Southbound humpback whales sing-a-long on Gold Coast

I’d never heard anything like it. Monolithic sounds blasted and bubbled between silent spaces. Slow rhythms and themes, notes like obsidian ocean swells and the heart swallowing troughs between.

The minute-long song moved me. It started with gum-leaf squeaks followed by whale oinks that sounded like the “tut tut” of a boarding house master. Then it finished with firework-like vocalisations – the notes accelerating brilliantly through the heavy blue deeps.

A very beautiful whale song.

One of the songs that is being covered by new artists every day during this year’s humpback whale migration.

On a cold clear morning in August I parked at the Burleigh Heads carpark looking for a wave. Four humpback whales were breaching a short distance out in the sparkling lake-like conditions. I went for a dip so I could hear the whales sing. I exhaled and sank to the sandy bottom, immersed in crystal blue water and whale song.

Some whales have already started the return leg of their migration from the Great Barrier Reef back to the Antarctic a few weeks earlier than last year.

Male humpbacks escort the females with their new calves, protecting them from other male suitors. Many of the females are on heat. It’s not all sweet music and serenading as the males have to physically fend off the competition so they can mate on the way back to the icebergs.

I’d never heard a whale song in its entirety until recently via an emailed MP3.

Occasionally on calm days I’d heard the vocalisations of whales on the Gold Coast, but I never knew that it was just the males that sang. I never knew the big girls don’t whistle tunes underwater; they make vocalisations but they don’t sing actual songs.

I never knew that the male vocalisations were actually like musical compositions that every male of the population sang. And I never knew that if the boys’ tunes were catchy enough, then other male whales would hum along, until the song spread from here to French Polynesia.

Male humpback whales have a highly stereotyped, repetitive, and progressively evolving vocal sexual display or “song” that functions in sexual selection (through mate attraction and/or male social sorting). All males within a population conform to the current version of the display (song type)… multiple song types spread rapidly and repeatedly in a unidirectional manner, like cultural ripples, eastward through the populations in the western and central South Pacific

the science magazine Current Biology reported.

It’s like a pop playlist. Each year, two to four humpback whale song types are identified across the South Pacific. These first appear in the eastern Australian population, presumably because this is where it’s at in the whale music scene.

At least 11 distinctly different styles have made the whale charts over the last decade.

These tunes about love and mating get shared among all the male whales listening. Each song travels tens of kilometers. Then once they’ve got all their fins slapping to the beat here, the tunes spread thousands of kilometers across populations to the east that do the annual migration in parallel – New Caledonia, Tonga, American Samoa, Cook Islands and French Polynesia in the middle of the Pacific.

This time of year humpback whales turn back to the Antarctic hungry for a whale-size gutful of krill, which becomes so abundant in the Antarctic summer the total weight of krill exceeds that of all human life. This Youtube by BBC Earth describes the incredible food richness of the Southern Ocean.

All those mysterious tenors and baritone denizens, those Keith Urbans, those rotund Pavarottis, those krill-craving Guy Sebastians are swimming south from their respective breeding grounds with the females and calves, singing along with each other, breaching, and mating as they go.

Much is yet to learn about how the cultural transmission occurs, but thanks to researchers like Ellen Garland and organisations like the South Pacific Whale Research Consortium (SPWRC) we know that as the East Coasters and the New Caledonians share the same route past New Zealand, some of this year’s icy hits may potentially have been shared there.

The story of Ellen’s humpback song research had made the cover of a magazine put out by the University of Queensland. A quick reception room read and a Google search helped me find her contact details. It was more than a month later that she returned my email. She is often on fieldwork and can’t check her emails regularly.

The eastern Australian whales have a shared migration route past New Zealand with the New Caledonian (and to some extent the Tongan) populations. This may allow the sharing of song among populations,


They migrate north to their respective breeding grounds to mate and give birth. Occasionally individuals switch which breeding ground they go to. Most will return to the same location/population each year.

Ellen Garland is now doing research on the vocalisations of beluga whales in the cold waters around Seattle in the US, working at the National Marine Mammal Laboratory in the Alaska Fisheries Science Center (NOAA). She is a former University of Queensland PhD student, who mapped humpback whale songs from the Barrier Reef to French Polynesia.

She classified the song that I described above as belonging to the “Blue Song” type of humpback tunes. It was really popular here way back in 2002, (around the time Nickelback, Eninem and Usher were big) but the Blue Song gradually moved east and now a version of it is really popular in French Polynesia. The whales here on the Gold Coast these days are singing the much more modern “Green Song” type.

With underwater microphones she, in collaboration with SPWRC, recorded a rapid transfer of culture across great distance that she says has “no parallel except with human culture”.

The songs stay close to the original with some slight variations. The humpbacks try to stand out from the other boys to impress the girls – it could be compared to singing covers on reality shows like ‘The Voice’. (Seal could even be the judge). Either the male whales are serenading the females or they are competing with other males.

Whatever way we try to make sense of these amazing aspects of whale culture by creating glib associations with our own ideas about music, the findings of Garland et al describe a cultural phenomenon. Her “Dynamic Horizontal Cultural Transmission of Humpback Whale Song at the Ocean Basin Scale” research was published in Current Biology.

Garland says, “The cultural change can be evolutionary or revolutionary”, but what does this tell us about whale culture? Do they have their hits of the sixties, the seventies and god-forbid the eighties.

What Garland wants to find out next is which whales actually compose the songs or initiate the song changes and “how they rapidly learn changes to such a complex display”.

The whales travel through underwater corridors following currents. Earlier this year the Australian east coast songsters traveled in the north running currents to the Barrier Reef alongside the continental shelf. But now they are returning south in currents running closer to the Gold Coast shore.

For Gold Coasters this means an added visual spectacle as the male humpbacks protect their females and calves from other males. They breach, charge and fin slap to defend the women that they have won along the journey.

For surfers or anyone who cares to put their head underwater to listen, it means an added cultural and auditory spectacle – the males’ songs will be clearer and more beautiful, if they are not drowned out by the waves or the shipping.

Next time there’s no surf and I put my head under to tune in to the humpbacks’ latest hits, I’ll be listening for a humpback that sings like Seal and breaches like Gangnam Style.

Here is an example of a whale song available on the internet.


Photo by Joshua Smith. Copyright Joshua Smith and Michael Noad.

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