Animals
9:26 am
Tue October 23, 2012

Baby Beluga, Swim So Wild And Sing For Me

Originally published on Tue October 23, 2012 11:18 pm

Whales are among the great communicators of the animal world. They produce all sorts of sounds: squeaks, whistles and even epic arias worthy of an opera house.

And one whale in particular has apparently done something that's never been documented before: He imitated human speech.

The beluga, or white whale, is smallish as whales go and very cute, if you're into marine mammals. Belugas are called the "canaries of the sea" because they're very vocal.

These sounds are for things like echolocation, like bats use, or for basic communication, as in, "Hello, honey, I'm home."

But a white whale at San Diego's National Marine Mammal Foundation did something very different. NOC (pronounced Nocee), as he was called, lived in an enclosure in the San Diego Bay. Biologist Sam Ridgway was there one day when divers were swimming nearby. "This one diver surfaced next to the whale pen and said, 'Who told me to get out?' And the supervisor said, 'Nobody said anything.' "

A curious Ridgway started recording NOC. And what he heard was quite strange: It had the cadence and rhythm of human speech. No words were distinguishable, but the sounds were eerily "right." Ridgway laid out audiograms of NOC's chatter, and they showed that the rhythm and pitch were different from NOC's normal sounds: They were, in fact, very similar to human speech. NOC had lowered the pitch of his sounds several octaves below normal, into the range of human speech at 300-400 hertz.

Ridgway says there's no reason to think NOC understood speech; he was just mimicking humans he'd heard. From where? "I think it was from divers using underwater communication equipment," he says.

When NOC was mimicking humans, Ridgway looked inside the whale's nose. "He did an unusual thing that we had never seen before in any of these animals," Ridgway recalls, "which was, he overinflated the two large sacs that kind of collect air to make sound."

This all took place in the mid-1980s. After a few years, NOC stopped talking. He lived to be 30 and died five years ago. Ridgway just published his research in the journal Current Biology. He says he would have done it earlier, but thought a talking whale was a "side issue."

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. Whales are among the great communicators of the animal world. They produce all sorts of sounds - squeaks, whistles, even epic arias. Well, a study out this week tells the story of one whale that, years ago, did something that's apparently never been documented before or since. He imitated human speech. NPR's Christopher Joyce has the story.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE, BYLINE: The beluga, or white whale, is smallish as whales go and very cute, if you're into marine mammals. They're called the canaries of the sea because they're very vocal.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHALES)

JOYCE: These sounds, from National Geographic's website, are for things like echolocation, like bats do, or basic communication, as in, Hello, honey, I'm home. But a white whale at San Diego's National Marine Mammal Foundation did something different. NOC, as he was called, lived in an enclosure in the bay. Biologist Sam Ridgway was there one day when divers were swimming nearby.

SAM RIDGWAY: Well, this one diver surfaced next to the whale pen and said, who told me to get out? And the supervisor said, nobody said anything.

JOYCE: A curious Ridgway started recording NOC. And this is what he heard.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHALE)

JOYCE: Audiograms of NOC's chatter showed that the rhythm and pitch were different from normal whale sounds and very similar to human speech. In fact, NOC had lowered the pitch of his sounds several octaves below normal. Ridgway says there's no reason to think that NOC understood speech. He was just mimicking humans he'd heard.

RIDGWAY: I think there were from divers using underwater communication equipment.

JOYCE: When NOC was mimicking humans, Ridgway looked inside the whale's nose.

RIDGWAY: He did an unusual thing that we had never seen before in any of these animals, which was he over-inflated the two large sacs that kind of collect air to make sound.

JOYCE: This all took place in the mid-1980s. After a few years, NOC stopped talking and has since died. Ridgway just published his research in the journal Current Biology. He says he would have done it earlier, but thought a talking whale was a side issue. Christopher Joyce, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.