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WhiteWhale

It began back in 1984, when Sam Ridgway of the National Marine Mammal Foundation kept hearing people talking in the area of the white whale and dolphin enclosure. It sounded like two people in conversation, but whenever he checked the area, no one was around.

It happened to others as well, and workers at the Foundation's facility began thinking maybe the place was haunted. Or maybe there was some unusual acoustical conduit that was picking up sound from another area of the park and amplifying it near the enclosure. It always sounded distant, just below the ability to pick up precisely what was being said. The source of the muffled conversations remained a mystery.

Some time later Ridgway and colleagues were in the enclosure area when a diver surfaced from the tank to ask an odd question... "Who told me to get out?" A white whale named NOC seemed intent upon taking the blame. Sure, there have been sailor's tales since time immemorial of whales who could talk, but not many people were inclined to believe them. This time, they did.

The workers recorded NOC's sounds, which did reveal a rhythm similar to human speech and in frequencies several octaves below typical whale-to-whale communications. Given that whales normally produce sounds in an entirely different way than humans do, researchers went to work finding out just how NOC had managed to learn how to vocalize in another way...

NOC's voice prints were similar to human voice and unlike the whale's usual sounds, said Ridgway. "The sounds we heard were clearly an example of vocal learning by the white whale."

After 30 years living at the National Marine Mammal Foundation, NOC died five years ago. But his voice lives on in the recordings, and now we know the answer to the perennial question of what a whale would say to a human if he could speak - "Get out."

A Whale With a Distinctly Human-Like Voice

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