Wednesday 22 November 2017

Young white whale who tried to talk

A white whale produced sounds similar to Mr Punch, scientists claim
A white whale produced sounds similar to Mr Punch, scientists claim

Scientists in the US are convinced that a whale was trying to talk when it produced buzzy speech-like noises which sounded like someone playing a kazoo - badly - or perhaps Mr Punch breaking into song.

The recordings are unintelligible but the young white whale's ability first emerged when a startled diver working in its pen heard the word "out" repeated several times. Surfacing, the diver asked: "Who told me to get out?" An investigation identified the whale, called NOC, as the source of the sounds.

Previously, staff at the National Marine Mammal Foundation in California had reported hearing strange noises reminiscent of a distant conversation between two people.

NOC had been at the centre for seven years and lived with several dolphins and two older female white whales.

Research showed that in order to "talk" he varied the pressure in the nasal cavities beneath his blow-hole. The result was a stream of song-like sounds very different from the clicks and whistles whales normally use to echo-locate and communicate with each other.

Recording the sounds revealed a rhythmic pattern of wave forms and frequencies similar to those of human speech.

Dr Sam Ridgway, from the National Marine Mammal Foundation, said: "Our observations suggest that the whale had to modify its vocal mechanics in order to make the speech-like sounds. Whale voice prints were similar to human voice and unlike the whale's usual sounds. The sounds we heard were clearly an example of vocal learning by the white whale."

NOC's chattering, which began in the 1980s, reduced after about four years and stopped altogether once he was fully mature. Every case of whale mimicry reported to date has involved young animals, said the scientists. NOC died five years ago after 30 years at the National Marine Mammal Foundation.

The scientists' findings are reported in the journal Current Biology, although there have been previous anecdotal stories of parrot-like mimicry by whales.

On one occasion a keeper at Vancouver Aquarium in Canada, claimed he heard a white whale utter his name, "Lagosi". Other sounds made by the whale were described as "garbled human voice, or Russian, or similar to Chinese".

Press Association

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