Those Fun and Crazy Guys: Humpback Whales

April 1, 2015

Creation Care

Kick back and relax.  Enjoy the concert in the BBC video below, which rolls footage also aired in a first-rate documentary, Ocean Giants.

Scientists ponder the motivation behind the songs of the male humpbacks – or, more technically, their hums.  Many thought they were typical men, shamelessly wooing the ladies in the open sea with nary a glance at the mortified barracudas.  No doubt they promise the moon: “We love you because of your minds.”

But there’s no recorded instance of females casually swimming past and peaking back. Which leaves us with one of two choices.  Option One: the men are a bunch-a losers. Option Two: We don’t know why they sing. I select option two, given that the species is still with us. I’ll throw in a theory and defend it triumphantly despite my lack of research and knowledge: The men are singing for the same reason Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck jam on their guitars. They’re groovin’ on the music and that’s all she wrote.  Their incredulous reply to our queries: “Stop asking those questions and push yourself onto the dance floor!”

All pet-owners know that non-human animals relish pleasure and fun.  Wrestle with your dog if you doubt me or throw a stick for a Labrador Retriever (I know: they’re bred to do that; but they also like it).  Cut humpbacks some slack. They’re some of the most intelligent animals on the Earth.

The video, followed by more comments:

A friend who labors in science shared how humpbacks frustrate his colleagues in other ways.  He said:

At work we analyze many thousands of hours of underwater recordings each year trying to figure out which whale species are where when. It’s very easy to believe that humpbacks are enjoying themselves with their elaborate songs. Even during the off season, they can often be heard singing song fragments, as if they were working out new themes and mastering their technique for the next season. The sounds humpbacks make can be a bit frustrating for us, however, since we use whale sounds to identify what species are present at dozens of sites around the globe at different times of the year. Whether through intentional mimicry or not, their vocalizations can sometimes be mistaken for that of other whales, which complicates things for us.

To which I responded:

I wonder: Is there a dialogue among the humpbacks? Maybe it goes like this:

WHALE ONE: “Hey Sam, I found another.”

WHALE TWO: “‘Nother what?”

WHALE ONE: “’Nother of those sound detectors. It’s the humans: They’re studying us again.”

WHALE TWO: “You don’t say …”

WHALE ONE: “Yup.  Time for fun.  Who’d you play last time?”

WHALE TWO: “The blue whale, like a thousand times before … ”

WHALE ONE: “Okay, you play the blue. I’ll play the killer …”

WHALE TWO: “You always get to play the orca. No fair …”

WHALE ONE: “Complain-complain. We’ve got a golden opportunity to mess these people up. You gonna sing or whine?”

WHALE TWO: “Put it that way, I’m singin’ the blues …”

WHALE ONE: “That’s the spirit. Okay, on three: A-one … A-two …

My friend responded:

You’ve re-created one of the standard conversations we have here when we get particularly frustrated with humpbacks. I do admire their virtuosity, though. They can sing songs that have pitches so low humans can’t hear them, and pitches so high they are near the limit of human hearing, all the time singing so loud that they can be heard for hundreds of miles. They can also sing two pitches at the same time, since like birds they have two voice organs. In fact, if you speed up playback, humpback song sometimes sounds remarkably like bird song. In this youtube video there’s a comparison of one particular humpback song with a nightingale:

After listening to the sped-up songs, all I could think of was this: “What a job.”

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About Charles Redfern

Charles Redfern is a writer, activist, and clergyman living in Connecticut with his wife and family. He's currently writing two books, with more in his head.

View all posts by Charles Redfern


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