There Once Was a White Whale Who Tried to Speak to Humans

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Parrots are good mimics, but a whale might actually have something to say.

This recording appears to be a beluga whale named NOC trying to imitate human speech. NOC was captured in 1977 and became a part of the Navy's Marine Mammal Program in San Diego. After seven years, NOC started to make noises that humans in the water mistook for human speech. Shortly thereafter, NOC was identified as the source of the sounds and the researchers began to run experiments to figure out how he was doing it. Four years later, NOC stopped "talking," and almost 25 years later, Sam Ridgeway and colleagues published a paper on his vocalizations in the journal Current Biology.

As you can hear yourself, the white whale was not very good at talking. Then again, the whales, like dolphins, don't have a larynx. That meant that the whale had to come up with a way to use his existing mechanism to imitate the rhythms of human speech. In fact, the researchers found that these vocalizations were not much like his normal whaletalk. For starters, they were several octaves lower, and they displayed a cadence that matches human speech.

I have one thought about this aside from the obvious (1. Whoa! 2. Sounds like a kazoo!). We care about a whale trying to talk a lot more than we care about a parrot trying to talk. And we should because a whale might actually have something to say. Perhaps, "Put me back in the ocean." Or even, "So long, and thanks for all the fish." 

The idea of communication with marine mammals has long excited humans, even if most of us never went so far as our favorite art and architecture collective, Ant Farm, which planned a dolphin embassy (!) in the 1970s. The embassy was to be a place to commune with "delphic" civilization in groovy repose. See:

dolphinembassy.jpg

Via Spatial Agency, which is awesome and you should check out.

Sadly, despite an article in Esquire (!!), a Rockefeller Foundation grant (!!!), and a show at SFMOMA, the embassy was never built. A member of the collective, Doug Michels, explained what went wrong to Connie Lewallen for a 2004 retrospective catalogue: 

MICHELS: Putting it in historical context, we were feeling pretty confident about accomplishing things. The House of the Century had been built, Media Burn had been done, The Eternal Frame--these large-scale productions. Cracking the dolphin communication code, well, how hard could that be?! (Laughs.)

LEWALLEN: Why didn't the Dolphin Embassy get built?

MICHELS: Eventually, it became clear that it was a gigantic project beyond the scale we could accomplish with the funds we had raised. While we didn't solve cetacean communication during our mission in Australia, the Dolphin Embassy experience provided a deeper view into the mysteries of Delphic civilization.

And let it be said that the mysteries of Delphic civilization (if that includes whales) are many. Like why did NOC stop talking after four years? Did he just give up in frustration after the humans couldn't understand his accent? Or was it all just a game that got boring?

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer calls Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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