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?
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.
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.
“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.