Beluga whales are exquisite creatures—white and gregarious, they use echolocation and often seem to be smiling. And now, new research confirms that these cetaceans can mimic human voices.
The finding builds on research as early as the 1940s that found these whales sound like human children. In the 1970s, an animal at the Vancouver Aquarium was heard to say his own name, Lugosi.
This time, scientists at the National Marine Mammal Foundation (NMMF) conducted acoustic analysis of a beluga named NOC in their facility in San Diego. It all started in 1984 when staff began to notice some unusual sounds in the vicinity of the whale and dolphin enclosure. It sounded as though two people were conversing in the distance, just out of range of their understanding. They traced the sounds to NOC a bit later when a diver surfaced from the whale enclosure to ask his colleagues an odd question: “Who told me to get out?”
They recorded the whale’s sounds to reveal a rhythm similar to human speech and fundamental frequencies several octaves lower than typical whale sounds, much closer to that of the human voice.
In general, whales make sounds via their nasal tract, not in the larynx as humans do. But the scientists found that NOC had to vary the pressure in his nasal tract while making other muscular adjustments and inflating the vestibular sac in his blowhole—a tricky maneuver.
“Our observations suggest that the whale had to modify its vocal mechanics in order to make the speech-like sounds,” says Sam Ridgway of NMMF. “Such obvious effort suggests motivation for contact.”
Sadly, after 30 years at the National Marine Mammal Foundation, NOC passed away five years ago. But the sound of his voice lives on—listen here.
Image: Greg Hume/Wikipedia