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Noc (in 1995) strongly “wanted to make a connection,” says former naval trainer Michelle Jeffries. “I think that was part of the thing behind him mimicking speech.” (U.S. Navy)

The Story of One Whale Who Tried to Bridge the Linguistic Divide Between Animals and Humans

While captive in a Navy program, a beluga whale named Noc began to mimic human speech. What was behind his attempt to talk to us?

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Millions of years before we humans came along, the earth’s oceans were a vast, unbroken web of whale song. The complex courting arias of humpbacks, the distinct clicking dialects of migrating sperm-whale clans, the congalike poundings of Pacific grays, the multi-thousand-mile moans and blips of massive blue and fin whales conversing across oceans at octaves well below our range of hearing, the nearly nonstop Arctic chatter of belugas: All of them are being drowned out now by our clamor.

And yet a single beluga managed to make his voice go global again, and in the only medium left him: the worldwide web. The extraordinary history of Noc (pronounced no-see) resurrects a captive who somehow has found a way to speak to us, both literally and figuratively, of the true nature of his kind.

Since the early 1960s the United States had been deploying marine mammals, beginning with dolphins, for tasks including mine detection and recovery of test torpedoes. By the mid-1970s, the locus of the naval cold war had shifted to the Arctic, where the latest Soviet submarines were secreting themselves under the ice cap, an environment off-limits to animals including dolphins and sea lions used in the Navy Marine Mammal Program (NMMP). Experiments commenced on weaponry that could function in such extreme conditions. The Navy needed marine mammals with built-in sonar, capable of locating and retrieving sunken experimental torpedoes in the frigid waters and low visibility of the Arctic.

In August 1977, with Canadian government consent, Sam Ridgway, a Texas-born veterinarian and a co-founder of NMMP, dispatched a team to the northern coast of Manitoba. There, the Navy would procure the first belugas for a new Arctic initiative, known as “Cold Ops.” Belugas typically travel in pods of approximately 25 whales, led by a dominant male but bound by close ties between mothers and their calves. Newborns nurse for about two years and, living within a multitiered matriarchal society very similar to that of elephants, are also raised by an extended group of females.

(Henry Horenstein / CORBIS)
Sam Ridgway deployed whales in the Navy Marine Mammal Program. “They come to think of us as family,” he says. “And that’s the reason they stay with us.” ( Robert Benson)
Navy mine-detection dolphin, Persian Gulf. (Brien Aho / U.S. Navy)
Navy harbor-patrol sea lion, San Diego. ( Bob Houlihan / U.S. Navy)
Dolphin marking a practice mine, undisclosed location. (U.S. Navy)
Handler Eric Kenas uses hand gestures with a dolphin. The Navy has trained marine mammals, including belugas like Noc, for 50 years. (Pierre G. Georges / U.S. NAVY)
Hull Technician Fireman Stefan Gingerich gives positive reinforcement during a mine countermeasure exercise in the Pacific. (Jennifer A. Villalovos / U.S. NAVY)
Navy Diver Second Class Michael Gerstel rewards a bottlenose dolphin during an annual training exercise in Little Creek, Virginia. (Bruce Cummins / U.S. NAVY)
Michael Gerstel works with a cetacean assigned to the Marine Mammal Company of Explosive Ordnance Disposal Mobile Unit. (Bruce Cummins / U.S. NAVY)
The Navy unit uses the marine mammals because they can locate and mark mines using their built-in sonar capabilities. (Rafael Martie / U.S. NAVY)
Another dolphin gets training with the unit’s Christopher Burgess in 2013 in Point Loma, California, before a nighttime exercise. (Joshua Scott / U.S. NAVY)

Belugas make for obliging quarry, their affable, curious natures often leading them directly up to divers and boats. As for the vessel Ridgway had deployed that summer 37 years ago, it also contained two Inuit hunters hired to expedite the recruitment process. When a beluga approached their boat, one hunter would jump on the whale’s back and slip a lasso around its neck, like a high plains mustang. The other would then slide a floating stretcher under the whale and lead it ashore. Once there it was placed in a leak-proof crate containing a few centimeters of water and loaded onto a transport jet for immediate transfer to a netted underwater enclosure at the Navy’s Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center, off Point Loma, California.

Six belugas were caught between 1977 and 1980. Among them was the 2-year-old male calf named Noc, after the tiny biting summer flies known as no-see-ums. The youngest of the Cold Op’s recruits, Noc lived virtually his entire life in captivity, working side by side with human trainers. He ended up being deployed for two top-secret Navy surveillance and retrieval programs before succumbing to meningitis in 1999 at the age of 23 while still in the Navy’s care.

Then Noc suddenly re-emerged in the form of a 20-odd-second recording, included as a mere supplement to a research paper by Ridgway, “Spontaneous Human Speech Mimicry by a Cetacean,” in the October 23, 2012, edition of the journal Current Biology.

Within days Noc’s voice was burbling from computers around the globe. He sounds, on first hearing, at least, less like a person talking than a delirious drunk humming an atonal tune through a tissue-covered comb. A goofy quotient only heightened by the photo of Noc that ran with most of the breaking news stories about him: his duck-billed and dumbstruck mouth; his deep-set, frontally fixed eyes. But the science behind Noc’s mimicry and its apparent motives reveals something far more urgent and haunting: the spectral outpourings of a young white whale calling to us across both time and the vast linguistic divide between humans and the other animals.

***

“I’d never worked with belugas before,” Ridgway recalled as we sat in a Point Loma coffee shop one morning in March 2013. In semi-retirement now at age 77, his naturally high-pitched voice further thinned and perforated by age, he did his best at first to compete with the coffee shop’s blaring music. And then one of the world’s leading experts on the auditory powers of cetaceans stood, made his way to the service counter, and shouted at the young woman there: “I’m sorry. I’m an old man. Could you please turn that down?”

“So...” he continued upon shuffling back to our table, “when the Navy contacted me and said we’re going to start doing some stuff up in the Arctic, our program decided, well, we’ll get belugas. They spend most of their lives in those conditions. And we’d done similar work with dolphins for years, so we kind of figured belugas would be comparable.”

In one e-mail I’d received from Ridgway he enclosed some extraordinary footage of Noc and another beluga captive, Muk Tuk (after the Inuit word for whaleskin and blubber), in the course of deep-diving training tests off San Clemente Island, 70 miles west of the Southern California coast: recurring images of the two whales dutifully reporting to the side of the Navy training vessel, receiving both spoken and hand-signaled instructions, and then disappearing under the water surface.

The new Cold Ops recruits proved not only to be remarkable divers, ultimately reaching preset platforms at depths of over 2,000 feet, but pinpointing retrievers as well. Belugas evolved their precisely honed echolocation powers in order to both navigate the Arctic’s dark waters and to find available pockets of breathing air between the ocean surface and the underside of the ice cap. Pinging on mud-embedded test torpedoes proved, by comparison, an easily dispatched task. They would also learn to wield a mouthpiece with a special “grabber assembly” for retrieval of the torpedoes from the ocean floor.

Still, the most critical factor for Ridgway and his team was that the new Cold Ops trainees willingly returned to their trainers. The darker undercurrent of such fidelity, of course, was that the animals had nobody else to turn to. During training sessions at a special weapons testing range, a jointly operated Canadian-U.S. facility in Nanoose Bay off the east coast of Vancouver Island, a group of animal rights activists managed to infiltrate the base there and release Noc and Muk Tuk from their enclosure. Both whales headed at first for open water, but Noc returned of his own volition a short time later. Muk Tuk swam some 14 miles south along the coast before willingly following a pursuing Cold Ops training vessel back to base.

“They come to think of us as family,” Ridgway said. “And that’s the reason they stay with us. We have no way of completely controlling them, and yet they do their job and come back. They kind of view themselves as part of a team. Or at least we view them as seeing themselves as part of a team.”

Ridgway said he didn’t remember there being anything particularly strange or different about Noc over the course of the first seven years preceding his sudden speech episodes. He did describe him as being somewhat lazy and unfocused at first during open-sea training sessions, often delighting in purposely delaying the proceedings through an avoidance behavior known as “mucking” (diving down to suck invertebrates from the seafloor). Sometimes he’d just bow out completely, swimming the 70 miles back to his enclosure in San Diego Bay.

“I do remember Noc would often kind of sit back and watch Muk Tuk,” Ridgway offered at one point. “And then he’d get all jealous when Muk Tuk did her job and got her reward. Suddenly he’d want to have his turn. But he had to wait for Muk Tuk to finish first.”

Michelle Jeffries, one of Noc’s early trainers, presented a decidedly different picture of her young whale charge. A zoological manager of the Oakland Zoo and a co-author of the Current Biology paper on Noc, Jeffries began working with the Cold Ops belugas in 1981. Noc was 6 at that point and had, it seemed, evolved by then into the consummate team player.

“Noc really warmed my heart,” Jeffries said over lunch one afternoon in Los Angeles, where she’d just moved to assist her ailing mother. “He was very easygoing. He wanted people’s attention. He wanted you to stay around and interact with him and rub him. He didn’t try to bullshit you like some of the dolphins did. He was just glad for your time, and he was very patient. Plus being the younger one, he was a little bit more reactive, eager. Noc was the kid who was willing to try. I think that was part of the thing behind him mimicking speech. He liked watching people. He liked being around people. The connection. He wanted to make a connection. I think that was his thing. He liked the interface.”

In May 1984 Ridgway and his fellow Cold Ops personnel began hearing strange noises emanating from the whales’ enclosure—sounds they would liken in the Current Biology paper to “two people conversing...just out of range for our understanding.”

“My office was on the end of a pier in San Diego Bay,” Ridgway recalled over coffee that morning. “Noc had his home enclosure next to the pier. I would hear these ‘talking sounds’ late in the day as I headed down the pier toward the parking lot. I assumed these talking sounds resulted from a conversation on one of the two adjacent piers about 150 feet away from me.”

Also that May, two Navy divers were making underwater repairs on the Point Loma whale enclosures. Throughout these sessions they would talk with their onshore dive supervisor through an audible underwater communications device known as a “wet phone.” In the middle of that day’s outing, one of the divers, a Navy veteran in his late 30s, Miles Bragget, abruptly surfaced and asked a puzzled supervisor: “Who told me to get out?” Informed of the incident later, Ridgway and his team decided to start keeping a closer eye and ear on their beluga recruits.

“After a set period of time,” Ridgway explained, “or after the divers completed a task, the supervisor would typically order them out. It was also not uncommon for Noc to be in the vicinity when the underwater communications systems were being used. But Bragget had come up at a point when the supervisor had said nothing. It turns out that Bragget heard Noc. The ‘out’ he thought he’d heard, we realized, had come from Noc. He repeated the word several times.”

“I didn’t observe Miles’ initial interaction,” Jeffries said of Bragget, who died in 1990, “but I was at the facility that day. I remember when Miles got out of the water he was sure the dive monitor and the guys around the pens were kidding him when they said they did not call him out of the water. He thought they were pulling his leg. But we realized pretty quickly what was going on, maybe because of the way Noc reacted to the divers, watching them from his pen, following them, focusing on Miles in particular. Belugas are very aware of people and their actions, especially Noc, and Miles had a nice touch with Noc. He was a gentle man. And once we figured out that it was Noc, we were all excited, laughing, and, I think, completely humbled by this amazing animal.”

Once Noc had been identified as the source of Bragget’s perceived evacuation order, Ridgway and his Marine Mammal Program cohorts began recording their precocious white whale’s by-then irrepressible speech episodes. He spoke both underwater and in open air, either spontaneously or on command, and yet only when around humans or off by himself, never with his fellow whales. Before long, Jeffries told me, she had only to point at Noc and say the word “out,” and he would start rambling away, sometimes as much as 30 or more unbroken seconds of his surreal juice-harp oratory.

There had been numerous claims in the past about the naturally vociferous beluga talking in our language as well. Until Noc, however, no one had ever had an opportunity to do the repeated observations, acoustic recordings and audio analysis required to verify what people had long believed they were hearing.

Subsequent spectrum analysis of Noc’s utterances soon revealed just how skilled a speaker he was. The rhythm and amplitude of his vocal bursts and the intervals between them were found to pattern those of human speech. His fundamental frequencies, meanwhile, also matched those of humans, registering around 200 to 300 hertz, roughly the octave of middle C, and several octaves below the white whale’s usual sounds. Noc would even yield to the repeated insertion of a device known as a “rapid response pressure catheter” into the nasal cavities and air sacs beneath his blowhole. This allowed Ridgway to get a clearer understanding of just how Noc was accomplishing his bizarre vocal acrobatics.

Belugas produce sounds by building up air pressure in the nasal cavities within their melon, the echolocation organ at the front of their heads, and then forcing the air through a set of “phonic lips” atop each cavity. The vibrations of the lips result in the whale’s typical repertoire of echolocation clicks, pulse bursts and chirp-like whistles and squeaks. Noc, Ridgway discovered, was so over-inflating his nasal cavities during his mimicry episodes that his melon would visibly distend, seemingly to the point of bursting, and all to wrench his natural speech into the precise tenor and sonic topography of our own.

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