Subject: whale navigation

Phil Clapham (
Thu, 14 Jan 1999 06:27:34 -0500

Hi Fabriano:

Good question.  We don't know for sure how humpbacks find their way back
to those little islands, which really are a small spot in the middle of
a large ocean.  The best possibility is  that they might use what's
called biomagnetic navigation.  Lots of animals and birds can sense the
Earth's magnetic field and use it like a map.  The field strength varies
a lot from place to place, rather like our landscape does around us -
there are highs and lows in magnetic strength just like there are hills
and valleys in the landscape.  We know that tuna, pigeons, starlings and
all kinds of other critters use biomagnetic navigation, so it's quite
possible that whales do as well.  A substance called biomagnetite -
which is what you need to be able to do this - has been found in the
brains of humpback whales.

Whales may also use other means of navigation as well.  Blue whales make
very, very loud sounds at low frequency that can travel literally
hundreds of miles in deep water.  Dr Chris Clark at Cornell University
thinks that blues may use these sounds to echolocate off islands or
other prominent underwater features - they bounce the sound off the
island or seamount from a long way away and when the returning echo
comes back they know which direction to go in to get to this landmark. 
Not proven, but an interesting idea!

I don't think we'll be able to communicate meaningfully with whales,
much as I love them.  There's an outside chance we might develop some
system of symbols to communicate with dolphins (rather like has been
accomplished with gorillas/chimpanzees and sign language), but it's a
bit of a long shot.

Phil Clapham

Kris Angelo wrote:
> Hi my name is Fabriano Angelo and I go to Hillview Middle School in
> Menlo Park CA. I am doing a big science report on Whales and I have a
> few questions for you to answer.
>     How do the Humpback Whales find their way back to Hawaii every year
> ; it's only a few little islands?
>     Do you think in the future that we will be able to communicate with
> whales, if so when?
> If you could answer these questions of mine that would be great. Thanks!


Phillip J. Clapham, Ph.D.
Northeast Fisheries Science Center
166 Water Street
Woods Hole, MA 02543

tel (508) 495-2316
fax (508) 495-2066