Alaskan whales think we sound like Swedish chefs

Elizabeth Preston at Inkfish has a super blog post up about a beluga whale that was recorded mimicking the sounds of human speech.  It concludes with the most excellent line that “to whales, humans sound like the Swedish chef”.  Go check it out and, listen to the sound and then come back.  I’ll wait….<whistles>…..back?  OK great.  Now, when I said “Swedish chef”, those under 30 may not have had a clue what I was  talking about (its a muppet thing), so here – get edjumukated:

Its fantastic that Noc was recorded making these sounds and that they found their way into the published literature, because for many who care for marine mammals on a daily basis, mimicry is one of those tantalising behavioural things that can blow your mind about animals.  It suggests that they can recognise sounds and their components enough to reconstruct the sound and replay it to you.  Even if it’s not communication, it sure feels like communication.  I mean, think about mimicry in light of this scene:

I was so fascinated by the Inkfish post that I called the best marine mammal trainer I know – my wife Patricia – and asked her about experiences with marine mammals mimicking noises, based on her experiences at several different marine mammal facilities during her career.  She gave the following three examples:

1.  She once worked with a dolphin that would imitate the sound of a SCUBA regulator.  This was a noise that the animal experienced frequently, as divers shared their exhibit space for cleaning and maintenance.  She once told me that she thought her dive buddy was right next to her but when she turned there was the dolphin tilting his head and making the sound.  Not only did this animal make the SCUBA noise, but he would accompany it by slowly sinking to the bottom while blowing periodic bursts of bubbles, just like a descending diver.  Is this just fun imitation, or maybe mockery?  Its hard to know, but it’s tantalising.

2.  On one occasion she heard a beluga whale imitate the sound of a distant jackhammer from a street maintenance crew.

3.  Another marine mammal trainer relayed an experience of hearing a beluga whale imitate the squealing of train wheels pulling into a station.

We often think of dolphins as the supreme underwater communicators, but belugas whales surely have them beat.  Some folks have called them “canaries of the sea”, but I’ve never heard a canary imitate a jackhammer, a SCUBA regulator, a train or human speech.  Perhaps we should call canaries the “belugas of the air”.

Alistair Dove (149 Posts)

Dr. Alistair Dove is a systematic and ecological parasitologist by training, with broader research interests in the natural history and health of marine animals, especially whale sharks. He is currently Director of Research and Conservation at Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta USA. His comments here do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Georgia Aquarium

5 Replies to “Alaskan whales think we sound like Swedish chefs”

      1. It occurs to me that maybe I HAVE heard lyrebirds in the wild, but thought I was hearing a kookaburra, whip bird or bell bird. Without seeing the bird making the sound, how would you know?

  1. I think it is possible to tell. Lyrebirds are almost perfect mimics, but they often can’t resist the urge to elaborate. Also, there’s a depth to the mimicked call that sets it apart — slightly — from the original. (And if anyone asks me to substantiate this assertion, I will feign deafness.)

  2. Not unrelatedly, swedish chefs would likely think ‘swedisch chef’s’ sounds like norwegians with a stroke.

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