Many people,without ever having witnessed in person, can imagine the song of the humpback whale in their heads. Famous for their haunting melodies and resonating calls that repeat predictably in patterns (that then grow and evolve), people consider their songs comforting and mysterious. What are they saying? Why do whales sing?
For many, the simple answer is that the male baleen whales are singing to attract mates. Because it is the males, the traveling rhapsode of the marine world, who roam the seas and sing out to the females who wait and are supposedly wooed by the best song. But is the simplest answer the right answer? What even constitutes the best song?
It’s impossible to know for sure, but some scientists have begun to speculate that there may be other reasons to sing. And what I believe is even more fascinating, scientists have been able to distinguish between populations of whales that live in different areas of the world’s ocean-by the characteristics of their songs.
Not many species are known to sing. We are one of the lucky ones-and we do it for more than one reason. We sing for joy, we sing for boredom, we sing for making friends, and wooing. We sing songs we’ve learned and we teach songs that we know. Our singing is something that signals our communal voice and shared history-much the same way we believe humpback whales sing as well. Moreso, humpback whales sing to “see” their underwater world, using the bouncing sound waves to feel out their world before they can lay eyes on it. This may be more incentive to learn the songs of the local whales-the better to “see” them with their own echoes.
Humpback whales have proven that they can learn phrases and aspects of songs from different communities, and share them with their own. Why do they do this? There is no answer yet. But, and I’m quoting this TED talk i’m linking below, “This is one of the fastest examples of cultural transmission- where learned behaviors are passed between unrelated individuals of the same species. ” Essentially, whale songs are the ocean internet-passing new songs from one group to the next remarkably quickly.
Check this wonderful TED talk below.
More whale songs to freak your cats out:
People may never know why Humpback Whales sing. It may be a gift greater than we are privileged to learn- why certain animals communicate the way that they do between themselves. With the amount of noise pollution and physical pollution we produce into the oceans, we are literally drowning out their songs so that they cannot see or hear each other. Perhaps we will never prove worthy.
But perhaps we don’t really know why humans sing either. IT doesn’t feed us or find us shelter or keep us warm, in the direct sense. Sometimes, it is just what our heart tells us to do.
And I know that this day, and this weekend, I’ll be singing happy birthday to my best friend, Samantha, because she has filled my heart with joy, my life with love, and has helped me to see the world in new and better ways. Happy Birthday Sammy-