Scientists have been stunned to discover an amazing recording of a whale mimicking a human voice.

The beluga whale, named NOC died in 2007 but had spent 30 years amongst humans at the National Marine Mammal Foundation based in San Diego in California.

Dr Sam Ridgeway, the main author of the study in the journal Current Biology, said that in 1984 they started hearing sounds near the whale enclosure that recalled two people speaking in the distance, too far away to be understood.

When a diver surfaced from the whale enclosure to ask his puzzled colleagues ‘Who told me to get out?’, the team concluded the word ‘out’ which was repeated several times, had come from NOC.

Dr Ridgway reckons NOC would have heard human speech from speakers above the water, and divers communicating below the water.

The team realised they had a rare case of whale mimicry on their hands and were able to record NOC, then nine-years old. Although problems with funding and lost data means the work has only been able to be presented now.

Anecdotal reports of whales sounding like people are not new but in this case scientist recorded the noise for the first time and did an acoustic analysis.

And they were stunned to find a rhythm similar to that of human speech, discovering vocal bursts averaging about three per second, with pauses similar to that of human speech.

“The sounds marked quite a feat,” added Dr Ridgway.

“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.

“The sounds we heard were clearly an example of vocal learning by the white whale.”

The findings suggest that it may be possible to teach whales how to copy human speech in the future but Dr Ridgway said: "I think they could be taught many sounds. I do not know that teaching speech would be scientifically worthwhile."

The West Australian

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