At first researchers at the US National Marine Mammal Foundation aquarium in San Diego, California were baffled by the muffled voices they heard. They recall it sounding as if two people were conversing in the distance, just out of range for their understanding. The mystery was finally solved when a diver in the whale’s tank surfaced, poked his head out of the water, and asked, “Why did you tell me to get out of the tank?” Researchers realized the “voices” they were hearing were coming from Noc, the Beluga whale housed in the tank.
Noc was about one year old when captured off the Pacific coast of Canada in 1977. After seven years in the tank, with near constant human companionship, he spontaneously began to mimic human voices. Once scientists realized the whale had “spoken”, they began recording in the air and underwater. The recordings would mark the first time a whale’s vocalizations were shown to emulate human speech and deviate from the typical calls made by his species.
Scientists say that Noc’s speech-like sounds were several octaves lower than normal whale sounds and very close to those of the human voice. They found Noc made the sound, which matched the rhythm of human voices, by blowing air through his nose (the sound does not as clearly match a human voice as sounds from a parrot or mynah bird). After a few years, researchers were able to train Noc to “speak” on command.
Beluga whales are now called the “canaries of the sea”. Other studies have revealed the animals’ remarkable ability to speak. Two scientists studying wild Belugas wrote that “occasionally the calls would suggest a crowd of children shouting in the distance” and a 15-year-old Beluga named Lagosi was able to speak his own name.
Noc died in captivity in 1999.