to Josh Timonen
newsThat's Richard Dawkins on babies with Down Syndrome
Arts and Entertainment
Eye of the beholder? 'Concrete lasagne' Preston bus station
architectureWhich monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?
Extras
indybest
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Travel
Dinosaurs Unleashed at the Eden Project
travel
Arts and Entertainment
music
Sport
football
Life and Style
This month marks the 20th anniversary of the first online sale
techDespite a host of other online auction sites and fierce competition from Amazon, eBay is still the most popular e-commerce site in the UK
News
i100
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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

Quantitative Analyst (Financial Services, Graduate, SQL, VBA)

£45000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Quantitative Analyst (Financial Services, ...

Application Support Engineer (C++, .NET, VB, Perl, Bash, SQL)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Application Support Engineer (C++, .NET, VB, Per...

C# .NET Software Developer (Client-Side, SQL, VB6, WinForms)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: C# .NET Software Developer (Client-Side, SQL, VB...

C# Developer (Genetic Algorithms, .NET 4.5, TDD, SQL, AI)

£40000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

Day In a Page

Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home