Songs of the East Australian Humpback Whales

The 2008 East Australian Humpback Whale Song. Three whales in close proximity singing in harmony.

The song is constant. We record twenty four hours a day. The song never ceases. The whales create this soundscape, we feel, to give solace to the newborn in the hours of darkness. In the dark of night, in the deep ocean, only the stars and the song bring hope for the dawn.

The Whales are each singing the identical 12 minute cycle, although they have each commenced the cycle at different intervals. So a low frequency pulse may be responded to by a high frequency pulse; also giving them Sonar (Sound and Navigation Ranging) feedback on each other’s position.

We base our cycle timing on the brief crescendo to the high frequency pulse at 06:00 minutes. Note the subtle but definite descent in frequency of each of the passages syncopated by low frequency staccato pulses. Viewed with a spectrogram the low frequency pulses can be seen to be very precise chords of frequencies. These are very clear and consistent characteristics of the Whale Song cycles we have recorded over the past twenty years and the focus of a paper we are working on.

The 06:00 minute pulse when viewed with a spectrogram ascends into the 48kHz range. The human ear is only ‘specified’ to a maximum 24kHz frequency response. The technical specifications for the frequency response of both our stereo hydrophones and our digital recorder are to 96kHz maximum. Thus using the spectrogram software we can see but not hear the syncopation in the upper frequencies.

The song is clearly audible through the hull of the research vessel. Depending on the proximity of the singer, the song is also audible standing on the deck. The sound pressure level of their song is reduced significantly once it passes into the air. Whales speak to each other constantly. The cadence and syncopation of their normal conversations are much different from that of their songs. They often make sounds above water through their blow holes.

Because water is denser than air it is a much better conduit for sound. If a singer is close you can hear him in much the same way standing on the deck as our recordings sound on YouTube. Of course the moment you enter the water, which we don’t because it is illegal and unnecessary, the sound is felt at it’s full sound pressure level, the equivalent of a jack hammer or loud rock concert.

We are working on several papers related to whale language. The term language in relation to Humpback Whales is not yet accepted by the scientific community so we are careful about using it. Although we firmly believe that whales of all species have highly evolved languages.

Three researchers in Hawaii, two computer engineers and a marine biologist, have created a computer application to asses the entropy of whale sounds (loss of energy from a system in this case sound frequency) and have compared them to a range of human languages. They have concluded that Humpback sounds are equivalent to human languages. They used the recordings of Dr. Roger and Katy Payne, made in the 1970s, who were the first scientists to recognize that the unique sounds made by Humpback Whales were in fact conscious, complex evolving songs.

In 1850, the final years of ‘Yankee whaling’, the Captain of a whaling vessel wrote an article entitled ‘A Polar Whale’s Appeal’. This article, which is a first person narrative spoken by a Bowhead Whale, is a plea on behalf of the ‘Whale Nation’ to put an end to the killing of his species. It was published in ‘The Honolulu Friend’ on October 15, 1850. We came across this article in the archives of the New Bedford whaling museum, Massachusetts while conducting research for the establishment of The Oceania Project in 1986.

In behalf of my species, allow an inhabitant of this sea, to make an appeal through your columns to the friends of the whale in general.

A few of the knowing old inhabitants of this sea have recently held a meeting to consult respecting our safety, and in some way or other, if possible, to avert the doom that seems to await all of the whale Genus throughout the world, including the Sperm, Right and Polar whales.

Although our situation and that of our neighbors in the Arctic, is remote from our enemy’s country, yet we have been knowing to the progress of affairs in the Japan and Ochotsk seas, the Atlantic and Indian oceans, and all the other “whaling grounds.”

We have imagined that we were safe in these cold regions; but no; within these last two years a furious attack has been made upon us, an attack more deadly and bloody, than any of our race ever experienced in any part of the world.

I scorn to speak of the cruelty that has been practised by our blood-thirsty enemies, armed with harpoon and lance; no age or sex has been spared. Multitudes of our species (the Polar), have been murdered in “cold” blood.

Our enemies have wondered at our mild and inoffensive conduct; we have heard them cry, “there she blows,” and our hearts have quailed as we saw their glittering steel reflecting the sun beams, and realized that in a few moments our life-blood oozing out, would discolor the briny deep in which we have gambolled for scores of years.

We have never been trained to contend with a race of warriors, who sail in large three-masted vessels, on the sterns of which we have read “New Bedford,” “Sag Harbor,” “New London.” Our battles have hitherto been with simple Indians in their skin canoes. We have heard of the desperate encounters between these whale-killing monsters and our brethren the Right whales on the North-west coast.

Some from that quarter have taken shelter in the quiet bays of our sea, others of the spermaceti species from Japan, have also visited us and reported their battles and disasters; they have told us it is no use to contend with the Nortons, the Tabers, the Coffins, the Coxs, the Smiths, the Halseys, and the other families of whale-killers.

We polar whales are a quiet inoffensive race, desirous of life and peace, but, alas, we fear our doom is sealed; we have heard the threat that in one season more we shall all be “cut up,” and “tried out.” Is there no redress?

I write in behalf of my butchered and dying species. I appeal to the friends of the whole race of whales. Must we all be murdered in cold blood? Must our race become extinct? Will no friends and allies arise and revenge our wrongs? Will our foes be allowed to prey upon us yet another year?

We have heard of the power of the “Press;” pray give these few lines a place in your columns, and let them go forth to the world. I am known among our enemies as the “Bowhead,” but I belong to the Old Greenland family.

In Memory of Jacques Mayol & Homo Delphinus; The Dolphin Within Man;

A very interesting mythological story about whales and dolphins concerns a tribe in west Africa called the Dogon of Mali. The Dogon, whose culture is alive and well today, at one time lived on the southern coast of the Mediterranean. They have many religious and creation beliefs which very much involve the whales and dolphins. They have perpetuated these beliefs in their religious ceremonies and in the form of sand drawings.

In their basket weavings they had 50.8 divisions, the reason for which is that they had quite specific knowledge of the Sirius star system which is a binary star system. They understood how Sirius B, the white dwarf, moved around the main bright star Sirius A. They used sand drawings to illustrate the orbital paths of the stars. The white dwarf Sirius B takes 50.8 years to complete an orbit of Sirius A. The Dogon knew this.

In the 1950’s a British astronomer named Robert Temple was traveling on a plane across the Atlantic. Sitting beside him was Arthur C. Clark. Robert Temple began to tell Arthur C. Clark about the new knowledge of the Sirius star system provided by the advancing technology of radio astronomy.

Sirius B, the white dwarf, is not visible using a telescope whereas radio astronomy allows one to hear Sirius B. Arthur C. Clark simply said to Temple, “You would be interested in the Dogon.” Richard Temple began research on the Dogon and discovered how much knowledge the Dogon had of the Sirius Star System. He then went on to spend seven years of his life with the Dogon and wrote a book called ‘The Sirius Mystery’.

When Temple went to meet the Dogon he asked, “How did you get this knowledge?” The Dogon’s answer was very simple. They said, “These creatures came from the star Sirius landed in the ocean and were in the form of amphibians, whales and dolphins. They gave us the knowledge about the Sirius star system.”

Then Temple asked, “What else did they tell you?” The Dogon replied, “They told us the story of life on Earth.” And their story of life on Earth was as follows: There are three energies on the Planet Earth, Nomo, O Nomo and Ogo the unfinished species. Nomo the small whales or dolphins would be the messengers, announcing the time of the sacrifice. O Nomo, the great whales, the masters of the water, would be sacrificed for the purification and the re-organisation of the planet, allowing completion. That was their story.

Only Sirius A is visible to the human eye. It is in fact the brightest star in the sky. Sirius B is known to us only through listening carefully with a radio telescope. We listen for stars!

This is the song of Migaloo the White Humpback Whale recorded in 1998 during our annual whale research expeditions. ‘Migaloo’ means ‘White Fella’. He was named by Australian Aboriginal Elders.

The song is clearly audible through the hull of the research vessel. Depending on the proximity of the singer, the song is also audible standing on the deck. The sound pressure level of their song is reduced significantly once it passes into the air. Whales speak to each other constantly. The cadence and syncopation of their normal conversations are much different from that of their songs. They often make sounds above water through their blow holes.

Because water is denser than air it is a much better conduit for sound. If a singer is close you can hear him in much the same way standing on the deck as our recordings sound on YouTube. Of course the moment you enter the water, which we don’t because it is illegal and unnecessary, the sound is felt at it’s full sound pressure level, the equivalent of a jack hammer or loud rock concert.

We are working on several papers related to whale language. The term language in relation to Humpback Whales is not yet accepted by the scientific community so we are careful about using it. Although we firmly believe that whales of all species have highly evolved languages.

Three researchers in Hawaii, two computer engineers and a marine biologist, have created a computer application to asses the entropy of whale sounds (loss of energy from a system in this case sound frequency) and have compared them to a range of human languages. They have concluded that Humpback sounds are equivalent to human languages. They used the recordings of Dr. Roger and Katy Payne, made in the 1970s, who were the first scientists to recognize that the unique sounds made by Humpback Whales were in fact conscious, complex evolving songs.

We present to you the voice of Migaloo, the White Whale. We thought it appropriate that Migaloo be granted the opportunity to speak before the meeting of the International Whaling Commission. As speakers are allowed only a few minutes to present their case, we extracted only the most poignant statements from our 1998 recording of Migaloo’s two hour discourse. ‘Migaloo’ means ‘White Fella’. He was named by Australian Aboriginal Elders.

These images are from two encounters we had in 2001. The first was an early morning encounter with a mother and calf while we were still at anchor in Platypus Bay on the the west coast of Fraser Island. The second encounter was later that day with a breaching whale named Sky Rider.

The mother and calf in this video approached us around 7am while we were at anchor in 3 meters of water. Sky Rider had already been constantly breaching when we approached him. We stopped counting after sixty breaches. He was still breaching when we left him. There are many theories as to why whales breach. Personally, we feel that they breach for the pure joy of it. It is the only way they are able to experience gravity in the same way we do.

The song is clearly audible through the hull of the research vessel. Depending on the proximity of the singer, the song is also audible while standing on the deck. The sound pressure level of the song is reduced significantly once it passes into the air. Whales speak to each other constantly. The cadence and syncopation of their normal conversations are much different from that of their songs. They often make sounds above water through their blow holes.

We name the whales mnemonically. We give them a name associated with a bodily marking or personality trait which helps us to remember and quickly recognize them in future encounters.

Sweetheart, the mother, is named after a heart shaped marking she has near her dorsal fin. She is with her new calf Heartthrob who is only a few months old. Calves remain with their mother for about a year. Sweetheart had a calf in 1998 named Heartsong and a calf in 1999 named Heartbeat. The two escorts are also whales that are very well known to us. Their names are Nebo and Demi.

The song is clearly audible through the hull of the research vessel. Depending on the proximity of the singer, the song is also audible while standing on the deck. The sound pressure level of the song is reduced significantly once it passes into the air. Whales speak to each other constantly. The cadence and syncopation of their normal conversations are much different from that of their songs. They often make sounds above water through their blow holes.

Megaptera novaeangliae is the Latin name for Humpback Whale. It means ‘The Great Winged Whale of New England’. New England is where the whalers first began hunting Humpback Whales over 200 years ago.

My Auntie is a whale we encountered for the first time during our 1994 research expedition.

She is with young males and is demonstrating typical courting behavior. Tail slapping is a normal interaction between a female and the males accompanying her in what is known as a ‘competitive group’. We have documented the appearance of five of My Auntie’s calves since 1994. We suspected that she was about to conceive after this episode of courtship in 2001.

She returned in 2002 and nudged her newborn calf delicately toward the research vessel. Females are larger and more powerful than males and seem to direct and organize the social structure within the population

This is the trailer for Angels of the Sea, a feature documentary on The Oceania Project, broadcast nationally by The Seven Network Australia.

This film was produced in 1994 from footage taken aboard ‘Our Svanan’, one of the square-rigged ships which Trish and Wally chartered during the first five years of their whale research expeditions.

In 1983, Trish and Wally were invited to be the Project Managers of an Australian Bicentennial Project called ‘The First Fleet Re-enactment Voyage’.

Trish and Wally’s involvement in the ‘The First Fleet’ (between 1983 and 1988) gave them a deeper understanding of the role of the sailing ship during the history of commercial whaling as well as the role of ship technology in the perpetration of the near genocide of the whale nation.

Established in 1988, The Oceania Project is an independent, non-profit research organization dedicated to the conservation and protection of whales, dolphins and the oceans.
The first phase of a long-term study of the East Australian Humpback Whales has been the major work of The Oceania Project.

From an original population of over 60,000, the East Australian Humpback Whales were hunted to the brink of extinction. They were saved only by the collapse of the whaling industry when less than 100 whales remained.

In what can be appreciated as a wonderful symbol of an enlightened human desire to restore balance to this fragile planet after centuries of ignorant exploitation, the East Australian Humpback Whales have been allowed to recover to an estimated population of over 10,000.

When ecosystems across the planet are collapsing and species are becoming extinct at an accelerating rate, the East Australian Humpback Whales are making a remarkable recovery.

They have become Australia’s national treasure and a symbol of hope for our imperiled environment.

http://www.oceania.org.au/expedition/expedition.html