The Song of the Humpback Whale

Whale watching is one of the fastest-growing forms of tourism, with the industry worth $US2.1 billion in 2008. Over 13 million people per year stand on shorelines or hop onto boats hoping to glimpse a pod swimming pass.


Song of Humpback Whale

By Fiona Murphy

It is not that long ago whales used to be one of the most pursued species on the planet. Technological advances meant whaling became increasingly efficient. Throughout the 20th century, some two million whales were killed in the Southern Ocean. In the 1970s people started to protest the harpooning of whales, including in Australia where it was once the country’s largest export industry. It is now illegal to hunt for whales to sell. What helped lead to the moratorium on commercial whaling in 1986? A smash-hit CD.
Songs of the Humpback Whales is the highest selling nature CD of all time. The CD was released in 1970, just after it was discovered that whales can ‘sing’. The album kicked off the global ‘Save the Whales’ movement. People started to appreciate the complexity of the sea environment and its marine life.

Whale Music

In 1967 a trio of researchers discovered that male humpback whales can ‘sing’. The researchers – Roger and Katherine Payne and Scott McVay – recorded the whale’s complex vocal arrangements. Female humpback whales can vocalise, however, the males create songs during the breeding season that go from between 15 to 30 minutes. Roger Payne wrote that: “strung together without pauses so that a long singing session is an exuberant, uninterrupted river of sound that can flow for twenty-four hours or longer.”

Roger Payne described the experience of hearing a whale sing: “the song is so loud, so thundering in your chest and head, you feel as if someone is pressing you to a wall with their open palms, shaking you until your teeth rattle.”

The sheer volume, along with the conductivity of an aqueous environment, allows the sound waves to travel up to 700 miles. This discovery has lead researchers to reconsider the behaviours of whales. Initially to was thought that male whales use singing to assert territorial control, now it is thought that the singing is a way of attracting female mates. It is also thought to a means of tracking each other during migration. As though whales are not in sight of one another, they may travel in pods dispersed over hundreds of miles.

There is still not a lot known about whale music. The Humpback Acoustic Research Collaboration (HARC) is working to determine the significance of the singing. As while humpback whales along the east coast of Australia have increased by 12.4% each year since the ban – whales are still under threat. The HARC are researching the effect man-made noise is having on ocean inhabitants.

A Noisy Ocean

A report released by the World Wildlife Fund discusses the mounting evidence of noise pollution is having on marine life. The report cites evidence that the noise produced from offshore oil and gas projects can silence great whales. This change in behaviour consequently disrupts their ability to feed, navigate or mate. It is hypothesised that whales use ambient sounds, such as waves crashing on shorelines, to help navigate during migration.
The industrialisation of the ocean means that there are multiple sources of noise pollution, including naval sonars. The sonars have been found to cause whales to beach themselves.
The noise produced by the dredging and digging reverberates through the seabed, travelling far from the site of impact. Since water is an excellent conductor of sound, even the constant hum of offshore wind farms has been found to create moderate levels of noise pollution.

New Legislation

The new documentary Sonic Sea explores the issues of noise population has on marine life. They are urging the American government to consider implementing noise regulations on industries producing noise pollution.
In 2010 the European Union acknowledged the importance of monitoring marine noise pollution when assessing the environmental impact of projects. The EU is working to refine their stance by creating a new Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Directive, which will be applicable as of May 2017. This directive states that all projects, regardless if they are public or private, will have to measure and account for noise pollution during set up and running.

Keeping the ‘Save the Whales’ Movement Alive

The ‘Save the Whales’ movement is just important now as it was during the days of commercial whaling. Raising awareness of the impacts industry has the ocean is imperative for the survival of marine life. You can ensure the protection and conservation of these beautiful creatures by supporting our partner charity, Whale and Dolphin Conservation.

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