The Whale With a Human Voice

Just a quick post today–to direct your attention to a fascinating new paper published in Current Biology: “Spontaneous human speech mimicry by a cetacean.” In it, researchers document the remarkable case of NOC, a beluga whale that learned to imitate human voices. As the researchers write:

After seven years in our care … a white whale called NOC began, spontaneously, to make unusual sounds. We interpreted the whale’s vocalizations as an attempt to mimic humans. Whale vocalizations often sounded as if two people were conversing in the distance just out of range for our understanding. These ‘conversations’ were heard several times before the whale was identified as the source. The whale lived among a group of dolphins and socialized with two female white whales. The whale was exposed to speech not only from humans at the surface — it was present at times when divers used surface-to-diver communication equipment … The whale was recognized 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 the “out” which was repeated several times came from NOC.

The sounds NOC was making were several octaves lower than typical whale sounds and had a rhythm similar to human speech. That’s especially impressive when you consider that whales normally produce sounds in an utterly different way than we do–using their nasal cavities rather than the larynx, as we do. To imitate human voices, NOC had to alter the pressure inside his nasal cavities and make other adjustments. Listen to NOC.

Read the paper here.

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

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