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Whale Songs

Updated on November 25, 2014

Undersea Minstrels

Singing Through Life

Much of the water of the oceans is murky. Even when it is not, it is difficult to see underwater, especially for mammals. Imagine, being the largest mammal to ever breathe on our planet, and having to swim through the ocean with such limited visibility. Now, add to that, you have no external ear. Your do not really "hear" like humans, but instead detect sound waves via a fat pad between your mandible and middle ear. This "inner ear" is how you navigate the waters of the ocean. By using clicking noises, you create a sound which bounces off obstacles in your path. This is a talent you have perfected over millions of years. It allows you to soar through the oceans at great speed and confidence.

Baleen whales, generally larger than toothed whales, have vocal chords and are the whales we think of as "singing". Most scientists agree the songs are for mating. However, it is not clear why some sing when no mating activity is involved. These gentle and romantic giants have so much to teach us, and we are only beginning to be able to decipher their song.

Photo: Humpback Whales in the Singing Position

Underwater
Underwater

Underwater Acoustics

Have you ever tried to hear someone talking underwater? It is not easy! Even if they are shouting, you have to be really close to even get a hint of what they are saying. Divers have to use a set of hand signals to communicate.

Blue Whales, Humpbacks, and other Baleen Whales sing loud enough for their mates to hear them, sometimes miles away, and their sound waves can carry over hundreds (sometimes thousands) of miles. I imagine if we heard a whale song out of the water it would be loud enough to make the earth around us vibrate!

The study of whale songs is really still pretty new. It was not until during World War II, when using antisubmarine sonar that we really understood that whales had such a powerful communication system. The use of sonar has developed a great deal since then, and whale songs continue to fascinate and mystify us. There are hundreds of types of whale songs, each one distinct from the next. Some may be similar to each other, but each has something about it that makes it unique.

Kingdom of the Blue Whale

Calls travel for hundreds of miles, but we can barely hear them

Kingdom of the Blue Whale, The
Kingdom of the Blue Whale, The

Largest creatures to ever breathe on our planet

 

Leonardo Da Vinci

"If you cause your ship to stop and place the head of a long tube in the water and place the outer extremity to your ear, you will hear ships at a great distance from you."

Da Vinci, 1490

How can you not feel the love? - For those who have the largest heart on the planet?

This is a true-to-life replica of a Blue Whale heart, from the Museum of New Zealand. Standing next to it is Shane James, Collections manager. The heart is featured in an exhibit at the Canadian Museum of Nature Whales Tohora.
This is a true-to-life replica of a Blue Whale heart, from the Museum of New Zealand. Standing next to it is Shane James, Collections manager. The heart is featured in an exhibit at the Canadian Museum of Nature Whales Tohora.
9.11 Still Waters
9.11 Still Waters

Calm Seas

In an Otherwise Chaotic World

The skies weren't the only thing eerily quiet in the days following 9.11. The waters were too. Some years later, it seems there is evidence that whales in the Bay of Fundy on the Gulf of Maine, while experiencing a break in noise pollution, experienced a significant decrease in stress hormones.

Now more than ever, we know that man made ocean noise likely cause chronic stress in whales. Perhaps we could find a way to ship more quietly?

Read more about the study Here

Humpback Whale

Humpback Whale
Humpback Whale

The Culture of Whale Songs

"Multiple songs moved like cultural ripples from one population to another, causing all males to change their song to a new version."

Ellen Garland. read more

Scientific American Decoding Whale Language - With our help at Whale.fm

whalefm
whalefm

By logging the sounds of hundreds of whales, the Scentific American and Zooniverse have put together a database for us to use in helping them discern the sounds. Click to listen to the featured sound, and look for others with a similar pattern, listen to those, and choose which one sounds the most similar.

It's a fun and interesting project. Give it a try!

Carl Sagan - Whale Communication

News on our Singing Whales - Blues, Humpbacks, and other Baleen Whales

Good News or Bad,

if it's on our singing

Whale friends

I'll add.

The Fella with the Sexiest Voice - Gets the Girl!

Lead Singer of Fat Daddy - Denver, CO
Lead Singer of Fat Daddy - Denver, CO

Isn't that the way it is? I know I fall for the crooners every time! It's the same apparently with our whale singing friends. For one thing, only the guys sing. And they "practice" their song on their 3,500 commute to their breeding grounds in the Pacific (and back to their cold water feeding places) every year. They compete with each other. They embellish. They change their tune a little here and a little there, so they will be the one with the most attractive song, which usually last about 30 minutes at a time. They are somewhat "classical" in their composition as well, as they use "themes" in their musical works.

They have a lot of room to play with: male Humpback whales have a range of 8 octaves! That's close to the range of an entire piano! But their range starts way below the piano, in a range so low that we humans cannot even hear it.

Here's something else cool about Whale Songs: they have top hits. No kidding!

Where the Wales Sing - By Andrew Stevenson

Beautiful creatures - well done!

from WHERE THE WHALES SING which won the Best Emerging Underwater Film-maker Award at the Blue Ocean Film Festival.

Whale Song - Journeys into the Secret Lives of the North Atlantic Humpbacks

Stevenson's unique, close-up photographs, video footage, and audio recordings have provided remarkable new evidence of the whales' migratory lives in the waters around Bermuda, their breeding grounds in the Caribbean and their feeding grounds off the coast of Canada.

Whale Song: Journeys into the Secret Lives of the North Atlantic Humpbacks
Whale Song: Journeys into the Secret Lives of the North Atlantic Humpbacks

This is Stevenson's long-awaited book on the migratory humpback whales which pass through the island’s waters every year.

 

What do you think about whale songs? - You comments are welcome and appreciated!

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      anonymous 5 years ago

      Great information. I never realized how large their hearts were. Makes sense now ;-)

    • DreamingBoomer profile image
      Author

      Karen Kay 6 years ago from Jackson, MS

      @jimmyworldstar: Thanks Jimmy! That's true they do! Dolphins are actually whales too. They, like their other toothed brothers and sisters (think killer whales) of the whale family, make clicking sounds, while the humpbacks and blue whales are "baleen" whales, and make the "songs" we mostly refer to as "whale songs"

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      jimmyworldstar 6 years ago

      It's interesting how animals communicate with each other. I think dolphins also use sonar or some type of singing to communicate/mate?