A captive beluga whale named Noc is currently making headlines for being the first recorded marine animal to mimic the sound of human voices. The animal has been in captivity for more than 30 years, living in the San Diego National Marine Mammal Foundation.
In a report by the National Geographic written by journalist Helen Scales, the beluga whale’s mimicry of human voices is considered a first in history.
The story all started back in 1984, when researchers noticed a strange and spooky occurrence: they could hear the sound of human voices conversing near Noc’s enclosure, without the presence of any people. While many are quick to point out ghosts or supernatural activity, the eerie event did not faze scientists, who decided to investigate the matter further.
The voices sounded like normal human speech but garbled and incoherent. “You could hear there was a conversation, but you couldn’t make out what they were saying” said Sam Ridgway. Sam Ridgway is the co-author of the study and is part of the US Navy Marine Mammal Program in San Diego, California.
He originally suspected that the human voices could be Noc’s vocalisations but simply was not sure. However, it was later confirmed when a diver inside Noc’s tank noticed that the beluga whale said something that remarkably sounds like “Out!” while swimming in its enclosure. The human diver originally thought that someone had told him to get out of the tank but found that it was really just the whale.
Beluga whales are known for their high pitched vocalisations which they use while hunting and foraging, similar to the echolocation done by dolphins. Back in the 1980s, the scientists researching the phenomenon realized that the beluga whale’s voice was several octaves deeper, which somehow approximated that of human speech.
Noc died back in 1990, years before these studies even came out. The studies were only released this 2012 in order to give it more time to be reviewed by other scientists. It is an extremely rare occurrence for a whale to make anything that even resembles human speech since their vocalisations are completely different from the vocalisations of humans.
Noc was extensively studied for quite a while, yet after about four years after 1984 however, Noc stopped making human sounds altogether. The scientists working on the research speculated that it stopped mostly because the beluga has reached sexual maturity.
Scientists believe that Noc decided to imitate human speech because these social animals tend to mimic each other, particularly the members in their family group. Whales for example, will learn their songs from their parents, while dolphins learn each other’s clicks and squeals to identify each other. Since Noc grew up around humans, it was interesting to note that it copied the sounds of its human family.
To recreate these sounds, Noc had to increase the pressure in its nasal cavities more than usual. This resulted in a swollen head whenever the animal copied the sound of human voices.