Subject: Whale talking and communicating

Phil Colla (
Tue, 17 Feb 1998 14:48:05 -0800

>How do whales talk?

An odontocete (toothed whales and dolphins) can make noise two ways:
1) through sonar-like sounds created with organs in its head (melon),
and 2) by passing air through air chambers within its head
and body.  Echolocation, the sonar-like sounds, can be used both to
locate prey and nearby objects and to notify other animals that the
sound-making animal is present.  Echolocation is very similar to sonar
used by submarines and navy ships, and it can be quite loud although
not as loud as a ship or submarine's sonar.
Other "acoustical" sounds, similar
to our humming, grunting and whistling, are probably used for social
and communicative purposes rather than for location of prey/other animals.

A mysticete (baleen whale) does not possess echolocation abilities,
as far as we know.  But they still make plenty of "acoustical" noise
(passing air among chambers and perhaps vibrating organs similar to
vocal chords).  One example of mysticete vocalization that is almost
certainly "communication" or "talking" is the humpback whale's song.
I have been near singing whales and it is so loud my swim fins
vibrate.  Researchers have long known
about humpback songs and strongly suspect that singing is associated
with mating, courtship or some other socialization among humpback whales.
I have also heard gray whales making noises, although in that case it
was a mother gray, perhaps communicating to its calf in order to keep
it from wandering off in murky California water.

Phil Colla

Phil Colla,
Humpback Whales: