The first time I heard the song of a humpback whale I was at anchor on a moonless night in the shelter of Eukafa Island in Tonga. I had been sleeping and the sound seemed to emanate from a dream. Then, with open eyes, I realized that the long, sonorous aria was coming from the ocean and resonating through the fiberglass hull of Flying Fish. The sound was longing and lonely and seductive. The life force in this whale song called out: I am here, where are you?
Both male and female humpback whales vocalize, but only males produce the complex song of wails, moans, and shrieks that is so identifiable of this species. Humpback songs are repeated in cycles lasting up to 30 minutes and individual whales may sing continuously for more than 24 hours. Each population of humpbacks collectively sings a unique song, one they have learned from other whales.
“The traditional explanation for why whales do this is that male whales are singing to seduce female whales, and that females get really turned on by songs that are currently in style,” said cognitive neuroscientist Eduardo Mercado III in a recent edition of LiveScience.
To the casual human listener, the love song of a humpback whale sounds magnificently free-flowing and improvised. But fresh mathematical analysis by some bioacousticians has found that there are complex grammatical rules used in whale songs. Using syntax, the whales combine sounds into phrases, which they further weave into hours-long melodies packed with information. Whales have even been found to sing in dialect, according to a study in the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America. Although researchers say that while these songs don’t meet the linguistic rigor necessary for a true language, there is evidence that whales use a hierarchical structure of communication similar to human beings.
Most animals use sight and smell to communicate, but these senses are limited in the ocean. Whales rely on sound, which travels four times faster in water than in air. Whale songs are thought to have an important role in mate selection as males sing for attention and to establish dominance.
Courtship rituals take place in the warm waters of Tonga and competition for a mate can be fierce. Males sometimes gather into competitive groups around a female and fight for the right to mate with her. Male humpbacks can be seen breaching, tail slapping, and charging during courtship. Ultimately, however, the female calls the shots. Polyandry has been observed in humpback whales, with females known to have multiple male partners throughout their lifespan.
Once hunted to the brink of extinction, the humpback whale population fell by an estimated 90% before a 1966 moratorium on killing them went into effect. The population has since rebounded to about 80,000 worldwide. Cultural attention to whale vocalization intensified after a 1970s paper published in Science magazine by biologists Roger Payne and Scott McVay describing “surprisingly beautiful sounds” made by humpback whales. Analyzing underwater recordings they found that these whale sounds were intricately repetitive. “We call the fixed patterns of humpback sounds ‘songs,’” they wrote. Soon thereafter, the hit album Songs of the Humpback Whale was released and the recording went multi-platinum.
After hearing my first whale song through the hull of Flying Fish, it was impossible to return to sleep. I went on deck squinting into the darkness hoping to see the whale. I saw nothing move in the calm water. Strangely, I could no longer hear the song, either. It was only when I went below that the song echoed again through the cabin. The area of the hull below the surface of the water functioned as a hydrophone. Somewhere out there a whale was looking for love.
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