How Do Whales Communicate?

Communication is one of the most important aspects of an animals life.

It allows them to share their interests with one another, warm others of predators, find a mating partner and teach their offspring how to live among many other things.

Without communication it is unlikely that many species would survive or live long healthy lives.

When it comes to the cetacean family whales are known to communicate with one another in a number of different ways including creating sounds or vocalizations, using their body language and displaying specific visual behaviors to communicate their wants, needs and intentions to other whales.

A male humpback whale for instance uses mating songs only when it is looking for a female to mate with.

It is believed that singing is how they communicate to female whales that they are fit and a good choice for mating with.

It lets the female whale known they are interested in reproducing offspring while making it clear to other male whales that they are claiming their territory.

Toothed whales and dolphins on the other hand create unique high-pitched clicking sounds that appear to be used to communicate who they are to the rest of the members in the group as well as inform others of their intentions.

The forms of communication and vocal sounds created by whales differ from one species to another based on their physical features and social structure.

In terms of sound or vocal communication there are two primary types of whales (suborders) that produce sounds in different and unique ways.

These two types or suborders are known as the toothed whale and baleen whale suborders.

Toothed whales

The toothed whale suborder communicates using high frequency clicks and whistles.

Single clicks are typically used for echolocation while multiple clicks are often used to communicate to other whales/dolphins in the area.

Unfortunately when it comes to understanding their conversation little is scientifically known about the meaning of the clicks and whistles they use other than the fact that it is used to communicate and echo locate.

All species of dolphin and porpoise belong to the toothed whale suborder along with whales that possess teeth.

When in a large group or pod distinct frequencies can be heard from individual members of the pod.

These unique frequencies can be thought of in a similar manner to people having conversations in large room.

Each person has a different vocal pitch and speed so that they can easily identify who is speaking in the room.

The same goes for the toothed whale suborder and it is believed that these differences help individual members keep track of one another.

This can be especially important for female toothed whales keeping track of their children or when multiple pods gather together and eventually need to separate back into their individual pods.

Baleen whales

The baleen whale communicates using long, low-frequency sounds and some species such as the humpback and blue whale produce deep melodic tones which scientists and researchers refer to as whale songs due to the fact that these sounds create melody’s similar to music composed by humans.

These loud low pitched sounds can be heard miles away and allow baleen whales to communicate with one another over great distances.

This is essential for helping them find other pod members, keep track of the location of other whales during migration trips, look for a mating partner, claim their territory or communicate a multitude of other important things to one another.

Unlike the toothed whale suborder baleen whales are born with baleen plates that have bristles attached to the plates rather than possessing teeth.

The baleen whale suborder is made up almost exclusively of large whales.

Ambient sounds may be endangering whales

Sound is extremely important to the survival of the whale species and research is showing that their may be a link between ambient sounds (artificial sound) and the number of injured and/or beached whales.

Due to the way water absorbs light (hindering the ability to see accurately) and limits smell whales have to rely largely on sound to navigate the ocean, especially in areas where there is no light.

While water may limit some of their primary senses sound is actually enhanced in the ocean.

The reason for this is that sound travels four times faster in the water than it does on land making it extremely important to the whale species in terms of survival.

Animals that rely on sound are able to get an early warming sign of predators in the area and are better able to travel safely and locate potential food sources.

Because of the ever increasing use of ambient sounds some researchers and scientists are concerned that these sounds being created by man-made ships, jet engine planes, sonar and other marine tools may hinder the whales ability to communicate and echo-locate which is extremely important for their survival.

Although it is unclear what affect artificial sound is having on the cetacean species increased whale beachings are believed to be one of many results caused by ambient sounds.

Other issues that may arise from the increase in artificial sounds include brain hemorrhaging from loud noises, loss of direction as these sounds may interfere with echolocation and issues communicating with other pod members.

Note: Some individuals believe that the increased number of reported beachings are the result of new technology such as smart phones, the internet and television rather than an actual increase in the actual number of whale beachings that occur on an annual basis.


Echolocation is an extremely important tool in the toothed whales survival as it allows these marine mammals to navigate the ocean at night, locate potential prey and identify threats in the area using sound.

Echolocation is a biological sonar that whales use to determine their distance to nearby objects.

Because of the fact that vision is extremely limited underwater and sound plays a much stronger and favorable role in their lives echolocation is one of the primary senses whales, dolphins and porpoises rely on every day.

Echolocation works by creating high pitched sounds, clicks or echos and measuring the time it takes for the sound to bounce off of nearby objects and back to the hosts location.

In other words whales measure how far an object is by how long it takes for the sound to get back to them.

The echo that returns provides these marine mammals with vital information such as the location of objects in their area, the density, direction, size and movement of potential prey/predators and whether or not the object is alive and mobile or simply an inanimate fixed object.

Echolocation is used largely among the toothed whale species and was previously thought to be absent among the baleen whale suborder.

It wasn’t until recently that researchers started exploring the possibility of baleen whales having this capability due to interesting data suggesting that these marine mammals (at least some baleen whales) also use echolocation to navigate the ocean.

Communicating though body language

In addition to using sound and echolocation to communicate with others and navigate the ocean whales also use physical gestures and body language to share their experiences and interests with other whales.

Through the use of these gestures whales can show compassion, nurture, dominance and curiosity among other things.

Whale surfacing behavior

Whales use a combination of different surfacing behaviors such as spyhopping, lobtailing and breaching and are believed to display this type of behavior to show dominance, communicate a desire to mate and warn other whales of nearby dangers.


Spyhopping occurs when a whale surfaces partly above the surface of the water for an extended amount of time fully exposing its head and generally keeping its eyes slightly above or below the water so that it can observe its surroundings.

Spyhopping is believed to be used to watch for predators and keep the whale alert to its surroundings.

Lobtailing (Slapping)

Lobtailing is when a whale or dolphin lifts its flukes or flippers out of the water and slaps it hard against the water creating a loud slapping noise.

This slapping may be used to show aggression, warn nearby whales of danger and/or communicate with other whales.

Dolphins have also been trained by humans to lobtail as a form of communication and to indicate a need or desire, such as to request food from a trainer or as a playful gesture.


Breaching occurs when a whale lunges itself out of the water exposing at least 40% of its entire body above the water.

Breaching has also been observed as a form of social interaction and can be used to display aggression, warn others of nearby danger or during courtship to display fitness and a desire to mate.

Due to the large size and weight of the whale breaching causes large disturbances in the water which make it’s actions unmistakable to other whales in the ocean that are either above or beneath the water and can be used as an effective signaling method to communicate to other whales.


Charging occurs when one whale charges or lunges at another whale in order to get their attention.

Charging may be used to show dominance or territorial behavior or it may be used as a form of challenge or play between whales.

Light physical contact/nurturing touches

Whales have been observed lightly rubbing against or bumping other whales in their pod.

These light physical gestures are believed to be a form of nurture or intimacy among whales and can sometimes be seen when a mother is caring for her young or when two adult whales are performing a mating ritual.


Whales can vary greatly in terms of their level of communication and active nature depending on their species.

Some species are solitary and prefer traveling alone while other species spend their lives with family and friends only leaving their pods for short periods of time.

The methods these whales use to communicate can be as diverse as the various species of whale that exist.

Whales are an extremely intelligent species and it is believed that their communication is one of the most sophisticated forms of communication among all animal species.