One of the most remarkable cases of cetacean communication is the story of Noc, the beluga whale that tried to talk to humans.
Noc the Beluga whale that tried to talk to humans
By Natalie Kyriacou, Founder & CEO at My Green World
This article is part of My Green World and Whale and Dolphin Conservation’s #WhaleWeek
Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, whaling was, sadly, a lucrative business that saw hundreds of people board ships to hunt the mighty whale. During this time, whalers reported mysterious oceanic noises. These reports varied, as some claimed that they were listening to the souls of drowned men, while others attributed the noise to seismic shifts in the earth.
It wasn’t until much later in the 19th century that scientists discovered these mysterious sounds were actually the song of the whale. Whales, they realised, were actually extremely dependent on sound for communication, and made regular and varied sounds that led scientists to describe them as the “inveterate composers of songs that are strikingly similar to human musical traditions”.
Speaking to Whales
One of the most remarkable cases of cetacean communication is the story of Noc.
Noc was a Beluga whale captured by Inuit hunters in 1977 and taken from his family when he was just a juvenile. Relegated to a life in captivity and without his family to speak with, Noc began to mimic human speech. In 1984, researchers from the National Marine Mammal Foundation were diving in a tank that contained Noc when they heard noises that sounded remarkably similar to a conversation between two humans.
It wasn’t until one diver surfaced from the tank and asked: “Who told me to get out?” that research staff realised the garble came from Noc. Regrettably, Noc died in captivity in 1999, never reuniting with his family. However, his legacy of speech is a reminder of how social belugas whale are, and how important communication is to these intelligent whales.
Canaries of the Sea
Beluga whales have been called “canaries of the sea” due to their highly vocal nature and their capacity for mimicry.
The majority of belugas live in the Arctic Ocean and the seas and coasts around North America, Russia and Greenland, and noise communication are critical to their survival as they rely predominately on sound.
Their communication system is startlingly complex, and since the 20th century, scientists and researchers have been recording these vocalisations to better understand their complex web of songs.
Sadly, the song of the beluga is gradually disappearing as increased shipping activity, industrial activity and marine construction cause underwater noise pollution. Since whales, such as the beluga, depend on sound to communicate, any interference by noise pollution can severely affect their ability to communicate, find food, avoid predators and care for their young.
Belugas can live up to the age of 60 in the wild, travelling large distances each day, hunting and playing – as well as ‘singing’. In captivity, they have very little space and cannot behave naturally. A concrete tank can never replace their ocean home.
You can read more about belugas, and WDC’s work to help secure a safe future for belugas living in captivity, here.
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