Captive Whale Tried To Talk Like Humans
NOC was the name of a white whale caught off the Pacific coast of Canada in 1977. Until his death five years ago, NOC lived in an open-air tank at the US National Marine Mammal Foundation in San Diego, along with a group of dolphins; he also socialized with two female white whales. In 1984, NOC started talking with a human voice.
Before realizing that NOC was talking, the scientists thought they heard the sound of people chatting as if at a distance and “just out of range for our understanding,” from a tank that held whales and dolphins. As noted in Current Biology (pdf), the scientists heard these “conversations” several times before tracing them to NOC:
The whale was exposed to speech not only from humans at the surface — it was present at times when divers used surface-to-diver communication equipment… The whale was recognized as the source of the speech-like sounds when a diver surfaced outside this whale’s enclosure and asked “Who told me to get out?” Our observations led us to conclude the “out” which was repeated several times came from NOC.
NOC was seeking to mimic human voices, the scientists say. They recorded NOC’s sounds both when he was underwater and when he surfaced for the next several years.
An acoustic analysis revealed that NOC’s human voice was several octaves below typical whale sounds which include echolocation clicks and whistles (that are actually fast vibrations). The scientists “trained” NOC to speak when they requested him to do so. They also figured out how he produced human sounds, by adjusting the pressure and blowing air through his nose rather than through his larynx as humans do.
After four years, when NOC reached his maturity, he stopped making the human sounds, perhaps because he lost either the interest or the ability. He did remain “quite vocal,” the scientists say, producing echolocation pulses and also “various pulse burst sounds previously described as ‘squawks, rasps, yelps or barks.’”
What was so remarkable about NOC’s sounds was that he made them spontaneously, without any human instigation. The scientists note other examples of white whales producing sounds resembling human speech,
The first to study white whale (Delphinapterus leucas) sounds in the wild, Schevill and Lawrence  wrote that “occasionally the calls would suggest a crowd of children shouting in the distance”. Fish and Mowbary  described sound types and reviewed past descriptions of sounds from this vociferous species. At Vancouver Aquarium, Canada, keepers suggested that a white whale about 15 years of age, uttered his name “Lagosi”. Other utterances were not perceptible, being described as “garbled human voice, or Russian, or similar to Chinese” by R.L. Eaton in a self-published account in 1979.
I’ve listened to the recordings quite a few times: it is uncanny, wondrous and poignant to hear the voice of NOC.
In his many years living among humans, was NOC trying to “make contact”? What motivated him to start, and to stop, talking in a human voice — did he conclude that the effort to speak the way humans did was not worth it?
When NOC said, as the diver reported, “out,” was he trying to tell the scientists what he wanted?
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Photo by Skelly B