Sounds of the ocean...more to whale communication than we might think?

Updated: Oct 24


Even from the early stages of scientific research, it was evident that there were mammals out there who have so much more to offer us than we could ever have imagined. It would take years, decades even, for us to even come close to unravelling the world of cetaceans; From their hunting and migration patterns, breeding and family life, even the way they communicate with each other. We are still unravelling information today…

The way mammals behave is often universal, we share the same experiences in different ways. This includes communication; we communicate via different mechanisms but the act of communication itself is shared between us all. How we as humans communicate with each other or with our fellow species, such as dogs, or how predators communicate with their prey or how species communicate with sexual interests for mating is incredible and goes beyond our imagination.

Communication is all inclusive and possibly one of the most complex things we share on this planet. This means discovering more about other species communication habits can be one of the most interesting (and time consuming) research projects.

This is what researchers from the MBARI (Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute) at Stanford University have been looking into.

Whales are some of the largest mammals on earth, travelling up to thousands of miles at a time. Living in the ocean gives them a vast amount of ground to cover and their migration habits are long. So, communication, especially over far distances, is essential to Whales, whether it be for mating, food or social reasons.

Following five years of research into whale communication and sound, a microphone sent out by MBARI gathered recordings all sorts of ocean sounds. Among these sounds were the sounds of whales. While studying these sounds, the researchers started to notice a pattern in their communication over time.

"This was a very striking signal to observe in such an enormous dataset, and led us to ask the questions: what drives these population-level patterns in song, and do these patterns indicate changes in blue whale behaviour through the seasonal cycle?" lead researcher William Oestreich, a doctoral candidate in biology at Stanford University, told UPI in an email. (Hays, 2020) 1

Due to the patterns they started to see in the whale song, researches decided to tag the whales they came across to help extend their research further and deepen their understanding of why these whales vocalisations had a pattern and what could it mean.

What they discovered was that the whale’s sound patterns were based on their feeding and migration. Whales feed primarily on krill. This means they do the majority of their feeding and hunting in the daytime, as that’s when krill are most densely packed together out in the open.

Under the blanket of night is when whales appear to become more vocal. We assume this is because they have swapped out feeding time for show time, using the hours where they aren’t using their enormous mouths to feed, to instead communicate with one another.

Whales tend to do a lot less feeding during migrations as well. Instead, they use their large fat stores to provide energy as they move. But while feeding behaviours may be on hold during migrations, the opera of whale song continues and even occurs now during the day.

When they come to a standstill, recharging and feeding in the day, they go back to their regular routine of singing at night time.

Although we do not yet know exactly why whales tend to sing so much, especially when on the move, it is thought that the increased singing during migrations is possibly an attempt to communicate with other whales for mating.

"We are now better able to monitor when these blue whales are migrating in relation to changes in the ecosystem they inhabit,” Oestreich said.” (Hays, 2020)1

Knowing their patterns of migration can encourage more specific protection in certain areas - not just for Whales but for krill too, as whales need krill to survive. Understanding where their journeys take place means we can do more to help with their survival and protection. The research done by these scientists will help the future of whales and further whale research.

The more we learn about whales the more we can do to help and protect them. These giants of the open ocean still face many threats including habitat loss by pollution, climate change, plastic waste and more. The more research we do into tracking their migrating habits, the more we will be able to help protect the parts of the oceans they inhabit most often.

1) Hays, B., 2020. Blue whale singing patterns reverse when they start to migrate. [online] UPI. Available at: <> [Accessed 19 October 2021].

-Isobel Fairbairn, BSc (Hons) Marine Biology

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