Local Conversations or Long Distance Calls?  New discoveries are uncovering secrets of Humpback Whale Communication!

Humpback whales are one of our favourite cetaceans to see in the waters around the Victoria coastline.  Famous for their haunting underwater mating songs, these magnificent marine mammals are also known for their incredible surface acrobatics.  Here in the Pacific Northwest they migrate along the coastline from their winter feeding grounds in Northern British Columbia and Alaska to the warmer waters of Mexico and Hawaii to breed.

The humpback whale is scientifically described as Megaptera novaeangliae, the genus referring to the big wings of its giant ‘pectoral’ flippers. These exceptionally long ‘wings’ can be over a third the length of the whale’s huge body, and provide for some incredible acrobatic behaviours.

Launching themselves from below the waves they perform full body breaches, surging out of the water quite often with a twirl or twist, before landing with a huge splash. Their long white knobbly edged flippers slapping the water surface is a common antic as is the amazing spectacle of huge tail flukes crashing onto the ocean.  A new study is now showing how these tremendous sights could be the key to how humpback whales communicate with each other.

humpback whale communication
Humpback Full Body Breach
humpback whale tail lobbing, Victoria BC
Humpback Whale Tail Lobbing

Over the years, researchers have suggested several theories for these complex surface antics – from displays of aggression to courtship signals or purely for play.  A group of Australian scientists recently investigated what is the actual purpose of these dramatic displays, and what these whales may be saying to each other.

By studying over 90 different groups they found that humpback whales use different sounds depending on the range of their nearest neighbours.  In effect, the equivalent of local and long distance calling!

humpback whale calf breaching, Victoria BC
Humpback Whale Calf Breaching
humpback whale, victoria bc
Humpback Whale Tail Flukes

The body-slapping sound of these giants breaching can be heard over very long distances, indicating that these displays may be used to communicate between groups far away from each other. The researchers found this was indeed the case, as this breaching behaviour was seen most often when the nearest neighbouring group of whales was over 4km away, suggesting they were communicating with this distant group.

In contrast, tail and fin slapping occurred when individual whales were joining each other, or, when a group was going its separate ways. This activity was very common among a younger generation of whales, perhaps jostling for social status among their peers!

Humpback whales migrate for long distances without eating so the significance of these highly energetic behaviours, commonly seen during these periods of fasting, is fascinating scientists.  These new insights into humpback whale communication certainly gives us a wonderful perspective into these magnificent animals, and to just who they might be calling when we see these amazing behaviours out on the water!  Check out this awesome video from one of our Captains of a Humpback Whale tail slapping!

Source: New Scientist ‘Whales talk to each other by slapping out messages on the water.’ Dec 2 2016