SAN DIEGO – A new paper published by the National Marine Mammal Foundation in the scientific
journal Current Biology sheds light on the ability of marine mammals to spontaneously mimic human
speech. The study details the case of a white whale named NOC who began to mimic the human voice,
presumably a result of vocal learning.
“The whale’s vocalizations often sounded as if two people were conversing in the distance,” says Dr.
Sam Ridgway, President of the National Marine Mammal Foundation. “These ‘conversations’ were
heard several times before the whale was eventually identified as the source. In fact, we discovered it
when a diver mistook the whale for a human voice giving him underwater directions.”
Click here to see a photo of NOC and listen to a recording of him imitating human
speech. (Most of NOC’s spontaneous mimicry of human speech sounds like
mumbled conversation rather than clearly understandable words.)
As soon as the whale was identified as the source, NMMF scientists recorded his
speech-like episodes both in air and underwater, studying the physiology behind
his ability to mimic. It’s believed that the animals close association with humans
played a role in how often he employed his ‘human’ voice, as well as in its quality.
Researchers believe NOC’s sonic behavior is an example of vocal learning by a
white whale. After about four years, NOC’s speech-like behavior subsided.
“When NOC matured, we no longer heard speech-like sounds, but he did
remain quite vocal,” Ridgway said. “While it’s been a number of years since we first encountered this
spontaneous mimicry, it’s our hope that publishing our observations now will lead to further
discoveries about marine mammal learning and vocalization. How this unique ‘mind’ interacts with
other animals, humans and the ocean environment is a major challenge of our time.”