The Beluga Whale Who Spoke Almost Like A Human
by Mark Duncan | on October 23, 2012
If Willy the whale from the 1993 hit Free Willy were a Beluga, the film may not have been the success it was. Not only are Killer Whales a bit more majestic than Belugas (can you imagine a goofy, white whale soaring high above Jesse and leaping its way towards freedom?) but they’re also more recognized as the quintessential whale.
All this is to say, if Willy had been Beluga, he could have learned how to mimic human speech and maybe asked politely to be let into the wild rather than have to jump there. Additionally, if the writers had used a Beluga instead, it’s likely the world would have been spared Free Willy’s 2 and 3.
In the October 23rd issue of Current Biology, Sam Ridgway from the National Marine Mammal Foundation will reveal acoustic analysis that shows at least one Beluga that was able to pick up on some human speech patterns and replicate them with its own voice.
This finding has surprised many marine biologists, as they’ve always assumed whales produce sounds in a very different way than humans.
“Our observations suggest that the whale had to modify its vocal mechanics in order to make the speech-like sounds,” said Ridgway, explaining his findings in a statement.
“Such obvious effort suggests motivation for contact.”
This whole wacky idea of talking whales began in 1984 after Ridgway and others began hearing some garbled and unusual sounds coming from a dolphin and whale enclosure. These researchers thought they were hearing a far-off conversation between 2 people. Then, one day, a diver who was in one of these enclosures suddenly emerged from the tank and asked: “Who asked me to get out?”
It was then the researchers had pinpointed the noises to one whale, NOC. This extraordinary whale kept making these human-esque noises for another 4 years or so, until he hit sexual maturity. NOC (pronounced “No-See”) isn’t the only animal to attempt to mimic human voices. For that matter, NOC wasn’t even the only whale to speak with what sounded like a human voice. According to Nature.com, scientists in the 1940s once heard Belugas make noises they described as sounding like “children shouting in the distance.”
Many years later, another Beluga in Vancouver was said to be able to say his own name, Lagosi.
Ridgway and his team recorded the sound of NOC’s cries, noting that his voice was several octaves lower than that of other whales, right around the pitch of a typical human voice.
The team had taught NOC how to speak earlier, and later deduced that he was able to mimic human voices by increasing the amount of pressure pushed through his nasal cavities. These sounds were then manipulated and turned into distinguishable human-ish utterances as NOC shaped his punic lips, or small cavities which lie above the nasal cavity.
Humans, of course, shape their words and speak by manipulating the larynx in the throat as opposed to the nasal cavities.
“Whale voice prints were similar to human voice and unlike the whale’s usual sounds,” explains Ridgway.
“The sounds we heard were clearly an example of vocal learning by the white whale.”
Now, the recorded sound of his voice is all that remains of NOC. After spending some 30 years at the National Marine Mammal Foundation, NOC passed away 5 years ago.
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