"He was very easygoing. He wanted people’s attention. He wanted you to stay around and interact with him and rub him. He didn’t try to bullshit you like some of the dolphins did."
-- Michelle Jeffries, one of NOC's trainers
NOC (pronounced "No-See") was a beluga whale who is known for being the first beluga to have its human vocalizations recorded.
Beluga whales are capable of "human-like" vocalizations. While they don't sound like actual words (most of the time), the noises they make can sound like humans making gibberish noises, with human-like cadence.
Quick context; from the 1960s onward, the US Navy has had a program called the Navy Marine Mammal Program, co-founded by one Sam Ridgway, a veterinarian. Essentially, the Navy was (and is!) experimenting with training animals like dolphins and sea lions to perform assorted tasks, such as detecting or marking out objects of interest. In the 1970s, they specifically had a focus on animals who could work in the Arctic under extreme conditions.
NOC, whose name is a pun on the ceratopogonidae family local to Manitoba where he was found, called "no-see-ums", was captured by the US Navy in 1977 for the aforementioned "Cold Ops" program. NOC was a two year old calf and one of six that were captured for the program, with the others being Chr, Lyl, Ruby, Muk Tuk and Churchill. NOC was sent on at least two "top secret" surveillance missions during his lifetime.
According to Ridgway in an interview, animal rights activists once broke into the shared Canadian-US base on Vancouver Island and released NOC and his fellow beluga, Muk Tuk, into the ocean. NOC returned immediately, and Muk Tuk was found later fifteen miles down the coast when he voluntarily followed a Cold Ops training vessel back to base. So that's cute. Before his sudden "speech" outbursts, NOC was described by Ridgway as being 'lazy' and a goofball who would often partake in "mucking" during training-- getting bored partway through the proceedings and going to the sea floor to eat. He was also known to quit entirely and swim the 70 miles back to base. He'd also get envious when Muk Tuk would perform her tasks and be rewarded, and would then bother his trainers to try and give him a second chance. According to one of NOC's other trainers, Michelle Jeffries, NOC was highly sociable with humans and loved attention and pets, which she suspects may have inspired his initial speech outbursts.
Because, despite the how interesting the tagline 'secret beluga whale spy' is, NOC is more well-known for his speech.
In 1984, NOC had been moved to San Diego, Ridgway and other trainers began hearing strange noises from the enclosures. They described the sounds as “two people conversing...just out of range for our understanding.” Ridgway, whose office was by the pier near NOC's enclosure, would often hear voices and assumed they were people conversing on the pier.
Later, a couple divers were working on enclosure repairs. They would communicate with each other and their supervisor via a "wet phone." However, one of them, Miles Bragget, came up, confused, and asked who had told him to get out of the enclosure. Apparently, he had heard the words "out out out!" repeatedly.
According to Ridgway, supervisors often told divers "out" when it was the end of the work day. Finally realizing what was happening, Ridgway and the others began monitoring the belugas for strange noises, and quickly found that it was NOC, who liked Bragget in particular and began babbling at him.
From then on, whether it is because they were finally just noticing the speech outburst, or if the positive attention from the "out" incident encouraged NOC to do it more, NOC wouldn't shut up. He would babble under water or on the surface, with his trainers or by himself (though not with his fellow belugas). In the beginning, the speech outbursts were random, but eventually they trained him to do so on command.
With NOC, they managed to study how belugas make sounds through their nasal tracts, and how NOC, specifically, made noises. The act of imitation, especially imitating another species specifically for a reaction, is a cognitively complex task that requires some level of understanding your own physical capabilities and how to alter them (NOC would swell his vestibular sac in an unusual way) as well as an intention.
However, after four years of vocalizing, NOC abruptly stopped. Ridgway has theorized that this may be because it was at this point NOC reached adulthood.
NOC passed away in 1999 at the age of 24, after 22 years in captivity. He reportedly died of aspergillus encephalitis.
The lifespan of a wild beluga whale is usually stated to be 50 years, but studies have extended that to 60, 70, or even 80 years. Despite their capacity for long lives, as of this writing, every beluga member of Cold Ops has passed on.
Lyl died of pneumonia two years into the program.
Chr died of a lung infection in 1984.
Churchill also died of pneumonia in 1987.
Muk Tuk died of a lung infection in 2007.
Ruby passed away at Sea World in 2014, where she had been sent after her retirement of Cold Ops. She was the oldest of the group, having lived to be 38 years old.