You Have to Hear This Beluga Mimicking a Person

By Elizabeth Preston | October 22, 2012 4:02 pm

At first, they couldn’t tell where the sound was coming from. Researchers at the National Marine Mammal Foundation kept hearing what sounded like a muffled conversation, as if two people were talking just around a corner. It was only when a diver climbed out of the enclosure holding a male beluga whale and said, “Who told me to get out?” that they realized the whale himself was making the speech-like noises.

It was 1984, and the beluga, called NOC, had been living at the research center for seven years. Belugas are known for being noisy. But they usually stick with a standard whale repertoire of squeals, whistles and clicks. As for NOC, it seemed that after all his years of hearing human speech, both from trainers and researchers above the water and from divers talking on underwater equipment, he had developed a decent impression:

I like to imagine the whale is griping to one of its whale friends. “So I was working with the trainer today, and he was all like DURP DE DOO, BLER BLER BLER, BLOOOOOR DE DUM DUM! Pfft.”

By inserting tubes into their beluga mimic’s nasal cavity (or, more accurately, convincing the beluga to allow them to insert tubes into his nasal cavity), the researchers learned exactly how he was manipulating pressure in his nasal tract to produce the strange sound. They describe their results in Current Biology. But even though they discovered how the whale was performing his signature trick, they could never know exactly why.

As NOC matured, he retired his human impression. Five years ago, the beluga died. His legacy will be the lasting knowledge that to whales, humans sound just like the Swedish Chef.


Sam Ridgway, Donald Carder, Michelle Jeffries, & Mark Todd (2012). Spontaneous human speech mimicry by a cetacean Current Biology, 22 (20) : 10.1016/j.cub.2012.08.044

Image: Jason Pier (not the same beluga whale). Audio: Current Biology, Ridgway et al.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: language, the ocean
  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10905393366880696220 Shelby

    This is hilarious. Thank you.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01991219617456983242 Elizabeth Preston

    Thanks Shelby! I was crying with laughter the first time I heard this, so I'm glad other people appreciate it too.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15063904446757916981 Snail

    Oh, that's just marvellous. It's a struggle to not impose intention on the behaviour!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07662195856734236080 Colin Mackay

    Embarresment…what if whales conquer inter species communication before we do? We'll have some explaining to do, but it will be alright, so long as they don't get weapons.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06462777814021685899 musickluvrr

    I can't help picturing a Gary Larson cartoon of a whale talking to his buddy while tail walking across the water: “Hey, look at me! (“Durp de doo, bler, bler, bler”) I'm a HOO-MAN!” (“Bloooor de dum dum, PFFTTT!”) Of course they both burst into fits of laughter as he slowly sinks to the bottom of the pool.

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Inkfish

Like the wily and many-armed cephalopod, Inkfish reaches into the far corners of science news and brings you back surprises (and the occasional sea creature). The ink is virtual but the research is real.

About Elizabeth Preston

Elizabeth Preston is a science writer whose articles have appeared in publications including Slate, Nautilus, and National Geographic. She's also Editor of the children's science magazine Muse, where she frequently writes in the voice of a know-it-all bovine. She lives in Massachusetts. Read more and see her other writing here.

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