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Your Complete Guide To Whale Sounds & Communication

a fish swimming under water

Whales are one of nature’s most majestic creatures. Not only are they marvelous in size and a wonder to behold as they breach the ocean’s surface, but they also have a fascinating and complex system for communicating. Whales communicate using a variety of sounds to help them locate food, find other whales, and navigate below the waves. Let’s review some essential insights about whale sounds and communication to keep in mind as you prepare for your next whale watching excursion.

Purposes of Whale Communication

Whales are very social animals and live in groups known as pods. As members of a group, communication is vital for various reasons, including hunting and navigation. These sounds often consist of clicks, whistles, and other noises that scientists believe may have different purposes related to differentiating between whale pods, coordinating hunting behavior, or communicating social hierarchy. Whale communication is quite complex and can vary between whale species, and even within different groups of the same species.

Starting from a very young age, whales learn to communicate using unique sounds by mimicking other whales. As members of large families with as many as 50 whales, communication is an important aspect of whale livelihood and survival. As research continues, our understanding of the intricacies of whale communication grows. Research even suggests that whales can string together unique combinations of sounds to form specific patterns known as codas. These codas can be very sophisticated and many pods or clans have unique dialects that can be used for whale group identification.

Making Sense of Different Whale Sounds

Not all whale sounds are the same. There are two main groups of whales, toothed and baleen. Toothed whales, such as orcas, and sperm whales communicate using what is known as echolocation. This ability allows toothed whales to send out sound signals that bounce off objects in the ocean, such as prey, rock formations, or even other whales. These signals are then interpreted by the whale to identify and better understand their surroundings. Toothed whales are also known to use clicks and other sounds in addition to echolocating.

Baleen whales such as humpback and grey do not echolocate. Instead, they mostly use a variety of low frequency sounds such as moans that can travel over very long distances in the ocean, even over thousands of miles according to researchers. Research, however, is inconclusive about the purpose of such communication. It is believed that it could be for reasons such as locating other members of their pod, navigation, or possibly expressing emotions like loneliness.

Baleen whales also communicate with high frequency sounds such as chirping, and wha is commonly known as singing. Whale songs are produced only by male whales though. Research indicates that singing is a way for males to attract a female for breeding. It may also serve territorial purposes such as signaling their presence to other male whales nearby who may be competing with them for a mate.

animal on the water

Making a Splash with Body Language

In addition to sounds, whales also have an intricate system of communication using body language. Through a variety of movements with their flippers, tail, or body, whales can send very specific messages to one another. One of the most well-known body movements is known as breaching. Breaching occurs when a whale breaks the surface of the water with much of their body and often creates a large splash. Sometimes, this splash may result in a loud percussive sound that could play a role in communication with other whales. Other times, this type of behavior may be used to communicate messages such as establishing dominance in a show of strength, or for coordination with other whales while hunting prey and feeding.

Another behavior that whales are known for is tail slapping or lobtailing. This behavior involves slapping the end of the tail, known as a fluke, onto the surface of the water. Tail Slapping can create loud noises and also serve as a visual signal to other whales that there is food nearby or may even be used to express annoyance or aggression. Some research suggests that it could serve as a warning signal to other whales or species, such as humans and sharks to stay away in an effort to protect the pod against potential predators.

The Impact of Noise Pollution

Due to their heavy reliance on communication, which often can take place over many miles of sea, whales face a unique threat known as noise pollution, or what scientists sometimes refer to as “ocean smog”. As international shipping and other industrial activities, such as oil exploration in the ocean increases, so does the level of underwater noise. Unfortunately, much of this underwater noise occurs in coastal areas along migratory routes. This noise can be profound enough that it can interrupt or blur sound transmissions between whales, leading to communication difficulties, and as a result, whales may be unable to successfully locate other members of their pod, locate food sources, or stay properly oriented on migration routes.

Noise pollution affects the whale’s natural patterns and activities, putting them at risk for being unable to breed or even locate food sources. Due to the sharp increases in industrial ocean activity in recent years, the distance over which whales are able to successfully communicate in the ocean is significantly smaller than ever before. In order to help reduce the impact of noise pollution on whales and other marine life, many scientists and environmentalists have advocated for positive changes such as limiting industrial activity in known whale migration areas or requiring stricter regulations on ocean noise.

Whale Watching with Next Level Sailing

San Diego offers whale watching opportunities all year long. During different seasons, various whale species such as blue whales, grey whales, and humpback whales migrate through the coastal waters as a common feeding ground. Don’t miss out on your chance to encounter nature’s largest and most majestic creatures in their natural habitat. Make a reservation for a whale watching tour with Next Level Sailing today for a whale of a good time and an unforgettable experience!