After it was first recorded in the 1960s, the haunting song of the humpback whale became an environmental rallying cry, a source of scientific curiosity and even a meditation soundtrack. Since then, researchers have found other species of whale that sing, including blue whales, fin whales and minke whales. Now they can officially add another to the list: NOAA recently confirmed that the endangered North Pacific right whale can also carry a tune, though its a little more metal than the songs of its blubbery brethren.
There are three species of the 60-foot-long right whales, all of which were hunted to near extinction in the previous two centuries. While about 15,000 southern right whales (Eubalaena australis) live in the waters of the southern hemisphere and just 400 North Atlantic right whales (Eubalaena glacialis) still swim along the coasts of North America and Europe. Only a few hundred North Pacific right whales (Eubalaena japonica) live off the east coast of Asia, while a population of less than 30 lives in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska.
According to a NOAA press release, researchers had recorded clicks, moans and other unpatterned vocalizations of Southern and North Atlantic right whales, but nothing rhythmic and patterned enough to be considered a song. About a decade ago, however, they got hints that the North Pacific right whale might have pipes.
“During a summer field survey in 2010, we started hearing a weird pattern of sounds,” Jessica Crance of the Marine Mammal Laboratory at NOAA Fisheries’ Alaska Fisheries Science Center says. “We thought it might be a right whale, but we didn’t get visual confirmation. So we started going back through our long-term data from moored acoustic recorders and saw these repeating patterns of gunshot calls. I thought these patterns look like song. We found them again and again, over multiple years and locations, and they have remained remarkably consistent over eight years.”
Dan Joling at the Associated Press reports that it wasn’t until 2017 that the survey heard the song in real time on one of their acoustic buoys. From that song they were able to triangulate the location of the singer, a male right whale, finally confirming that the songs came from the beleaguered species. “It was great to finally get the confirmation when we were out at sea that yes, it is a right whale, and it’s a male that’s singing,” Crance says.
Chances are, no one will be meditating to the sounds of the right whale. A song, at least in whales, is sounds produced in clearly recognizable, rhythmic pattern. In this case, the song sounds like pattern of loud gunshots, not the sinuous, haunting melodies of the humpback. The vocalizations are officially described in the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America.
So why does this species with just 30 individuals sing while other right whale species apparently do not? It’s hard to say. Crance suspects the rarity of the whales has led to the animals becoming more vocal to find mates.
“With only 30 animals, finding a mate must be difficult. Lone male right whales tend to gunshot more frequently than females,” she says. “Perhaps the 2:1 male ratio in the North Pacific has led to our males singing to attract females. But we may never be able to test that or know for sure.”
The next step is to learn more about the songs and whether they vary from individual to individual or from season to season.
Hopefully, the whales will keep singing long enough for us to find out. Beginning in the 1830s, whalers targeted the species because of its large load of blubber and the fact that it floats when killed, all of the which made it the “right” whale to hunt. It’s estimated 80 percent of its population was wiped out in the first two decades of hunting. Hunting of the species was banned in 1937, and the population began to slowing improve until illegal hunting by Soviet whalers between the 1960s and 1990s decimated the population once more.
Now, the hunting pressure is off, but the species faces threats including ship strikes, entanglement in fishing gear, algae blooms and climate change, which could destroy the zooplankton they rely on.