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What Is NOC, The “Talking” Beluga, Really Saying?

October 25, 2012

NPR jumps in with a nicely done story that includes more detail on NOC’s history, and how researchers came to believe he was mimicking human speech (the audio version of the story is here).

Here’s some useful backstory:

But a white whale at San Diego’s National Marine Mammal Foundation did something very different. NOC (pronounced Nocee), as he was called, lived in an enclosure in the San Diego Bay. Biologist Sam Ridgway was there one day when divers were swimming nearby. “This one diver surfaced next to the whale pen and said, ‘Who told me to get out?’ And the supervisor said, ‘Nobody said anything.’ ”

A curious Ridgway started recording NOC. And what he heard was quite strange: It had the cadence and rhythm of human speech. No words were distinguishable, but the sounds were eerily “right.” Ridgway laid out audiograms of NOC’s chatter, and they showed that the rhythm and pitch were different from NOC’s normal sounds: They were, in fact, very similar to human speech. NOC had lowered the pitch of his sounds several octaves below normal, into the range of human speech at 300-400 hertz.

Ridgway says there’s no reason to think NOC understood speech; he was just mimicking humans he’d heard. From where? “I think it was from divers using underwater communication equipment,” he says.

The story (scroll down) also includes audio links that let you listen to an ordinary beluga vocalization, and then compare it to a recording of NOC. There is a striking difference.

Here is the same audio, released by the National Marine Mammal Foundation:

And you can watch NMMF’s Sam Ridgway appearance on The Today Show here.

The more I think about this, the more I think the excitement and interest over NOC is emblematic of what troubles me about marine mammal captivity and research.

First: NOC’s vocalizations are like ear candy to humans, who love the idea that any animal might mimic a human (see endless YouTube videos). But what educational or research value do the recordings of NOC really hold? If it was important research or information you would presume Ridgway would have published it before decades had passed.

Second: If NOC was truly mimicking humans (maybe he was psychotic; maybe he was ill; maybe he was just bored and messing around with his vocalizations to distract himself; who really knows?) it’s important to remember that he was doing so only because he was in a situation where he was spending his life in their company. It would be far more interesting, and meaningful, if wild cetaceans adapted their vocalizations for human consumption, which is what Denise Herzing and her Wild Dolphin Project are hoping to see. In any case, I’d much rather see research on real wild beluga vocalizations. That would teach us something about belugas as they really are. And that is the sort of knowledge that is important it we really care about beluga populations and their future.

Third, the media splash, and the publication of this research is really another form of beluga exploitation. Do any of the media outlets really care about NOC and belugas? Did anyone ask serious questions about Ridgway’s research program, and history with the Navy? Not really. It was a 5-minute distraction for people driving home in traffic or sitting around with the television on.

There is an upside, though, I think. For better or worse, humans aren’t very good at stepping outside their own lives and human frame of reference. They care about things they can connect with. So hearing NOC vocalizing in a pattern that sort of sounds like it has human rhythm probably had millions of people thinking of belugas in a positive way.

Now, I know this is basically the core of the marine park argument in favor of captivity, and marine mammal shows. And I hasten to add that I don’t think that it–or NOC’s media splash–justifies captivity. You can achieve a lot, if not more, of that sort of connection through seeing and hearing wild animals, whether in nature or on film. And there’s no real justification for taking away an intelligent, social animal’s freedom, no matter what good you claim you are achieving. But it’s just to say that NOC’s unusual vocalizations, whatever they were when he made them all those years ago, at least cry out for a serious evaluation of the human relationship to marine mammals, and the issue of marine mammal research and captivity. And that would be a good thing.

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