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Talking beluga – are we missing the point?

Just as a debate is raging in the US about the proposed import of 18 beluga whales for display scientists in the US have published research which they believe shows that the vocalisation of one particular beluga whale in captivity were remarkably close to human speech.

Listen to the recording and judge for yourself.

This is not new. It is not unusual for beluga whales to imitate the sounds that they hear in captivity. Put ‘beluga sounds’ into YouTube and you will be furnished with a host of examples, from belugas imitating the sound of their trainer’s whistles, right through to an apparent imitation of flatulence.

We also know that belugas can understand verbal commands that are used by their trainers, in combination with whistle and hand signals. The question is, in imitating these human vocalisations was the whale trying to tell us something; to transfer information through sound in our own language?

The research was published in Current Biology and shows that these vocalisations were two octaves lower than usual and were made before the whale reached adulthood. Noc, the beluga whale who was recorded making these unusual sounds, died in captivity some five years ago. Yet, it has taken all this time for this research to emerge.

And what did one of the staff at this captive facility believe he heard Noc say when he was in the water cleaning his pool? ‘Out’

Was that ‘Get out’ or ‘Let me Out’? Perhaps we’ll never know.