Humpback Whales: Masters of Sound and Show

Whales, along with dolphins and porpoises, are very social animals, with some living in pods, or a group of whales, for their whole lives. One of the most well-known whales is the humpback whale, or Megaptera novaeangliae, or literally “New England big wing”, known for its complex songs and large flippers. Here is a little context on these whales. Humpbacks, like most mysticetes, or baleen whales, do not live in pods for extended periods of time. However, they do form pods when traveling to and from their winter breeding grounds. These whales are known to be very curious creatures, making them excellent for whale-watching; this often makes them change their communication patterns in different, even bizarre ways. Humpbacks use a foraging strategy that is exclusive to their species known as bubble-netting, where they use bubbles to concentrate their prey into a position that is convenient for feeding. Among whales, humpbacks have one of the most complex communication capabilities, as well as the most diverse behavior, in the animal kingdom. I will be discussing their songs, a type of sound known as megapclicks, their pod and surfacing behavior, bubble netting, and their innate curiosity.

Humpback whales are most well-known for their songs, but they also have a large repertoire of other sounds, including moans and grunts. A song is, in the biological sense, nothing more than a string of sounds that are produced in a repetitive fashion. The songs humpbacks sing are, in my honest opinion, better than any song that is played on the radio today. Humpbacks use these songs during the mating season, but the exact purpose of these songs is unknown, as is true with much of the behaviors that humpbacks use. We do know that whales will change the structure and composition of their songs due to coming in contact with other pods. We also know that humpbacks will shorten their songs in the presence of ships; however, we are not sure why they do this. It does make studying their songs really hard to do, since we usually need to use ships to study their songs at all.

Among the humpback whales’ immense collection of sounds is a sound known as a megapclick, a clicking sound named after the scientific name of the humpback, Megaptera novaeangliae. Megapclicks are used during nighttime foraging. These sounds were just discovered recently, so we still do not know the purpose of these sounds. We do know that these sounds are somewhat rare, only being heard twice throughout the continual study process. Some people, including myself, believe that it may be a form of echolocation, similar to what odontocetes, or toothed whales use.

Humpback breaching image

As mentioned previously, humpbacks rarely form long-standing pods. That does not mean that they do not exist. When in pods, these whales will perform in behaviors that are generally well-known, including breaching, in which at least 40% of the whale clears the water’s surface. They communicate through a set of behaviors known universally as surfacing behaviors, many of which, including breaching, are well known. We do not know why humpbacks, or any whale for that matter, will perform most forms of surfacing behavior; we just know that they will use these behaviors when they are in groups. Some scientists, and many people, believe that it is just their way of having fun.

Bubble net image

Bubble-netting is another humpback exclusive behavior. Humpbacks will swim below a school of fish and, as they rise, blow bubbles by producing sounds, corralling the fish into a concentrated area. These bubbles scare the fish into the correct position to maximize the amount of fish caught in one lunge. Some humpbacks prefer to use true bubble nets, where they produce bubbles that form spirals going around in a circle, or bubble clouds, which are collections of small seltzer-like bubbles meant to stun or disorient fish. When multiple humpbacks forage together, this foraging technique becomes much more efficient, as the whales will take turns “casting the nets,” as it were, so everyone gets the chance to eat fish. It is unclear how the whales thought of this unique strategy, but it is clear that it works.

Humpback whales are the most curious of all whales, often approaching ships by themselves. During the days of commercial whaling, this often led humpbacks to their death, earning them the title, “the stupidest of all the whales”. These whales are very unique in that they will act very differently when they are around people than when they are by themselves, which makes direct observations on their behavior nearly impossible. These whales, like dolphins, are highly intelligent, so they may just by trying to mess with the heads of the scientists trying to study them.

Humpbacks are very vocal and expressive creatures, traveling the world’s oceans. On the international scale, these majestic animals are endangered, or at risk of dying out forever. These whales need our protection if they are to survive for future generations to enjoy. If you want to see these majestic creatures yourself, you can easily see them by going whale-watching in the summer and fall, and all you need is a good pair of binoculars and a camera.

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