For the first time, researchers have demonstrated that white wales are capable of spontaneous mimicry of the human voice.
It had been noticed before that the calls of white wales occasionally resembled “a crowd of children shouting in the distance” or “garbled human voice.” Keepers of the Vancouver Aquarium, Canada, even suggested that a white whale uttered his name “Lagosi”. However, until now, no acoustic recordings of white whales had been reported sounding like human speech.
This week, researchers have published their analysis of the human-like sounds of a male beluga (a white whale). The animal named NOC arrived at the National Marine Mammal Foundation (NMMF) in San Diego in August 1977, after originally being captured by Inuit hunters in Canada.
Seven years later, the staff started hearing noises that sounded “as if two people were conversing in the distance just out of range for our understanding,” writes lead author Sam Ridgway, president of the National Marine Mammal Foundation. Soon after, a diver thought he heard someone screaming to get out of the water. When he surfaced, he found out it wasn’t one of his colleagues making the noises. It was NOC.
A research team recorded NOC’s calls, which he made spontaneously when alone or when his human handlers were around. They also learned NOC to make the speech-like sounds on command, to be better able to analyze how he produced them.
They discovered that the acoustic features of NOC’s remarkable sounds didn’t resemble the typical calls of whales, but were more closely related to human speech. For example, his human-like sounds were 9 octaves lower than the usual high-pitched calls produced by belugas.
NOC was able to produce the unnatural sounds by increasing the pressure within his nasal cavity, over-inflating what is known at the vestibular sac in his blowhole and controlling the vibrations of his phonic lips.
“Our observations suggest that the whale had to modify its vocal mechanics in order to make the speech-like sounds,” said Ridgway. “The sounds we heard were clearly an example of vocal learning by the white whale.”
NOC made the human-like sounds for four years. He passed away five years ago at the NMMF.
Listen to NOC’s sound recordings in the video below.
Ridgway, S., Carder, D., Jeffries, M., & Todd, M. (2012). Spontaneous human speech mimicry by a cetacean Current Biology, 22 (20) DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2012.08.044