Why Do Whales Sing?

Singing is a feature that has been observed among several of the popular baleen whale species such as the humpback whale and blue whale.

These marine mammals are able to produce loud melodic notes and tones which closely mimic the sounds of music created by humans and are commonly refered as whale songs.

Among the 80 – 90 recorded species of cetacea (cetaceans include all species of whale, dolphin and porpoise)  in existence today only a small handful of whales are known to produce whale songs.

Both male and female whales can vocalize but only the males produce these loud, long and complex melodies within the humpback whale species.

Unfortunately researchers don’t have a clear understanding of what these sounds mean or why they are sung, and aren’t able to interpret what exactly is being communicated or said between the male and female whales.

They have however been able to point out some interesting facts and have come up with some information regarding the possible meaning of these songs.

These songs are often heard during mating season which has led researchers to believe that it is used to communicate a desire to mate.

It is also believed that these songs may communicate youthfulness, strength and vitality to potential partners.

Male humpbacks can be seen singing either alone or in a group and when together will sing in tune with one another and when a male escorts a female he can also be observed signing and apparently courting the female.

What’s more interesting is that even males that are separated over long distances can be found singing the same melody at the same time.

These songs can last anywhere from 5 minutes to a half hour or so and then repeat over the course several hours or days.

Over time these melodies and notes may change but the males will continue to sing these songs in harmony as the song continually changes.

In certain instances when one male approaches another singing male they may become aggressive, territorial and defensive, which suggests that they do not like being interrupted or challenged during mating periods.

Whale songs have often been referred to as haunting, beautiful and sad by the people who have heard them.

Aside from being used during mating season these marine mammals have also been observed singing during feeding periods, when they have lost a loved one or when they are feeling lonely over extended periods of time.

Marine biologists and researchers point out that these songs are different from those observed during mating periods and shouldn’t be confused with mating songs.

While these songs are heard among certain baleen whale species they aren’t produced by the toothed whale suborder.

Toothed whales are generally much smaller than their baleen whale counterparts and communicate using high-pitched clicks and whistles as opposed to the loud, long, low-pitched moans and groans of the larger baleen whales.

The large size and loud vocalizations of the baleen whale suborder makes it easier for these giants majestic animals to communicate over large distances.

Other forms of communication

In addition to communicating through song these marine mammals also communicate by performing various vocal sounds and physical gestures such as spy hopping, tail slapping, breaching and charging.

Unlike humans however whales do not communicate using words when they talk; instead they communicate using various sound frequencies and tones when talking to one another or communicating something of interest.

Some whales communicate by using long deep moaning or whining sounds, while other whales communicate in short higher-pitched bursts, clicks and whistles.

The variation in duration and frequency allows whales to communicate a number of different things to one another.

While biologists are unsure of what whales say to each other when they talk it can be assumed that they communicate information such as when they’ve located a nearby predator, when they found food that they want to inform the group about, when they have a desire to mate and when they simply want attention or affection.

Because whales communicate in slightly different frequencies and pitches they also use these differences to identify which whale is speaking, much like the way humans have different tones in their voice that allow them to identify different people in a room.

This can be extremely useful for whales that are traveling together in large pods.

Especially in cases where several pods may meet together and one group of whales needs to keep track of other members of its pod, such as a mother keeping tabs on where her child is.

Recent research has also shown that whales in a single pod or group may use the same click and whistles variations to let other members know they belong to the same pod and inform others of their status within the group.

For example a group of males may all communicate using the same clicks and whistles while a female that has just given birth will use a completely different set of clicks and whistles.

As stated earlier this variation may be used to help the mother and her calf keep track of one another.

When it comes to intelligence some scientists believe whales are so intelligent and their language is so complex that we may one day be able to create technology that will allow us to understand what whales are saying and be able to communicate with these amazing marine mammals.

Aside from using different tones and frequencies to communicate and talk with one another whales also communicate using visual cues such as leaping out of the water, lunging at one another, breaching the surface, tail slapping, fin slapping and spy hopping (a technique that involves a whale lifting its head slightly above the water to observe its surroundings).

While whales may talk to one another in very different ways than humans their ability to communicate with one another is very complex and if humans learn to understand their language and communicate with them it will prove to be an amazing experience that will allow people to finally be able to have a conversation with another intellectual species that has lived for millions of years right next door to us.