The Story of One Whale Who Tried to Bridge the Linguistic Divide Between Animals and Humans- page 2 | Science | Smithsonian
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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“We do not claim that our whale was a good mimic compared to such well-known mimics as parrots or myna birds,” Ridgway’s Current Biology paper concludes. “However, the sonic behavior we observed is an example of vocal learning by the white whale. It seems likely that Noc’s close association with humans played a role in how often he employed his human voice, as well as in its quality.”

Episodes of animal mimicry have long been dismissed as “mere parroting,” a disparagement that recent research on the intelligence of parrots and a number of species, including whales, reveals to be rather narrow-minded on our part. Through a process known as “parallel evolution,” whales—some 55 million years our seniors—first developed a brain comparable to our far more recently evolved one. It’s a brain that has structures involved in functions such as self-recognition, memory, advanced socialization and language, enabling a fluency in some forever other and yet deeply parallel parlance.

“Vocal imitation, vocal learning, is a very sophisticated cognitive process,” says Lori Marino, a senior lecturer in the department of psychology at Emory University who specializes in cetacean intelligence and brain evolution. “For an animal to imitate another species takes a level of self-awareness, a level of understanding of their body and your body and the acoustics of it. Manipulating one’s vocal tract to produce a desired effect is very, very sophisticated.”

“Yes, their brains are different,” Marino adds. “The cortex is completely different. And that’s what makes them so fascinating. The old line was that their brains are just these big masses of tissue for hearing, just giant audio receivers. But there’s so much integrative cortical tissue there that does more than just receive. It brings things together, synthesizes and does complex processing in ways we obviously don’t understand yet. But it’s not as though we have this huge complex whale brain and no commensurately complex behavior. They are individuals. They have lives to lead and social relationships. They have families, and they have really good memories. And that’s something places like SeaWorld don’t want to touch because then you start getting into issues that people can really relate to.”

***

Ruby, the last surviving member of the Cold Ops belugas, now resides at SeaWorld San Diego, one of five belugas in the theme park’s “Wild Arctic” exhibit, situated just across San Diego Bay from the Point Loma enclosure where she, Noc and their fellow Cold Ops belugas spent their early years. Ruby is 36 now, exceptionally old for a captive beluga, contrary to the claim that SeaWorld trains their guides to repeat to patrons: Whales in their care live longer than those in the wild. It had long been thought that wild belugas had a life span of 20 to 35 years. But a 2006 study has now shown that they can live as long as 70 to 80 years, if not longer.

The challenge of confining such long-lived creatures accustomed to roaming as much as 100 miles of icy ocean a day in extensive, multi-tiered social groups is daunting. Recent advancements on such fronts as water circulation, tank hygiene and nutrition have vastly increased life expectancy for the likes of Ruby, and yet most captive belugas rarely live past their teens or early 20s, typically succumbing to one of various fungal and bacterial infections such as pneumonia or meningitis. Or to a noxious surfeit of human noise.

Once inside SeaWorld San Diego’s front gates, one is immediately subsumed by sound. Calypso Muzak clashes with rock ’n’ roll and these with the blaring triumphal trumpets and 60-foot-boat-slide screams from the popular water ride, Journey to Atlantis. Loudspeakers issue repeated reminders of the fast dwindling seats for upcoming shows at the Shamu and Dolphin stadiums. It’s impossible to imagine what all that sounds like to whales: creatures who can hear one another across oceans.

Only four belugas were visible in the tank as I approached, circling in the same direction before breaching, and then doing that same circuit, over and over again: a classic pathology of life in captivity or, per the SeaWorld training manual, “controlled environment.”

Down one level, there was a rare, uncontested spot at the exhibit’s underwater viewing glass. Allua, Ferdinand and Nanuq—I’d gotten their names from the guide—all swam by, as did Pearl, Ruby’s 4-year-old calf by Nanuq. But there was still no sign of Ruby.

And then, as though she’d been waiting for her own uncontested moment at the glass, a wide-smiling gray-spotted melon appeared before me. She just hovered there, her body straight upright, her head—belugas are unusual among whales in the number of unfused neck vertebrae, permitting a high degree of vertical neck movement—assuming a strangely dazed and asking tilt, like that slow-blinking alien standing on the open spaceship ramp at the end of Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

***

“Belugas in captivity actually mute their senses,” Samantha Berg, a trainer at SeaWorld from 1990 to 1993, told me recently. “It’s so loud around them, and they don’t need to use their echolocation because they’ve been in the same tank every day and already know all the boundaries of their world. When I was working with them, my impression was that they weren’t all there, as though they were deeply bored, disinterested. They were like people with post-traumatic stress disorder. I don’t know what belugas are like in the wild, but it was almost as though they were staring at me through a veil. Like they weren’t really home.”

Diana Reiss, a professor of biopsychology at Hunter College, has spent much of her career studying cetacean cognition and communication, mostly in dolphins. “Noc had other female belugas around, but he was the only male, like the odd guy out,” Re­­iss told me. “And the question often asked: Is this an attempt to communicate or is this just mindless mimicry? I suspect that for these animals there is something very reinforcing about what they’re doing. They’re not doing it for food. But if they can get the attention of those around them by sounding like them, it may give them the social reinforcement they need. It has some social function.”

For 16 years, Toni Frohoff, a marine mammal behaviorist based in Santa Barbara, California, has studied a subset of the beluga population in the St. Lawrence estuary known as “solitary sociables”: whales separated from their families, usually because of a mother’s death at the hands of hunters or from effects of pollution, who end up gravitating to people for companionship.

Most orca and dolphin vocalizations, Frohoff has found, occur underwater. But solitary sociable wild belugas rise up out of the water when they speak to us, purposefully orienting their bodies and voices in our direction. “Wild, free-ranging belugas,” says Frohoff, “do not initiate this kind of vocal behavior, no matter how many boats and people may be around. So there’s an obvious analogy between these geographically isolated and socially deprived animals in the wild and captive belugas like Noc. We’re talking about social deprivation here, a lack of any reasonable normal interaction with his own kind. So what may seem amusing to us, or an attempt to communicate with us, is in a sadder vein a coping mechanism for him, both an outgrowth and avoidance of his own boredom.”

Samantha Berg, who now runs an acupuncture clinic with her husband in Palmer, Alaska, vividly remembers the time she heard the recording of Noc.

“It gave me chills,” she said. “There’s something about the quality of the sound that’s deeply disturbed. Like if you woke up at 3 o’clock in the morning and heard somebody screaming in distress. Whether such a sound comes from another human or not, I think there is some part of us that is able to recognize distress. I’ve heard a lot of beluga noises, and I’ve never heard a beluga sound like that.”

Four years after Noc launched into his talking spree, he just as abruptly stopped, reverting in 1999 to “Beluga” for the rest of his days in captivity. In the early 1990s, with the end of the cold war and cutbacks in defense spending, the Marine Mammal Program was greatly downsized. By then only three belugas remained in the Point Loma enclosure, Muk Tuk, Noc and Ruby. Lyl had succumbed to pneumonia only two years into his training. Chr died of a lung infection in 1984. Churchill died in 1987 of pneumonia. In April 1997, Ruby was transferred to SeaWorld, though she remains the property of the U.S. Navy.

Muk Tuk and Noc, however, were retained for a new operation, dubbed Deep Hear. It was developed to test the potential effects on marine mammals of a new type of low-frequency active sonar (LFAS), which has since been cited by more than 100 scientists as the cause of massive whale strandings. The noise often induces entire pods to surface so rapidly in an attempt to escape it, they die of a condition to which scientists had assumed whales to be immune: the bends. In 2001, Muk Tuk joined Ruby behind the glass at Wild Arctic. She died of a lung infection in 2007.

Language, however we might define it, is everything to whales. They see with it, navigate, hunt, socialize, sing, grieve and—according to one Russian scientist’s study—likely dream in it as well. Scientists in France recently recorded captive dolphins talking in their sleep. And they weren’t speaking dolphin but rather doing perfect imitations of humpback whales. Briefly trying on our babble for a time is a trifle for a young whale, like a cat batting about a ball of yarn.

Noc’s long-ago speech episodes are perhaps best thought of in that way now, the years of his outbursts having coincided—as they do in most documented instances of animal mimicry—with the period of adolescence. It’s as though he was a deeply bored teenager at once mocking us and sounding a desperate plea for help. The extraterrestrial intelligences we humans have so long sought contact with turn out to have been right here beside us all along. It’s only fitting then, somehow, that all we have left now of Noc is his human voice.

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