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Was Beluga whale attempting to speak in 'human' voice? You be the judge. (+video)

Ben Anderson

Next time you're watching white beluga whales breach and dive in the waters off Alaska, call out and you might get an echo from an unlikely source: the whales themselves. According to a report in the science journal Current Biology, researchers have recorded and observed a beluga whale named NOC making human-like vocalizations in an apparent mimicry attempt.

NOC was captured in the waters off of Canada in 1977 and brought to California to work with the U.S. Navy's Marine Mammal Program, according to NBC News. According to the researchers who wrote the recent report, NOC had been in their care for about seven years when he suddenly began to make what they described as "unusual sounds."

"We interpreted the whale's vocalizations as an attempt to mimic humans," they said, and they observed several instances of those sounds before determining NOC was the likely cause. "Whale vocalizations often sounded as if two people were conversing in the distance just out of range of our understanding. These 'conversations' were heard several times before the whale was identified as the source."

Additionally, the researchers report that NOC would make the vocalizations both above and under water. At one point, a diver who had been swimming outside of NOC's enclosure surfaced and asked the other researchers "Who told me to get out?" 

It was determined that the source of the noise was NOC, repeatedly producing a vocalization that sounded like "out, out, out."

Intrigued by the similarity of the whale's vocalizations to human speech patterns, the researchers began to study how NOC was making the sounds. They began recording the instances, and noted that the vocalizations were "several octaves lower than the whale's usual sounds."

Using pressure catheters to measure the air produced from the whale's nasal cavities, the researchers were able to identify and reward the human-like vocalizations, eventually allowing them to train NOC to speak. Making the sounds required a special pressure increase in the whale's nasal cavities, as well as manipulation of air sacs and a structure inside of the nasal cavity dubbed the "phonic lips."

Unfortunately, NOC's attempts to mimic human speech didn't last. "The speech-like behavior subsided after about four years," the report said. "After the whale matured, we no longer heard the speech-like sounds."

The researchers note that human-like vocalizations from toothed cetaceans -- including dolphins, porpoises and belugas -- have been reported, but never recorded in detail. They note one instance at an aquarium in Vancouver where the handlers of a beluga whale named Lagosi reported hearing the whale make a vocalization that sounded much like its own name.

"The human brain is quick to recognize words," the researchers said. "Even partial or garbled words are identified. Reports of animal mimicry based solely on hearing vocalizations must be viewed skeptically."

Still, NOC's case is a special one, given the whale's close work with humans over the years and the fact that the scientists noted NOC's continued habit of being "quite vocal," albeit with more typical whale sounds, after the human sounds stopped.

"...(T)he sonic behavior we observed is an example of vocal learning by the white whale," they wrote. "It seems likely that NOC's close association with humans played a role in how often he employed his human voice, as well as in its quality."

Want to hear it? The National Marine Mammal Foundation has uploaded a video containing an audio track of some of NOC's vocalizations.

Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com