The first modern looking whales evolved around 30 million years ago, so these great creatures have been swimming in the world's oceans for a prodigious span of time. No one is certain when humpback whales appeared, but it's possible that their songs are another ancient legacy from the ocean world.
It was not until the late 1950's that whale songs were picked up incidentally and recorded by US Navy ships near Hawaii and Bermuda. In the 1960's, scientists realized that humpback whales were responsible for these strange, ethereal sounds.
Many years later in Alaska, researchers discovered that humpbacks make another spectacular sound—a feeding call performed during specialized bubble net feeding, which only occurs in Southeast Alaska and British Columbia.
Of course, for as long as people have traveled on the sea or walked the world's ocean beaches, they've heard the explosive sounds of whales blowing as they break the surface after a dive. Watchers have also witnessed the tremendous tails slapping the water, throwing up masses of spray, filling the air with booms and thrashing.
And it's lovely to imagine early mariners sleeping in their bunks below decks in wooden ships, awakening to the songs of these giant animals. What did they think about these sounds? Perhaps we can understand how it affected them, simply by looking at our own responses to these powerful and mysterious chants from the deep.
Only male humpback whales sing. They perform their complex songs primarily during their winter mating season in subtropical waters, but they also sing in the fall before their annual migration begins.
Each song includes a series of 6-8 easily identifiable themes, and the theme is a phrase that the whale repeats over and over, before moving on to the next one. After a whale has gone through all the themes, it may start the entire song again. Each song can last up to 30 minutes, although more often they last 8 to 15 minutes, and then the song is repeated in the same sequence of phrases and themes. A whale may sing for several hours before stopping.
Interestingly, these beautiful oceanic symphonies are constantly evolving and every whale living within a huge expanse of ocean—such as the northern Pacific Ocean—performs exactly the same song. Even within one season, a song will change, and over several seasons the song transforms into something completely different.
Humpbacks living in widely separated areas, such as Alaska and Australia, sing very different songs. Interestingly, some years ago, several humpback whales from the western coast of Australia showed up along Australia's east coast. Very quickly, the eastern whales picked up elements of the western song, just as music is shared between humans.
It would be hard to listen to a humpback whale singing and not be transported by its timeless and profoundly moving beauty.
Humpback whales in Southeast Alaska and British Columbia often take small schooling fish by a unique cooperative strategy called "bubble net feeding." Usually a group of whales works together to herd the prey into a dense mass; then one of the whales circles under and around the swarm, releasing bubbles which form a spiraling column of air around the fish, pushing them towards the surface. And just before the whole group rises up under the ball of fish—mouths open, bodies tight together—one designated whale makes a sustained, eerie feeding call.
Let's listen to a bubble net feeding sequence recorded at the surface: First we hear a feeding call resonating faintly in the air above the still water. Then a tight cluster of about 10 whales bursts up through the surface mouths agape and then closing to entrap water and herring. Next the whales roll down onto the surface, forcing water from their mouths and keeping the unlucky fish, accompanied by a chorus of blows. Finally a noisy, excited flock of gulls whirls above the humpbacks, sweeping down to catch stunned or wounded fish. Bubble net feeding sequence recorded by Richard Nelson. *
Listen to a feeding call recorded by researcher Jan Straley, using an underwater hydrophone in Tenakee Inlet, Southeast Alaska. *
Humpback whales make a variety of other sounds—especially the powerful exhaling and inhaling whenever they're on the surface, and they sometimes explosively crash their tails against the water, which is called lob tailing. Biologists aren't sure why whales slap their tails this way—perhaps to signal other whales in the area—but it's also easy to imagine that they simply enjoy doing it.
Listen to a humpback whale lob tailing recorded by Richard Nelson. *
Another impressive sound is made when humpbacks surface after a dive, exhaling forcefully through their blowholes. Seen from a distance, the misty columns of spray are an excellent way to find whales. Up close, the noise is surprisingly loud and if you get right into the spray, it has a distinctly sulfurous smell that most people would consider a case of "bad breath."
Listen to a normal blow recorded by Richard Nelson. *
Sometimes humpback whales make a very loud trumpeting sound when they blow, and there has been speculation that a trumpeting whale might be expressing tension or anxiety.
Listen to a trumpeting blow recorded by Richard Nelson. *
Here's a sequence of blows and lob tailing recorded at very close range in Chatham Strait, Southeast Alaska by Richard Nelson. *
No matter how many times a person encounters humpback whales, it's always a thrill and a privilege. Tourists lucky enough to see these animals on whale watching cruises often consider it a lifetime experience. Few sights can match these massive animals erupting from the depths, rolling and blowing on the surface, and lifting their flukes as they arch for a dive. And few sounds anywhere on earth equal the mystique of a humpback whale's song or feeding call, the power of a whale breaching or lob tailing, or the immense living presence of whales blowing clouds of breath into the ocean dawn.
* Humpback whale recordings were authorized under NOAA scientific research permit 14122 to Janice Straley.
Alaska Fisheries Science Center
Alaska Whale Foundation
Glacier Bay National Park Humpback Whales and Sound Monitoring
Humpback Whales of Southeastern Alaska
NOAA Fisheries Humpback Whale Information
Sitka Whale Festival