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For hundreds of miles their multi-tonal moans travel underneath the deep blue ocean waves. Their song is a chain of sharp howls, deep moans and cries, strung together in a complex and beautiful manner that holds the power to leave us stunned. This is the song of the humpback whale, a magical and haunting sound that never fails to pierce the hearts of listeners as they wonder at the mammals below the water. The humpback whale is one of the largest animals on the planet—it’s about as long as a school bus, for context.

Once hunted nearly to extinction, their numbers have somewhat recovered, and their species was recently taken off the list of Endangered Species. (They’re now considered a Threatened species in Central American and Western North Pacific regions.) Humpback whales continue to be studied by scientists who hope to someday decipher the complex songs that humpback whales sing, to communicate with one another, to attract a mate, or maybe just to express themselves.

The Variations of Song & Sound

Humpback whale songs are composed of many different sounds, perceived by humans as a series of moans, cries, and howls, but these songs are not the exclusive vocalizations of these whales. They also use a range of social sounds like grunts, groans, snorts, and barks to communicate and hunt. While male and female humpback whales both vocalize, it is only the males who make the long and loud string of noises that we call the whale song. Despite not having any vocal chords, humpback whales can sing continuously for over 24 hours, generating the noises by forcing air through their nasal cavities.

Songs vary by whale population, so while humpbacks who live in the North Atlantic sing one song, those that populate the North Pacific sing one entirely of their own, almost like a regional dialect. The songs are an evolving tale, lasting 10-20 minutes on average, repeating constantly, and changing slowly over a number of years, seemingly without ever repeating. Theme changes are made in unison by all members of a given group; how they manage to do so is one of the great mysteries in the animal kingdom.

A Traveling Music

Of all the creatures on the planet, the humpback whale song is the longest and most varied that scientists have yet discovered. One of the interesting things about the humpback whale song is how far the song can travel. Researchers estimate that some of the lowest frequency sounds can travel through the ocean as far as 10,000 miles without losing their energy. Most of the frequencies whales use in their songs land between 30 Hertz (Hz) and 8,000 Hz (8 kHz).

Guests on our whale watching tours will have the opportunity to listen to many underwater noises, such as the clicks and whistles of dolphins and the famous humpback whale song using an on-board microphone. Unluckily for us humans, the very lowest of the frequencies used in whale song, those below 100 Hz, are out of human hearing range.

Theories Regarding the Whale Song

Scientists and animal researchers have been studying the songs of the humpback whales for many years, but are still not certain of the exact purpose, though there are many likely theories. Some have hypothesized that the song may have an echolocative function; during feeding dolphins are known to use vocalizations to herd fish into their bubble nets, and it’s thought that humpbacks may engage in similar behaviors.

The strongest evidence, however, links the singing to mating purposes. It is during the breeding season that singing becomes the most wide spread, with the songs under constant evolution during this period. Since females vocalize but don’t sing, one theory points to the song as a manner for males to attract a mate. Others, however, postulate that the song is a challenge to other males, as there have been several observed incidences of males approaching singers, often times creating conflict.

Whatever the true purpose, the humpback whales song continues to enchant listeners. Come aboard for one of our whale watching excursions and listen to their song for yourself. It truly has to be heard to be believed.

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