To celebrate the 52 Kickstarter launch, we investigated the Whales' folklore. Amongst the animals, whales have some of the most complex social behaviors. Groups of whales, known as pods, communicate with one another using calls that can reach thousands of miles across the ocean. They are extraordinarily complex, sometimes lasting for hours at a time, and often incorporating musical motifs. These motifs are not only captivating to humans, but infectious to whales as well. Reseachers have discovered that specific whale calls spread from whale to whale every mating season like Top 40 hits.
The movement to conserve the whales began in earnest in the 1970s, and coincided with the first recordings of whale songs. Since then, whale songs have been held up as an argument for complex animal culture, a topic which is highly debated amongst scientists. Animal culture concerns an animal’s ability to learn a new behavior and then pass that behavior on to other members of its group. Many animals, whales included, have shown this ability. Some scientists argue, however, that this form of perceived culture only bears a superficial resemblance to human culture. These scientists argue that animal teaching is not an expression of culture, but is rather the result of genetic adaptation.
Whether or not whale songs are an expression of true animal culture, there’s no denying their otherworldly appeal. We’ve collected calls from three of the most notable singers, the humpback, blue, and orca whales. Grab a pair of headphones and space out.
The Humpback Whale Song
Humpback whales have some of the longest songs, with musical sequences that last up to fifteen minutes and then repeat for hours at a time. In a report published by the Public Library of Science, scientists noted a consistent trend of Humpback whale songs spreading westward from Australia all the way to populations in French Polynesia. The humpback whale song consists of high pitched squeals that sweep down to lower frequencies. The mood is subtly ominous, with eerie shrieks and clicks that betray an amazing rhythmic complexity.
Think: world music, free jazz.
The Blue Whale Song
Blue whales hold a number of records. Not only are they the largest living creatures, they’re also the loudest. Their calls take advantage of the ocean’s deep sound channel, where the speed of sound is at a minimum. Interestingly, researchers at Cornell University’s Bioacoustics Research Center found that the blue whale’s call varies between populations. Blues whales in the Atlantic, the researchers discovered, produced a string of moans between 16 and 28hz. In the Pacific, blue whales consistently produce a chirping trill, followed by three moans in the same frequency range. The blue whale song is low, long, and subtly melancholy.
Think: ambient, no-wave, drone.
The Orca Whale Song
Despite their name, orcas, or killer whales, are actually dolphins. Like many dolphins, they are sophisticated vocal learners. They communicate with grunts, sheiks, clicks, and snaps from their lower jaws. Their calls are complex and mystifying, but they seem to aid the orca in locating prey and mating. Research by the University of British Columbia’s Marine Mammal Research Unit concluded that one specific song in the orca repertoire changed in a traceable manner over the course of 12 years through contact with different orca pods. Meanwhile another song remained relatively static. Although the researchers could not precisely determine the function of the changing call, they note that “The patterns of call modification we observed cannot be explained by genetic differentiation.” This may suggest animal culture amongst the orcas. The orca song is energetic and jarring, with a surprising variety of sounds that are introduced, faded out and then reintroduced in surprising ways.
Think: krautrock, industrial.
The 52Hz Whale Song
There’s one more whale that deserves special mention, whose species remains unknown. This whale, colloquially known as “52” has been heard but never seen. His call is consistently recorded at 52hz, a frequency higher than that of either the blue or the fin whale’s. Despite this discrepancy in frequency, his patterns of migration and the clustering of his calls indicate that he may be somehow related to either the blue or the fin. Scientists note that 52 appears every year in August before disappearing out of range of hydrophones in January. He has never been recorded with companions, leading many to speculate that he may be deformed, or hybridized, and thus unable to appeal to other whales. To my ears, the song bears a striking resemblance to one of the world's most melancholy sounds: the call of the mourning dove.
Whale songs depend on a clear channel of water for the transmission of sound. Unfortunately, as the ocean is increasingly traversed, trawled, and extracted, these clear channels are virtually disappearing. Ambient noise pollution is caused by a wide range of human activities including shipping, sonar, and natural resource extraction among others. When the ocean floor is surveyed for possible wells, for example, “air guns” are utilized to propel massive sonic waves that have been recorded at 240db. Towed behind commercial ships and often arranged in arrays of 48, these devices create air blasts that travel all the way to the ocean floor. Taken all together, practices such as these create not a medley, but a cacophony of industrial activity.
This cacophony has dire implications. Research has definitively linked military sonar exercises with the mass beaching of dolphins and whales. Scientists have discovered that many whales have taken to ‘shouting,’ or amplifying their call, while others have, disturbingly, stopped calling altogether. Given these startling discoveries, scientists have proposed measures to limit noise pollution. Researchers with the International Maritime Association have noted that the vast majority of shipping noise is generated by only 10 percent of the world’s commercial vessels, and have crafted new design standards to curb future vessel’s grumbling engines. The EU, meanwhile, has begun to legislate the production of oceanic noise. While practices like these have been slow to take hold, awareness of noise pollution seems to be on the rise. In the meantime, we can all do our part by staying informed and remembering that while the oceans are not our home, they do house some of the planets largest, most mysterious, and most endangered animals.