NOC, the white whale that tried to sound like a human

By Ed Yong | October 22, 2012 12:00 pm

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Listen to this recording. It sounds like a drunkard playing a kazoo, but it’s actually the call of a beluga (a white whale) called NOC. Belugas don’t normally sound like that; instead, NOC’s handlers think that his bizarre sounds were an attempt at mimicking the sounds of human speech.

The idea isn’t far-fetched. Belugas are so vocal that they’re often called “sea canaries”. William Schevill and Barbara Lawrence – the first scientists to study beluga sounds in the wild – wrote that the calls would occasionally “suggest a crowd of children shouting in the distance”. Ever since, there have been many anecdotes that these animals could mimic human voices, including claims that Lagosi, a male beluga at Vancouver Aquarium, could speak his own name. But until now, no one had done the key experiment. No one had recorded a beluga doing its alleged human impression, and analysed the call’s acoustic features.

NOC provided the right opportunity. He was one of three belugas that arrived at the National Marine Mammal Foundation (NMMF) in San Diego in August 1977, after originally being captured by Inuit hunters in Canada. Being the smallest of the trio, NOC was cheekily named after “noseum”, the tiny gnats that plague the hunters during the Canadian summer.

In May 1984, seven years after NOC’s arrival at San Diego, the staff at the NMMF started hearing noises that resembled speech-like sounds. At first, no one could work out where the noises were coming from. They sounded “as if two people were conversing in the distance just out of range for our understanding,” writes Sam Ridgway.

The mystery was solved later that year, through a lucky accident. A group of divers were training outside NOC’s enclosure, when one of them surfaced and asked “Who told me to get out?”

It was NOC.

After that incident, the trainers watched him more closely and confirmed that he was the source of their mysterious noises. He did so spontaneously, without any training. And he made the calls when alone or when his human handlers were around, and never when socialising with the other two whales in his tank.

Ridgway’s team recorded NOC’s calls, and found that their acoustic features were very unlike typical whale sounds, but not unlike those of human speech. The rhythm was comparable, with vocal bursts that lasted for around three seconds and gaps of less than 0.5 seconds. NOC’s calls had a fundamental frequency of 200 to 300 Hz (the octave around middle C), which is similar to the range of human speech, and much lower than a whale’s usual sounds.

After many rounds of recording, Ridgway’s team started training NOC to make the speech-like sounds on cue, so they could better study how he did it. Whales produce sounds by sending air from their nasal tract past their phonic lips – a pair of vibrating muscular folds that act like our voice box. From there, the air enters two pouches called the vestibular sacs. NOC mimicked human noises by increasing the pressure in his nasal tract, finely controlling the vibrations of his phonic lips, and greatly over-inflating his vestibular sacs, to hit those lower registers.

Stan Kuczaj, who studies sea mammal behaviour at the University of Southern Mississippi, is convinced. “The beluga did seem to be mimicking human speech, and did so quite successfully,” he says. “Belugas are known to have excellent acoustic mimicry skills.”

Justin Gregg from the Dolphin Communication Project, says, “Listening to the recording, it does not sound exactly like human speech—I have no idea what the whale is “saying”—but [Ridgway’s team] have certainly made the case that the whale was trying very hard to produce human language sounds.”

“We do not claim that our whale was a good mimic compared to such well-known mimics as parrots or mynah birds,” writes Ridgway. But he maintains that the calls he recorded are a good example of vocal learning – where animals learn to make noises based on hearing others around them. In this case, it’s likely that NOC picked up the pitch and rhythm of human speech after spending years in close contact with his handlers.

Why? Kuczak says, “I don’t think the whale was trying to learn human speech in order to communicate with humans.” Instead, he suggests that NOC was simply interested in these odd sounds in his environment, and tried to reproduce them.

Gregg adds that belugas, like dolphins, are very social animals, and the ability to learn and mimic new calls might help them to address other individuals. They also have very sophisticated echolocation, and can subtly alter their ultrasonic clicks to scan their environment. “They already have an amazing ability to alter parameters of their vocal tract, which should make it all the more easy to replicate human speech sounds,” says Gregg.

NOC’s attempts at human-like sounds continued for four years. As he grew up, he stopped, but he carried on being talkative, with a regular portfolio of “squawks, rasps, yelps or barks”.

Twelve years ago, NOC stopped calling altogether. He finally passed away after almost 25 years at the NMMF. Through Ridgway’s recordings, his voice echoes on.

Reference: Ridgway, Carder, Jeffries & Todd. Spontaneous human speech mimicry by a cetacean. Current Biology 22, R860-861.

PS: Ridgway presented his findings at a conference in the 1980s, but other research projects took precedence.“In the rush to report funded work, this interesting side-note got lost in the shuffle until recently when colleagues encouraged us to publish the data,” he says.

PPS: Credit to Justin Gregg for the kazoo line.

More on whales and dolphins:

Comments (27)

  1. Kim Harrell

    I think you meant “the staff at the NMMF started HEARING noises that resembled speech-like sounds.” right? Just a typo.
    This is amazing! I’m convinced. I don’t think he was trying to learn speech either, but I’d buy that he wanted to communicate with humans in some way, if no more seriously than when humans call out “Mooo!” to cows.

  2. Thomas

    He sounds like the Swedish chef in the Muppet show.

  3. Or Robert Di Niro in that last scene of Cape Fear.

  4. markos

    Check out BF Skinner’s verbal summator (auditory inkblot)–we create sense out of nonsense sounds by filling in the blanks so to speak….

  5. Camelia

    Why is NOC in captivity?

  6. So long and thanks for all the fish?

  7. Kim Harrell

    Hahaha! Swedish Chef, yessss!

    Kim H.

  8. BM2

    Or Sylvester Stallone on helium.

  9. Steve

    Sounds like “off we go into the wild blue yonder” :)

  10. Lars

    Actually that recording reminded me of Billy Connolly’s friend who loved to sing Country and Western but couldn’t carry a tune, and didn’t, in any case, know any of the words. It’s on one of his early (pre-television) records – Raw Meat for the Gallery, perhaps.

  11. No, NOC was saying, “get ME out!” Belugas belong in the ocean, not in “research” tanks.

  12. shuja

    In our country NOC stands for No objection certificate!!!

    A PASSING RANDOM THOUGHT!!!

  13. Angie

    Yay! Some humans heard NOC, and the media actually decided to run a tape of a whale communicating. He sounds like conversational yankees (from underwater of course). Maybe heaps of his buddies, who dished out a Beluga interpretation of human-speak went un-noticed. Should we keep listening to the ones that people keep captive? They are clever.

  14. charlie

    Ever consider perhaps the whales and dolphins are attempting to communicate to us to let them out of the “wet prisons” we “superior” humans have and so put them in?

    Or perhaps to warn us of the devastating loss of life in the oceans due to the assault of chemicals, trash, bombing, yes, bombing, that the navy carries out?

    All natural life on this planet is doomed because of man’s greed, carelessness, and the inability to see that all of life is related.

  15. Emmanuel

    To Camelia: Why NOC is in cavtivity?
    Did you work with marine mammals? well, a dolphin trainer or a beluga whale trainer knows that the must important thing is the walefare of the animals and we give our lives to that cause. Be more positive and get closer to a facility to learn from us. Sorry by the spell but my native tonge is other. This animals life is better than ours. Food, love, game, motivation, integration. Human life sucks, marine animal life is great under human care.

  16. When did we become so unscientific? We are taking data out from one dolphin, using confirmation or observation bias to make us believe that they are either mimicking us (which may or may not presume that they are actually trying to communicate). I’m hardly convinced.

    To conclude that they’re trying to tell us about life in the ocean is, well, a stretch of the imagination well beyond anything that science would ever be able to conclude.

  17. Bob

    Am I the only parent who thinks this sounds like a young toddler trying to mimick adult speech?

  18. Amy

    We are not being unscientific. Study of cetacean communication has been ongoing for many many decades, beginning with Dr. John C. Lilly, pioneer in the field of cetacean/human communication. It is not a stretch of the imagination, at all. Cetaceans are extremely advanced intelligent sentient beings who we would stand to learn much from.

  19. “Cetaceans are extremely advanced intelligent sentient beings…” Then why are they ripped from the wild, dumped in concrete tanks, & denied the freedom that is the basic right of every “extremely advanced intelligent sentient being”? If you really believed what you just wrote, Amy,you would be campaigning with brave people like Ric O’Barry to end cetacean captivity. Until then, you’re nothing but a prison warden.

  20. Fair warning: if this thread veers into personal attacks, I’m going to start smacking people with my moderation hammer.

  21. Amy

    Uh…Rick…I guess you don’t know what I do in my personal time, but that’s not really for you to know from one comment. I never said *anything* about supporting captive dolphins – your assumption, dear friend. Look me up, there’s plenty to know/learn. In dolphin light and joy ~ Amy ps: Thanks Ed.

  22. Amy

    Ric O’Barry isn’t the ‘end all’ of information re: dolphins, as well. He is one man. There’s a big world of dolphin support and advocacy out there.

  23. May I say something about captive zoo animals? This story was really interesting and amusing. There is a place for learning from captive belugas. There are wild animals that belong in captivity – those who are injured to the point of being unreleaseable. Many species are holed up in wretched rehab facilities by well intentioned people with not nearly as much money as zoos.

    But instead, zoos are ripping species from the wild and breeding them. Their million-dollar enclosures would be much better for non-releaseable wildlife that can just as easily be studied.

  24. Ruth

    I believe the whale is mimicking the sound of human speech spoken above water, but heard below the water.

  25. Wang-Lo

    NOC is unmistakably singing the last four bars of “O Canada”.

    Written by Calixa Lavallée in 1880, this song became a de facto national anthem in 1939 and was the subject of decades of campaigning by patriotic French, English, and Beluga whale Canadians, who wanted to make it official.

    Sadly, NOC was confined to a tank in a research facility after 1977 and never got the news that “O Canada” was finally enacted Canada’s national anthem in 1980. He continued his plaintive singing campaign until he could no longer remember the words or the melody.

    -Wang-Lo.

  26. tut

    It sounds like a CB radio.

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