Sounding Off about Humpback Whales

Imagine sitting in a kayak in deep water a half mile off the shores of Hawaii. The ocean's surface is as smooth as silk, unruffled by wind. It is Humpback Whale season, a time when the whales migrate to warmer waters to give birth or find a mate. For weeks you have seen the whales slapping fins and tails on the surface and breaching almost completely out of the water. But on this day, they are nowhere to be seen, even though you can see for miles in any direction from your kayak. Only slightly disappointed, you decide to put on your mask and fins and dive into the depths to watch the light rays travel deep into the water. As you descend, suddenly you hear a whale symphony broadcast in surround sound! The whale song is so loud, you can feel it move through your body. You continue to dive and soak in the salty concert, knowing you will remember this moment forever.

Humpback Whale songs have been recorded for decades. Scientists have found that these whale songs change every year by comparing annual recordings of whales when they return to their winter residence, in this case, Hawaii. The songs have been recorded from many different whales, who sing the same tune as their traveling companions. Although it was thought that only male whales sing, we now know otherwise. My friend Nan Woodman witnessed a female Humpback Whale sing while building a bubble net for the pod.  Nan saw the bubble net during a scientific study she participated in off the coast of Alaska. The event was also captured on film (see humpbacks building a bubble net here). That must have been amazing!

Why does sound travel so well in the ocean? Ocean depth, pressure and temperature all play a role in carrying sound waves through the oceans, sometimes for thousands of miles.  Hear whale sounds at National Geographic here.  Or see whales swimming and singing courtesy of the Whale Trust Maui here.  Learn about the science of sound in water from NOAA or from Discovery of Sound in the Sea.

Hearing the whales that day in Hawaii with a few of my friends was fantastic; I will remember it forever. What a gift!

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