Posted by: onboardtourswhales | April 5, 2012

Humpback Whale Songs

What is the social function of a Humpback Whale song? What do those songs, whale sounds mean? We are still trying to understand! On Monday morning, April 2, 2012, I was excited to join Whale Trust founders, Dr. Meagan Jones, Dr. Jim Darling, and Flip Nicklin in their National Geographic sponsored research. We headed out of Lahaina in calm sunny waters.

This specific permitted project was to record the current-this season’s song, and playback a different composition song, documenting whales by photo identification of their tail flukes, the time and place of the whale, and any reactions to the playback song. The purpose of the study is to determine whether song composition determines how males interact with each other on the breeding grounds.

We avoided the mom-calf pairs, and a competitive surface active group heading near the shoreline. The males seem to be even more competitive now as there are fewer females available!

We were looking for and listening with hydrophones for the singular singing whale, easier to record, identify, and follow. Those singers tend to stay under singing an average of 15 minutes, while the non singers tend to come up to breathe on average in 8 minutes. We could see whales blowing in the distance when we spotted a single whale diving. Yes, the whale is singing!

Listening to the song, I heard low and high tones, groans, “barnyard” sounds like cow moos, pig grunts, and sheep baas! The whale was nearby, and at one point right below one of our boats! The singer will also sing “up notes”, recognizable sounds that mean the whale is rising to the surface to breathe.

The 2 research vessels were about 700 meters apart when Dr. Darling deployed the playback song into the water. Our whale kept singing for awhile, then stopped and breached right between the boats! Began singing again, then stopped and surfaced tail fluke thrashing, right in front of the research boat playing the playback song! The whale swam away and did not resume singing. Now this is only one observation of behaviors and it takes many to conclude science, but my sense is that whale was reacting aggressively, did not like hearing that different humpback song, and was letting us know!

A southeast wind had picked up along with a flooding tide, causing our small boats to bounce and drift, becoming a challenge to document and remain in one area. Happy to have recorded over four hours, we headed back into Lahaina Harbor. Ah, the patience and persistence of research! Another wondrous whale watching day, another fleeting glimpse of whale culture.


  1. Wow, really interesting contact with the whales! Your posts are so informative that I am forwarding them onto a high school science teacher friend of mine in Vancouver, WA. She is sharing them with her classes. See, your information is being passed on and on. Thanks for the great reports!


    • Thank you! I feel we naturalists can be a bridge between science and the public. And ambassadors, like I think cetaceans are ambassadors of the sea!

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