Beluga whale mimics human speech

Beluga whalePhoto by Jason Pier in DC, Flickr

Beluga whale
Photo by Jason Pier in DC, Flickr

Adapted from The Vancouver Sun

Level 3

We know humans can change the sounds they make.
They change these sounds to copy other sounds that they hear.
This skill is called mimicking. It is also called vocal learning.
The ability to mimic is important
when learning a new language.
Some people can also mimic animal sounds.
In the past, people did this while hunting for food.


A new study by scientists
Scientists are talking about a beluga whale.
They recorded this whale making sounds like a human.
The sound was like someone singing in the shower.
At first, they thought it was a human voice.

Who said that?
One day in 1984, a diver came out of a tank
at the National Marine Mammal Foundation in San Diego, California.
He asked, “Who told me to get out?”
It turned out that the cries of “out, out, out” had come from Noc.
Noc was a beluga whale. No staff member had said anything.
So, for several years, they recorded the whale’s sounds.
After four years of copying people,
the whale went back to making whale sounds.
Noc died five years ago.

Whale Sounds
Whale sounds are usually high-pitched sounds.
But when the animal made human-like sounds,
the sounds were very low.
Some scientists have studied the sounds of white whales in the wild.
Sometimes the sounds were like shouting children.
Staff at the Vancouver Aquarium said they heard something strange.
They said one of the white whales said its own name.

Vancouver’s beluga
The Vancouver Aquarium’s beluga whale, Kavna,
was a favourite with the public.
The marine mammal care team had been caring for Kavna since 1975.
Many visitors came to see her. She died in August, 2012, at age 46.
The name “Kavna” means “female spirit of the deep”
or “the one down there” in Inuit languages.
The name refers to the Inuit legend of the mother of sea mammals.

Children’s entertainer Raffi with Kavna, the Beluga whale, at the Vancouver Aquarium, 1980. Raffi’s song Baby Beluga became a hit with adults and children.Photo by Brian Kent, The Vancouver Sun files

Children’s entertainer Raffi with Kavna, the Beluga whale, at the Vancouver Aquarium, 1980. Raffi’s song Baby Beluga became a hit with adults and children.
Photo by Brian Kent, The Vancouver Sun files

Kavna, age 46, a Beluga whale, died last August, 2012.  She lived at the Vancouver Aquarium since 1976.Photo by Jason Payne, The Vancouver Sun

Kavna, age 46, a Beluga whale, died last August, 2012. She lived at the Vancouver Aquarium since 1976.
Photo by Jason Payne, The Vancouver Sun

Other animals can mimic
Dolphins, parrots and a harbour seal have mimicked human speech.
Hoover, the seal, lived in Boston. He was the first non-human mammal
to produce the sounds of human speech.

Hoover’s story
Hoover produced sounds like “hello there”, “how are ya”,
and “get out of here”. The sound of a laugh followed these phrases.
George and Alice Swallow found Hoover in 1971.
The seal was an orphan. So they took him home.
For a while the Swallows kept him in their bathtub.
He ate so much fish that they called him Hoover.
Hoover is the name of a vacuum cleaner.

Hoover moves

Hoover soon got too big for the tub. He moved into a pond in the yard.
Then he started to mimic human speech.
Hoover moved later to the New England Aquarium.
His foster parents told the aquarium staff that Hoover could talk.
No one believed it. After a few years, Hoover’s talking became more clear.
Then scientists became interested. They studied the seal’s sounds.
Hoover died of old age in 1985. He is still the most famous seal in the world.

Hoover, the “talking seal”Photo Boston Globe, New England Aquarium

Hoover, the “talking seal”
Photo Boston Globe, New England Aquarium

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