Anecdotal reports of whales sounding like people are not new. But in this case in San Diego, California, scientists for the first time recorded the utterances, did an acoustic analysis and were surprised to find a rhythm similar to that of human speech, Sam Ridgway of the National Marine Mammal Foundation reported Monday.
The sounds marked quite a feat: whales make sounds via their nasal tract, unlike people, who use their larynx. So this particular white whale had to make some tricky muscular and blowhole adjustments.
"Such obvious effort suggests motivation for contact," said Ridgway, the main author of a study featured in the journal Current Biology. "The sounds we heard were clearly an example of vocal learning by the white whale."
The whale, named NOC, died five years ago.