Sailors once called beluga whales the “canaries of the sea.” Sailors could hear the “song” of the beluga, a range of chirps and whistles, through the wooden hulls of their ships. There is a fascinating story in the news these days about a beluga whale named NOC which started making some very unusual and non-beluga-like noises. NOC was captured in 1977 and became a part of the Navy’s Marine Mammal Program in San Diego. Around 1984, NOC started making sounds which divers mistook for human speech. NOC continued this behavior for around four years and then stopped. Now almost 25 years later, researcher Sam Ridgeway and his colleagues have published a paper on his vocalizations in the journal Current Biology. Thanks to Phil Leon for contributing to this post.
As you can hear yourself, the white whale was not very good at talking. Then again, the whales, like dolphins, don’t have a larynx. That meant that the whale had to come up with a way to use his existing mechanism to imitate the rhythms of human speech. In fact, the researchers found that these vocalizations were not much like his normal whaletalk. For starters, they were several octaves lower, and they displayed a cadence that matches human speech.