The truth behind Noc, the beluga whale who mimicked human speech
Media outlets are gushing over a newly released paper published by the National Marine Mammal Foundation about Noc, a beluga whale with the ability to spontaneously mimic human speech. Few of the reports however, address Noc's unfortunate history.
The paper published by the National Marine Mammal Foundation (NMMF) in the scientific journal Current Biology said in a press release that Noc's vocalizations, "sheds light on the ability of marine mammals to spontaneously mimic human speech ... presumably a result of vocal learning."
Noc's mimicry was apparently so convincing, it fooled a diver into thinking someone was shouting at him to get out of the water, U.S. researchers have revealed. Once the whale was identified as the source NMMF said, "Scientists recorded his speech-like episodes both in air and underwater, studying the physiology behind his ability to mimic."
According to NMMF:
It’s believed that the animals close association with humans played a role in how often he employed his ‘human’ voice, as well as in its quality.
Belugas are highly social cetaceans. According to Marine Bio.org, they are "very gregarious, tending to travel in groups of between 2-15 individuals, with very tight mother/calf associations."
From the Marine Mammal Inventory Report (below) and statistics at Ceta-Base.com, Noc was captured in Manitoba on August 4th 1977 at an estimated two years of age by the U.S. Navy. The Navy did not directly catch the beluga, they delegated this role to an Inuit hunter whom they hired to jump on Noc's back and lasso the whale into submission.
Noc was captured with two other belugas, Churchill and Muk Tuk. All three marine mammals were absorbed into U.S. Navy's marine mammal program in San Diego, CA. Muk Tuk was eventually transferred to SeaWorld California in 2001 and subsequently died. Churchill remained with the Navy dying of pneumonia in 1985, as did Noc who succumbed to aspergillus encephalitis in 1999.
NPR's Christopher Joyce was one of the first to break the newly released study on the talking beluga. Strangely though, Joyce wrote that Noc "lived to be 30 and died five years ago." Yet clearly in the MMIR (seen above), Noc is reported as having died in 1999 at the age of 24 years.
Whether this was a genuine mistake by Joyce, or if this information was gathered from those he interviewed I am currently attempting to clarify, but it doesn't appear that NMMF has any problem with the error, as they have yet to dispute or correct the report. Considering belugas can live into their 50s and beyond in the wild, perhaps this isn't surprising?
Life for belugas once they were conscripted involuntarily into the U.S. Navy was a closeted affair and much of it is classified. But there are some reports available for viewing, such as this one entitled "Secret Weapon," written by David Pugliese of The Scotsman.
Pugliese described how both Noc and Muk were recruited with the Canadian government’s approval, into a U.S. Navy secret military animal programme in 1977:
The navy’s marine-mammal programme became arguably one of the most controversial of the US military’s Cold War research projects. Bowers and Ridgway played key roles in the programme, which at its peak in the 1980s had more than 130 mammals in its ranks, including six Canadian belugas. The programme was dogged by allegations of animal abuse and rumours that docile underwater creatures were being trained to kill - accusations that navy officials deny to this day.
Alexandra Morton was just 22-years-old and a new whale biologist when she first went to work with biologist Sam Ridgway. Morton, who worked with the Navy's dolphins claimed that Ridgway et al conducted:
Very invasive brain research, which was interesting from a science point of view, but they had to restrain the animals and put probes right through their brain tissue. I was pretty shocked.
Muk was eventually trained "to dive to great depths to recover valuable experimental torpedoes" adds Pugliese, and both she and Noc were used in experiments at Nanoose Bay in Canada at a weapons-testing range east of Vancouver Island.
In the 90s, Ridgway piloted a program called 'Deep Hear,' which involved discerning how sensitive a beluga's hearing actually was. The Navy had developed an underwater surveillance system called low-frequency active sonar or LFAS. At a cost of $350 million dollars, LFAS could "track enemy submarines at far greater distances than ever before, and especially in shallow waters close to shore," reported Pugliese.
But the sonar was so loud, it was determined to have a detrimental effect on whales at all depths.
Wesley R. Elsberry describes the program in more detail at his website, The Austringer. Elsberry said he worked directly with Muk on the Deep Hear program. These studies were federally funded and can be found in this government document for the year 1997 (page 88):
Ridgway, S. H. (SPAWAR Systems Center, San Diego US Navy) Isolating Delphinoid Pulse Groupings (97PR03048); $118.1K
Support for Sea Lion Deep Hear Project (97PR07780) $32K
Prediction of Acoustic Safety Criteria for Marine Mammals (97PROI957) $300K
Sam Ridgway the pilot of the Deep Hear project co-authored the new paper on Noc that was released by NMMF this week. But considering these studies were conducted in the 80s, why is the paper just being released now? According to Ridgway, he told NPR's Joyce, that he would have done it earlier, but thought a talking whale was a "side issue."
Orca Network's Howard Garrett feels that there is something fishy going on. He told Digital Journal:
Funny this would get published just when the industry is trying to import 18 belugas.
On June 15, the Georgia Aquarium applied to NOAA for a permit to import 18 wild-caught belugas from Russia. The move caused an outcry from both conservation groups and members of the public disgusted by the potential importation, making it one of the most contested permits in over a decade.
But here is where it gets really interesting.
Of the 18 imported belugas from Russia, some will go to directly to SeaWorld San Diego. And the National Marine Mammal Foundation is currently in collaboration with SeaWorld San Diego to offer a one-year veterinary internship in aquatic animal medicine and research, right alongside the U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program.
Ridgway appears to offer a hint of the intention in a statement directly beneath the video of Noc's mimicry, which can be viewed above or on NMMF's YouTube page. In it, he writes:
While it's been a number of years since we first encountered this spontaneous mimicry, it's our hope that publishing our observations now will lead to further discoveries about marine mammal learning and vocalization. How this unique 'mind' interacts with other animals, humans and the ocean environment is a major challenge of our time.
Of course it could all be a remarkable coincidence but Garrett's not buying it. "I really do think the story of the talking beluga is a PR stunt meant to give support to the idea that captivity is necessary to do research," he said.