One of the world’s leading researchers of whale song and how it relates to whale behavior, Dr. Jim Darling is a special kind of recording artist. Using a hydrophone, along with his trained eye and the powers of observation as whales move throughout their day, he is on a quest to discover one of the great mysteries: what exactly is the function of whale song?
Researchers don’t know the answer to that question–not even Darling, who’s struggled to crack the code for decades. However, he and his Whale Trust Maui colleagues are slowly, but surely, gathering pieces of the puzzle that are telling them more about what those functions are–and are not. As it is with science, the quest for answers often leads to more questions and a deeper mystery to explore. For the curious scientist, obsessed with solving the puzzle, humpback whales have proven to be the ultimate subject.
Every year like clockwork, thousands of humpback whales migrate across the Pacific from their summer feeding grounds off Alaska to spend the winter in their native home of Hawaii. Their homeland is called the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, a 1,400 square mile area of ocean that is located among all of the main islands. Considered one of the world’s most important whale breeding habitats, this is the only place where humpbacks reproduce in the United States. It is the perfect natural laboratory for research scientists like Darling.
Whales have fascinated and intrigued people and scientists alike for as long as we can remember. With their awe-inspiring intelligence, their long, complex songs, acrobatic behaviors, and preference for nearshore, shallow waters, humpbacks may be the most accessible and popular of the 90 or so cetacean species known to exist today.
On the verge of extinction just 50 years ago, humpbacks have made a resilient recovery. Indeed, today more than 10,000 humpbacks (or about half of the North Pacific population) are thought to migrate to the waters around Hawaii for the purposes of mating and calving. Here off Maui, one of the most concentrated areas in Hawaii to see humpbacks due to our shallow, leeward waters, you can see young calves learning from their moms, males fighting each other for females (and perhaps even cooperating), males chasing females while other males actively guard and keep other males at bay, whales waving their pectoral fins, slapping their tails, and jumping entirely out of the water.
Rivers of Sound
Diving into the ocean on Maui during the winter time, you can hear a cacophony of squeals, whistles, moans, and groans that can only be one thing–the luring songs of humpback whales. If you are close to a singing whale, it is about as loud as a home stereo turned up full blast. Literally, the sounds vibrate through your body, and it becomes debatable which of your senses is more attuned, the sounds you hear or the sounds you feel.
Only males sing songs–females make sounds but don’t organize them in this hierarchical way researchers describe as “song.” These songs are a predominant characteristic in the breeding grounds of humpback whales, but they also sing along their migration routes, and even begin singing in higher latitude feeding grounds in the fall. Based on Whale Trust research, we know that, at least in Hawaii, male singers attract other males, not females. This may be the most surprising thing the Whale Trust team has found in the last 20 years. Why would males sing songs during the breeding season if not to attract females? They’ve been trying to figure that out ever since.
One of the most amazing attributes of the song is that humpback whales separated by thousands of miles–across the entire North Pacific Ocean–sing essentially the same version of the song at any given time. Yet, the song is constantly changing. This feat has long puzzled scientists like Darling, who’s spent the last 30 years trying to uncover the mystery of these complex songs.
One thing is certain: learning about whale song–and being able to hear it–has shifted the world’s feelings about whales. In 1967, researchers Roger Payne and Scott McVay published that humpback whales produce sounds in long, predictable patterns. This ignited the imaginations of the public and led to a global protest against commercial whaling, arguably leading to the “save the whales movement.” In 1970, Payne released a vinyl album, Songs of the Humpback Whale, which became the bestselling natural history recording of all time. In 1979, National Geographic included the recording in their magazine, and people became enthralled to learn that whales could compose and sing songs.
This deeper understanding of whales and the growing public awareness of their behaviors and songs is the core mission of Whale Trust, the Maui-based organization that Darling co-founded. Founded in 2001, Whale Trust Maui is one of Hawaii’s leading research organizations dedicated to learning as much as possible about whales, and sharing that information with the world.
Whale Trust Maui co-founder and executive director Meagan Jones says the organization and her partners–the underwater photographer Flip Nicklin and Jim Darling–because “we share a passion and commitment not only to better understand whales, but to use what we were learning about these amazing animals to inspire others to care about our natural world, and in particular our oceans.”
Darling first became curious about whales as a surfer off of Vancouver Island. He noticed whales in the lineup and became curious as to what was known. He soon found out that there was very little known, and ended up going back to school to get his biology degree. He couldn’t have fallen into better hands. In fact, Roger Payne became his advisor. Eventually, Payne sent Darling to Maui to record whale songs for him in the mid-1970s, and the rest is history.
“My interest sparked in 1979 in Maui, when we found we could actually locate a singer and watch it underwater,” Darling said. “Prior to that, I did not realize that kind of close observation could be possible–and we realized then there was a lot to be learned.”
It was the gender, behavior and interactions of the singers that were of first interest. It was not until Darling and his colleagues studied the interactions of singers for several years that it became clear the song itself needed to be investigated if they were going to understand its function.
When Darling was working on his doctorate, he saw an example of another male joining a singer he was recording. This observation was contrary to everything that had been written or understood by scientists. Everyone assumed that male singers were singing to attract females, but he had this one example showing the exact opposite. A sample size of one doesn’t mean anything to a scientist, but it struck him.
Was that lone observation a clue that could lead to a new discovery? He returned to Maui in 1996 to answer this question and hasn’t stopped studying it–this question of why humpback whales sing has captivated him ever since.
With the help of advanced underwater recording technology, Darling and his colleagues have been able to make new discoveries that were once impossible. Worldwide, researchers’ efforts have been aided spectacularly by the development of remotely deployed hydrophones with huge memory storage–so they can operate/record for months at a time, and at times of year and in locations not amenable to humans.
“It is primarily through remote hydrophones that we learned singing starts in feeding grounds in fall and ends in the feeding grounds in spring–rather than just a breeding ground occurrence,” said Darling.
In recent years, Darling and his colleagues in the Philippines, Japan, and Mexico have been working together to record whale songs systematically and concurrently over the course of three years to look for similarities and differences in the song across known breeding and calving grounds in the North Pacific Ocean basin. It’s quite an effort requiring much coordination and collaboration, and most of the research was funded by Whale Trust Maui.
“This work is entirely dependent on collaboration with local researchers in each of the areas,” Darling said. “Fortunately we have great colleagues in each of these areas and they have successfully collected the song samples we need.”
Their research is focused on looking at humpback songs from different regions in the North Pacific Basin to see if there was any clear pattern in the similarities and differences found in song across breeding grounds, and if geographical proximity explained those differences. Did whales in Japan and the Philippines have more similar songs than those recorded in Hawaii and Mexico? Hawaii is three to four times further away than the Asian locations are from each other. How did that impact the composition of the song?
“If one records the song in say Hawaii, Philippines and Japan in any one winter you would find that the song in all the locations is very similar–although not necessarily 100 percent identical,” Darling said. “One of the characteristics of the song is that it slowly changes as it’s being sung, yet all the singers in a population sing essentially the same version at any one time. We do not know how they do this but it’s presumed the whales listen to each other and all incorporate any changes.”
The fact that the song from these different–and widely separated–breeding grounds is markedly similar means that the populations mix in some way, at some time, in their annual cycles to maintain a common song. How or why they do this, Darling and his colleagues do not yet know.
“The recording is the easy part–it’s the analysis of the songs, including the identification of components and comparison from one population to the next that takes a lot time,” Darling said.
Initial results confirmed that overall, the humpback whale song is remarkably similar between regions separated by thousands of miles and suggests that the agent of change is likely due to the mixing of whales during the migration or perhaps even on feeding grounds. The differences detected in songs may be due to the temporary isolation of winter breeding assemblies. But the forces behind the continual song changes, and the purpose of this change in the song, remained unclear. This will be the fuel that takes Jim Darling and the Whale Trust Team into the next unfolding mystery.
“When he is on the water, Jim doesn’t like to talk,” Meagan Jones said. “He likes to listen. What are the whales telling him? What are they communicating? Why are they doing this? Why does the song need to be so complex? These are the questions that keep him up at night and keep him coming back year after year.”
The Wonders of Whales-Whale Tales 2016
Scientists are literally just breaking the surface into understanding whale behavior. There is so much they don’t yet know, and ultimately that might be the biggest threat the whales face going forward. Perhaps the greatest threat to humpback whales (and all wildlife) is our lack of understanding of their ecological and social requirements–what these animals really need to stay alive and healthy, in an ever-changing world.
Each year, as a part of its mission to communicate what scientists currently know about whales, Whale Trust Maui hosts Whale Tales, an educational event that was created to help encourage understanding and the sharing of the newest findings in whale research. At this year’s Whale Tales, held over President’s Day weekend at The Ritz-Carlton Kapalua, world-renowned whale experts from around the world will convene to address their latest challenges, newest findings, and share about some of the new tools that scientists are using to try to stay ahead of the curve.
All the presentations are open to the public. In addition to educating the public, the event raises funds to support further whale research in Hawai’i. Now in it’s 10th year, Whale Tales is expected to exceed a cumulative $500,000 raised for research in Maui.
Darling will present his latest talk, titled “Humpback Songs Across the Pacific,” at Whale Tales on Saturday, Feb. 13, and he’s expected to share the latest analysis of the trans-Pacific research he’s been doing on whale song and behavior. Will he be able to crack the code? Whale enthusiasts following his fascinating work with whale song can’t wait to find out.
WHALE TALES 2016 SCHEDULE
(All events take place at the Ritz-Carlton Kapalua)
Thursday, Feb. 11
4-6pm: Benefit Whale Watch
Friday, Feb. 12
7:30am-12pm: Benefit Whale Watches
12:30pm-5:30pm: Education and Art Expo, Ritz-Carlton Kapalua
2-5:30pm: Presentations and Book Signing with Chuck Nicklin, Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua
Saturday, Feb. 13
7:30 am-12:30pm: Benefit Whale Watches
12-5pm: Education and Art Expo, Ritz-Carlton Kapalua
12-12:30pm: Special Series: Films from the Field presented by Hawaii Whale Research Foundation
1-5pm: Presentations, Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua
Sunday, Feb. 14
7:30am-12pm: Benefit Whale Watches
12-5pm: Education and Art Expo, Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua
1-5pm: Presentations, Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua
3:30pm: Maui Premiere of Humpback Whales Presented by MacGillivray Freeman Films at The Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua, Followed by Q and A (Suggested $10 donation)
Monday, February 15
7:30am-6:30pm: Benefit Whale Watches
(Organizers suggest a $20 attendance donation for the Presentations)
Cover design: Darris Hurst