Researchers at the National Marine Mammal Foundation have released a paper on whale vocalisations, and Phys.org reports on it. In the mid-1980s a beluga was recorded making noises that imitated human speech to the extent that a diver in his tank thought that someone was calling to him from above the water.
I don’t understand why it took nearly 30 years to publish this paper, concerning a long-dead whale, but one can’t know everything. I also wonder in passing whether we (humans) are not imposing our formidable pattern-recognition abilities on random sounds from the whale.
It is a bit sad that we even know that beluga are capable of the vocal contortions required to imitate human speech (actually quite difficult for them). I am bothered that a comment by one of the researchers – “Such obvious effort suggests motivation for contact” – could be used by advocates of keeping beluga captive to argue that the creatures enjoy captivity, rather than the situation forcing them to seek entertainment by whatever meagre means are at their disposal.
Read the article (and listen to the beluga) here.