The discovery of humpback whale song

In the 1950s, US Navy engineer Frank Watlington was working in Bermuda at a top secret listening station built to detect Russian submarines during the height of the cold war. During certain times of the year, Watlington began hearing unusual and eerie sounds coming from the ocean, and started recording these strange sounds. Watlington soon came to the belief that these otherworldly sounds were being made by humpback whales that spent the winter off the coast of Bermuda. However, this was at a time when commercial whaling was driving many species of whale to the brink of extinction, and the story goes that he didn’t tell anyone about the sounds, for fear whalers would use them to find and hunt whales.

Eventually, Watlington was put in touch with bio-acoustician and Ocean Alliance Founder and President Dr. Roger Payne. Alongside colleagues Katy Payne and Scott McVay, Dr. Payne travelled to Bermuda to meet with Frank Watlington. Upon studying the intricate vocalizations of the humpback whales, they realized that what they were hearing were fixed rhythmic patterns of repeated sound: in other words, song. This discovery was a landmark moment in the birth of modern whale biology.

Humpback whale song and the Save the Whale movement

Not only was the discovery important for whale song, but it also proved a catalyst for the global Save the Whale movement. Whales across the planet were being decimated by commercial whaling, from which many have still not recovered to this day. It is estimated that three million whales were killed during the 20th century! The haunting and beautiful song inspired the public and helped to forge an emotional attachment between the public and whales. Ultimately, this led to the global moratorium on commercial whaling being signed in 1982.

Since then, whilst some species and populations have recovered well, many have shown few signs of recovery: even 35 years later.

Continuing scientific studies on humpback whale song

Since this discovery, Dr. Payne and his colleagues at Ocean Alliance have gathered songs from humpback populations throughout the world. Ocean Alliance’s whale song library now contains more than 1,500 recordings from fourteen different geographic regions. The library totals more than 6,000 hours of sounds and is the largest collection of humpback recordings.

Katy Payne, Roger’s wife at the time, also discovered that all humpback whales in a given area sing versions of the same song, which changes throughout the course of the season. Following this, Ocean Alliance scientists discovered that the songs were differed between populations of humpback whales.

Humpback whales tend to return every year to the grounds on which they were born. Because of this they form distinct populations. Scientists have discovered recently that segments of song often move between these populations. A group of scientists in Australia recorded humpback whale songs from six different populations across the southern hemisphere, and found that song segments often originate in the East Australian population, before moving east through the South Pacific.

Humpback whale song is one of the most studied phenomena in whale research. Yet despite this, we still do not fully understand it. Scientists know that it has some kind of role in mating, but what this is has yet to be fully understood.

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