On land, it might be a bird that comes to mind when thinking of an animal that sings but, in the ocean, there’s the huge humpback whale. While all whales have different qualities that make each of them unique, the humpback whale stands out for its communication skills. Humpback whales can communicate farther than any other whale and, for years, their special sounds have been researched extensively. A particular stand out of their musical skills is their social sounds, and there has been some incredible findings on these.
While most people are aware that humpback whales communicate through their unique songs, the social sounds are comprised of two different types; vocal calls and sounds produced by surface behaviours (such as breaching or slapping the water surface as pictured above).
Australian humpback whales have an array of vocal sounds - at least 34 different ones have been recorded. These noises are all completely unique and range from a very low frequency that can sound almost snort like, to a high frequency that can be compared to the chirp of a bird. Each one of these individual sounds has a purpose, for these sounds represent the context in which the whales are speaking in.
The fact that these underwater animals manage to speak and communicate so cleverly is even more amazing when you learn that the whales don’t have any vocal cords. But, someway and somehow, the humpback whales figured out a way to communicate with other members of a group. Sometimes, it’s a mother calling her baby, and sometimes it’s to signal the location of other whales. But, all the same, it’s astonishing.
Each year, the humpback whales embark on a journey across the ocean to be in the warmer waters off the east coast of Queensland. During this annual travelling time, the males will use a complex series of repetitive vocal patterns. These sounds are performed for longer distances and can last up to thirty minutes at a time. Males are also known for performing very song-like sounds that are more regularly used during mating season to try to impress a female humpback.
While you may not be familiar with the sounds made underwater by the humpback whales, the sounds you are able to hear are the ones created by surface behaviour. They’re incredibly active animals, and their surface behaviour includes when they’re breaching, lobtailing, and fin slapping. If you haven’t heard the term 'breaching' before, breaching is when the whale will jump high out of the ocean and then slap the sea top hard as they come back down. The sound this creates can be heard above and below the water.
Lobtailing is when a humpback whale will hold their tail above the water and swing it around before slapping it on top of the surface of the sea. This is an action that also creates a sound that is heard, once again, both above and below the ocean. While research is still underway to understand the reasoning of the surface behaviour sounds, it is clear that these sounds do signify something important to the whales. It is believed that these slapping sounds may be a vital way of one whale communicating a warning to the rest of the pod.