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 believe 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 Dr. Roger Payne. In 1967, with 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 and in the trajectory of Dr. Payne’s career. “Few experiences have had a deeper effect on me — it changed my life,” Dr. Payne has said. “When I heard the sounds that those whales made, it had such a profound effect on me that I wanted everyone to hear them, and the idea of making a record was born.”
Dr. Payne produced an album of whale songs using recordings by Frank Watlington and by Dr. Payne and Katy Payne. The album was an unexpected smash hit, quickly selling over 100,000 copies and eventually going multi-platinum. Excerpts from the record have shown up in songs by Judy Collins, Kate Bush and Glass Wave, in the symphonic suite And God Created Great Whales by Alan Hovhaness, on the Voyager Golden Record which was carried aboard the Voyager program spaceships, and in the movie Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. Numerous other recordings of Humpback and other whales have attempted to capitalize on its popularity. In 2010 the album was inducted into the National Recording Registry as one of the significant recordings that “are culturally, historically, or aesthetically important, and/or inform or reflect life in the United States.”
The Save the Whale movement
The album 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, some species and populations have recovered, but many have shown few signs of recovery.
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.