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A Humpback Whale breaching
Photo: Iain Kerr

October 21, 2002
"Songs of the Humpback Whale"
  Real Audio

This is Roger Payne speaking to you from the middle of a New England Rainstorm, far, far from where the Odyssey is making her way.

I'm delighted that the Odyssey crew has managed to make such a clear recording of an Indian Ocean humpback whale singing. Recordings of this species aren't rare but there are very few from the Indian Ocean. And judging from what I have heard this is the best recording of a humpback from that ocean so far.

When Scott McVay and I first called the complex, sustained, utterances of humpback whales 'songs' many people were annoyed, because they thought we were claiming that whales were doing something that those same people thought was done solely by humans and birds-singing. But to a biologist a song is simply a repeated pattern of sounds-often a pattern that is rhythmic. This means that technically speaking, the rhythmically repeated sounds made by birds, frogs and crickets are all, properly speaking, 'songs'. Yet, to human ears it is the song of the humpback whale that is the grandest, the most complex, the most powerful song sung by any non-human.

And humpback whale songs are, indeed, some of the loudest sounds made by any animal (the loudest being rather monotonous 3-note song of sung by the blue whale). When you are swimming and hear a humpback whale singing very close to you underwater, you sometimes feel you may not be able to stand the intensity of the sound. It is as though someone put their palms firmly against your chest and vibrated you until your whole skeleton was humming.

A humpback whale song is divided into repeating phrases called themes. When a phrase changes (usually after a few minutes), it heralds the start of a new theme-something that is very obviously different. Songs contain from two to nine themes and the themes are strung together without pauses, so that a long singing session is an exuberant, uninterrupted river of sound that can flow on for twenty-four hours or longer.

Surprisingly, as the season progresses, it is apparent that the humpback whales are changing their songs-something discovered by my former wife, Katy Payne. In fact humpback whales modify their songs all the time they sing. For a humpback whale, to sing is to change. Song changes accumulate over time and as new material is added and old material dropped, the song changes, until after about five years it's a totally different song. Yet on any one breeding ground all of the whales adopt material and abandon material at about the same rate, so that if you return to a given area to listen to the same whales singing in two different years you will find that all of the whales sing the same song in any given year, but that the song they sing in different years is different.

Humpback whales do most of their singing in winter. As winter comes to the North Atlantic Ocean, the humpback whales there move from the cold arctic waters where they have been feeding all summer to tropical waters where they will spend their winter singing, and bearing their young. Meanwhile their relatives in the South Atlantic are moving from the tropical waters in which they have spent the southern hemisphere winter, to near-antarctic waters where they will feed on the abundant summer food blooms. This difference exists, of course, because winter in the Northern hemisphere is summer in the Southern, and it is always the cold polar waters that boast the biggest food blooms in summer. What this means is that in the two parts of the same ocean: North and South Atlantic, the populations of humpback whales seldom get very close to each other.

However, as I pointed out earlier, the sounds of humpback whales are very loud. In fact, so loud that the lowest notes in their songs can and do cross oceans, and, in fact, it is not out of the question that humpbacks have at least some idea of what the humpback whales on the other side of their ocean are singing-something I want to find out.

This means that you might expect to find that if you recorded humpback whales from opposite sides of the North Atlantic you would find them singing the same songs in the same year. And indeed, the songs of humpbacks on the eastern and western sides of the North Atlantic are the same in a given year. (Of course this may be a result of whales that swim from one side of the ocean to the other, bringing their song changes with them.)

Humpback whales sing the themes in their songs in a rigidly fixed order-and the entire song lasts anywhere from a few minutes to half an hour. As Linda Guinee and Katy Payne discovered, humpbacks often include rhymes in their songs-particularly in complex songs. And these rhymes may help them remember their songs-a device the ancient troubadours employed when they had to recite long sagas and epics.

It is not just rhyme that make the compositions sung by humpback whales and people curiously parallel, there are many other similarities-things like the length of phrases, the duration of the songs, the ratio of percussive to tonal material, or the use of A-B-A construction (what human composers call the "sonata form"), and so on.

There are dozens of things about humpback whale songs that I would also like to know, which is why I have spent 35 years collecting their songs in different years and in different breeding grounds that are scattered all over the world's oceans. I dearly hope the Odyssey will encounter more of this strange and interesting species. And if it does, we will tell you about it at once. So stay tuned.

This is Roger Payne, hoping that harmonious songs will fill your life.

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    2002 Written by Roger Payne

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