A humpback whale in the singing position.
Whales are very social creatures that travel in groups called “pods.” They use a variety of noises to communicate and socialize with each other. The three main types of sounds made by whales are clicks, whistles, and pulsed calls.
Clicks are believed to be for navigation and identifying physical surroundings. When the sound waves bounce off of an object, they return to the whale, allowing the whale to identify the shape of the object. Clicks can even help to differentiate between friendly creatures and predators. Clicks have also been observed during social interactions, suggesting they may also have a communicative function.
Whistles and pulsed calls are used during social activities. Pulsed calls are more frequent and sound like squeaks, screams, and squawks to the human ear. Differing vocal “dialects” have been found to exist between different pods within the same whale population. This is most likely so that whales can differentiate between whales within their pods and strangers.
Whales also use their tails and fins to make loud slapping noises on the surface of the water to communicate nonverbally. The sound can be heard for hundreds of meters below the surface and may be a warning sign of aggression or a tool to scare schools of fish together, making them an easier meal.
In the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, NOAA scientists attached sensors to whales in order to track their movement patterns. They hope to learn about the whales’ behavior and communication as well as to observe how human interaction affects their behavior.