Subject: Whale Sounds Links

Phillip Colla (
Tue, 08 Jun 1999 16:19:32 -0700

>We found out about Whalenet from a friend. Weare doing a project on whales
>and how they produce sound. We were wondering if you could send us
>information as to how whales:
>1) How whales produce sound
>2) Why whales produce sound..
>3) What special features whales have that enable it to hear better?
>4) Anything else pertaining to the sounds that whales make.

Acoustics is a HUGE area of cetacean study, so your question is too broad
for me to answer by email.  Also, people with greater expertise than I
have have already answered these questions on the web in some detail.
So I will direct you to some sites that will begin to address your questions.

For starters, there are two broad categories of whales: odontocetes (with
teeth, such as dolphins, porpoises, orcas and sperm whales) and
mysticetes (with baleen, such as humpbacks, blues, fins and gray whales).
Both types of whales produce sound, although in different manners and
almost certainly for different purposes, although some purposes (mating,
socialization, ???) may be common to both types of whales.  Captive whale
sound studies have been performed almost exclusively on odontocetes --
consider how many captive orca and dolphins there are -- while field
studies have been performed on odontocetes as well as mysticetes.
In some cases, recordings of whale sounds have been played back in the
wild, with interesting results.

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 headand body. Echolocation, the
sonar-like sounds, can be used both tolocate prey and nearby objects and to
notify other animals that thesound-making animal is present. Echolocation
is very similar to sonarused by submarines and navy ships, and it can be
quite loud althoughnot as loud as a ship or submarine's sonar.Other
"acoustical" sounds, similar to our humming, grunting and whistling, are
probably used for socialand 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 tovocal chords). One
example of mysticete vocalization that is almostcertainly "communication"
or "talking" is the humpback whale's song.I have been near singing whales
and it is so loud my swim finsvibrate. Researchers have long knownabout
humpback songs and strongly suspect that singing is associatedwith mating,
courtship or some other socialization among humpback whales.I have also
heard gray whales making noises, although in that case itwas a mother gray,
perhaps communicating to its calf in order to keepit from wandering off in
murky California water.

When you do a literature or web search for information about whale
sounds, remember to split your search into two parts (odontocetes
versus mysticetes) since research is typically split along those lines.
Also, some species have been the focus of much research, so besides
searching for "whale sounds" also search for specific research conducted
on the acoustics of orca, beluga, humpback
(lots of research for this species, due to its "song"), blue and
fin whales (the Navy has recorded very low frequency sounds along
the east Coast and has thus been able to roughly track animal movements).

There have been literally thousands of papers and dissertations written
around the world about whale acoustics.  Consider referring to Marine
Mammal Science or other scholarly journals for the most authoritative,
although sometimes overwhelming, information.

Whalenet has a set of links for sites about whale sounds:

Here are some VERY INFORMATIVE past Whalenet communications about
whale sounds, I suggest that you look through them all:

Best regards,

Phillip Colla
Research Associate: