Maui loves the Pacific Whale Foundation’s Whale Day—and has for 31 years and counting. To celebrate the denizens of the deep—specifically the humpback whales who bask in our Hawaiian winter—Valley Islanders show up in droves for weeks worth of activities that culminate with a morning parade and day-long festivities including art, entertainment, an expansive farmers’ market and a litany of booths supporting Maui non-profits. (This year it all happens Saturday, February 19, 9am-6pm.)
Sure, the Whale Day itself is packed with entertainment—and whales themselves entertain us—but the mysterious whale song warrants attention, too, from whale- and music-lovers alike.
To the human ear, the whale song is a strange, melancholy moan—like a bow drawn long and low across cello strings, spotted with clicks. In the peak of the season, submerge yourself in the Pacific and you can hear the Hawaiian humpbacks’ song with the naked ear. Drop a hydrophone in the water and it’s like a medieval cathedral, organ pipes churning an otherworldly concerto.
But why and how do humpbacks sing? We chatted with Greg Kauffman, chief scientist and founder of the Pacific Whale Foundation, who explained some of the science behind whale song.
“As for the anatomy? That’s the great mystery—we don’t really know,” says Kauffman. He explains that humpbacks don’t have vocal chords, and that they don’t emit air when vocalizing. The prevailing idea is that sound is generated in sacs between the tracchia and lungs, sort of an internal bagpipe. While people can detect humpback whale songs upwards of 10 miles underwater, there’s no way of knowing how far away whales can perceive them.
Only male humpback whales sing—and only during mating season, presumably to establish their strength and worthiness as a mate. Their song is extremely complex—in fact, some scientists contend it may be the most complex vocalization in the animal kingdom.
Fascinatingly, every male in a breeding ground sings the same song, and that song develops as the breeding season progresses. Further, Hawaii is the epicenter of all songs sung in the surrounding breeding grounds. Kauffman explains this is because the largest concentration of North Pacific humpbacks inhabit Hawaiian waters during the breeding season. At the same time, whales are promiscuous and males will travel where there’s, um, tail. So while female humpbacks tend to return to the same breeding ground, once it’s been established as successful for that individual, males are known to roam—thus the transference of song patterns.
“Simply put, their songs are comprised of notes, and those notes comprise phrases,” says Kauffman. “For example, if a series of notes were expressed as ‘A, A, B’—and those notes are repeated in a phrase, ‘A, A, B; A, A, B’ and so forth—the song might develop to ‘A, A, C; A, A, C.’ But, once the song has changed, they never repeat a previous pattern.”
The hottest item in whale-song research right now is the idea of cohorts. Kauffman explains that males appear to be singing and attracting other whales, perhaps as a way to showcase themselves comparatively. When Kauffman started studying whales in the ’70s, he says cohorts were not observed—likely because the whale population had hit an all-time low. Now that humpback populations are recovering, their behavior is changing—and, excitingly, expanding.