Beluga Whale Master of Human Mimicry

A beluga whale taught itself to imitate human speech, reports National Geographic, a talent previously thought to belong only to certain species of birds. NOC, the beluga in question, resided at the National Marine Mammal Foundation in San Diego for three decades, but passed away in 1999. The discovery was first made in the mid 1980s, and intrigued many scientists.

It was because of the whale's captivity and its exposure to human visitors that it was able to develop this strange and impressive talent. The beluga, named NOC by the Foundation, could not accurately form words, but it could create speech like patterns that were unmistakably human in quality. The researchers first noticed it when they started to hear snippets of what sounded like conversation when there was nobody near the tank.

In addition to the actual sounds, NOC's voice when mimicking human speech was several octaves lower than the sounds whales usually make.

NOC the talking whale stopped imitating human speech when he was about five years old, and researchers suspect this is because it had reached sexual maturity. Nevertheless, witnesses to this rare phenomenon feel that NOC's impressive abilities are evidence that other animals might be able to develop the same talent. It also lends credibility to the theory that animals can learn speech just be listening to humans converse.

It turns out, however, that the whale is not the only marine animal to display a talent for imitating speech. Hoover, a harbor seal raised by a family in Maine, could utter English phrases in a distinctly human voice. The phrases in Hoover's repertoire included "Hoover", "get down", and "how are ya". He was apparently the first of his kind.

Many researchers suggest that animals who are predisposed to mimic each other, such as whales, seals, and dolphins, are more likely to pick up human speech patterns. Both Hoover and NOC had regular, prolonged exposure to human voices, and were perhaps given more time with people than with other animals of the same species. Therefore, they mimicked humans rather than other animals.

In NOC's case, however, the imitations were particularly impressive. He had to inflate the air sacs in his lungs with far more pressure than what is normally required to produce whale sounds. According to scientists and witnesses, his speech was accompanied by a curious bulging of his head, which seemed to accompany the strain required to mimic human speech.

To some, this might indicate that even marine animals battle a fierce desire to communicate with others, whether of their own species or not.