Humpback Whales
Song of the Sea

In the late 1960s, whale biologist Roger Payne and several colleagues did something a little unusual, and it paid off with spectacular results. The researchers dumped a microphone into the sea, hoping to listen in on the underwater conversations that Payne believed whales were having. But “some people weren’t sure we were going to hear anything — they said it was just a waste of time,” Payne recalled to a journalist at the time.

It worked better than anyone had imagined, however, capturing a remarkable array of creaks, groans, and moans produced by humpback and other whales. Recordings of the whale songs were soon selling out at music stores, and people around the world were debating the meaning of the haunting melodies. The discovery earned the humpback a new nickname: “Songster of the Sea.”


Humpback whales are underwater crooners

Today, scientists know more than ever about the song of the humpback. They know, for instance, that while both male and female humpbacks can produce sounds, only the males appear to produce organized songs with distinct themes and melodies, almost always on breeding grounds. As NATURE’s Humpback Whales shows, the males often sing while suspended deep below the surface, their long front flippers jutting rigidly from their sides. The songs can last up to 20 minutes, and can be heard more than 20 miles away. The male may repeat the same song dozens of times over several hours, and whales in the same geographic area sing in very similar “dialects.” Song patterns can change gradually over time, so that new songs emerge every few years.

Researchers still aren’t sure exactly how the whales produce the sounds. Whales don’t have vocal cords, so they probably sing by circulating air through the tubes and chambers of their respiratory system. But no air escapes during the concerts — and their mouths don’t move.

Scientists are also unsure about what the songs mean. Originally, observers believed they were a mating call, used to advertise the male’s availability to passing females. This idea was reinforced when divers observed other whales approaching the singers.

More recently, however, some researchers have come to believe that the singing humpbacks are actually issuing threats, not singing love songs. In part, that idea arose because scientists discovered that many of the whales approaching singers were other males, and the meeting would often end in a tussle. “It looks like the singing whale is telling the other males who is the boss,” says Gary Lyder, a whale biologist and whale watching guide.

Another recent theory is that the singing whales are simply finding out who is in the neighborhood, using the songs as a form of sonar for tracking nearby whales. But many scientists are skeptical of the idea, in part because the whales only seem to sing on breeding grounds.

Researchers may never be able to know for certain what the songs mean. But they continue to pore over recordings and replay the whale’s greatest hits. And in the meantime, the virtuoso whale singers continue to hit their high notes, serenading an unseen audience deep in the blue-black sea, returning again and again to the stage for haunting encores.

  • sslc

    this was very helpful toward my lesson

  • NSMS

    i dont think you give enough info about how the humpback whales got their names

  • Hulio

    all you really say is they got it from their swimming style my teacher said thats not enough information and i agree with her i really need help with this lesson and i dont fell that you can help me with that

  • Max

    How do whales communicate?

  • kyle

    This website has no info for any student to do a good report like i have to… 4-5 pages… the pictures are very cool but there is not enough information to do a good report therfore i think the creator of this website should add some information that would have cool pics and has good information aswell… if any one has any good sugestions on where i should go to find GOOD info please tell me…

  • Elijah Wood

    Believe, children of the Earth, that our ability to communicate with eachother depends on our ability to communicate with ourselves. How we think dictates how we act, and how we act governs our kharma. Let us look eye to eye with humanity and see how we each can show more courage in the fight to love animals who watch over our Earth. May the spirit of our whale friends be met with warm embrace and the power of our thoughts be concentrated in an effort to stop global terror and aid our civilization needing balance. Once and for all, stop the killing and let gardens reflect our desire for peace.

  • diane

    I think the best male singer gets his pick of the females and is influentual that way.If they only sing in the breeding season..Like rams go thru bumping heads, and bears fight to the finish of their verility
    to claim their choice….Prayers to those abitious people in Death Valley trying to keep the pupp fish from going extinct….

  • Marissa

    I agree with Kyle

  • llo

    i love whales

  • penny alden

    I like the name
    songs of the sea

  • NSMS

    How do they communicate with each other?

  • Anna NSMS

    I’ve been staying up till 9:30 trying to find answers, there none on this site. How did they get their names??

  • Mary

    I live in Southeast Alaska, so it is common to see the humpback whales, spouting — breaching — and etc…. One day as I was walking on the beach, not another soul around, I witnessed a humpback whale spouting, after I walked the length of the beach, the whale was still fairly close to the shore line…. I kept observing his behavior and then suddenly the whale shot up out of the water, breaching all the way up so that his tale was visable, and I am standing just a few yards from him as he broadcast a song that was so loud and long that it pierced my very being, my entire body was trembling, the song sounded like that of an elephant…. Truly, I indeed felt blessed to be a part of this extremely spiritual experience…. I will always carry this experience in my memory bank, it will always be a part of me, I have observed these whales spouting breaching and singing their songs, yet this particular whale experience was like no other on the planet earth, It made me realize how truly small we are in comparrison to these Giant’s Of The Sea….

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  • swimming

    Your post really helps me to work easily. Thanks for providing such important information.

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    We dont appreciate this post. I have to not be getting some thing fundamental right here.

  • alex

    I love the humpback whale. I wish you had more vids and articles about them. Please upload more.

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