Tales of Whales: Vocal Visitations

by B. N. Sullivan

Yesterday we introduced our readers to Hawaii's humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae), the huge marine mammals that frequent our waters in large numbers every year during the winter months. At this time of year, the whales' presence dominates in this part of the Pacific Ocean. Not only do we see them daily from the surface as they spout, breach, and slap the surface of the water with their fins and tail flukes, we hear them incessantly beneath the ocean's surface. And sometimes, if we are lucky, we see them underwater as well.

Mostly, we hear the whales. The term whale songs has been used for years to describe the humpbacks' vocalizations. At times they do indeed 'sing', but believe me, a lot of what we hear from the whales is not exactly melodious. They snort, they whine, they trill, they grunt and groan. They make assorted barnyard sounds.

Jerry in Buoy ModeThey say "whoop, whoop, whoop" and then purr so loudly that the sounds resonate in a diver's body. When the whales are relatively close by, we can physically feel the sound waves their vocalizations generate, perceiving them as palpable vibrations in our own rib cages, in addition to hearing them.

We think of these events as vocal visitations by the whales. The term 'visitation' may suggest something akin to a spiritual experience in your mind. Without exaggeration, that is what the term is meant to evoke. It's impossible to experience these visitations without having an exquisite sense of awe, in the purest meaning of the word, and without feeling very privileged indeed.

Many, many times during our winter dives at Puako, the whale sounds have been so loud and persistent that they are completely distracting. At their loudest, the sounds are close to overpowering.

At such times there is really nothing to do but to settle on a sand patch somewhere to be still and just listen, because it's impossible to do or think of anything else. If there is nowhere safe or convenient to settle, we take up a posture that we call 'buoy mode,' which Jerry is demonstrating in the photo on this page. Buoy mode entails positioning oneself in the water column, suspended somewhere below the surface, but well above the bottom. The idea is to remain quiet and immobile. In this case we use buoy mode to listen to the whales in a kind of motionless meditation.

Sometimes we hear the calls of an individual whale. More often we are party to what clearly are conversations amongst a number of whales. But, almost without exception, every time we actually have seen whales underwater, the encounter has occurred during a period of silence on the part of the whales. Then out of the blue -- very literally in this case! -- there's a whale (or two or three), right before our eyes.

We'll tell you about some of our face-to-face encounters with humpback whales in Hawaii in our next regular post (after Wordless Wednesday!), but meanwhile we encourage everyone to visit The Whalesong Project to listen to the kinds of whale vocalizations that we hear all winter when we dive at Puako. When you get to the website, click on the phrase "We are bringing Whalesongs to the World" near the top of the page. Let the recording load in your favorite media player, and then sit back, close your eyes, and experience a humpback whale vocal visitation for yourself.


  1. I can't wait to hear about your face to face encounters with them! This is great with such an amazing mammal!

  2. Yes, Mon@rch, they are indeed amazing. It's actually kind of hard to write about these experiences -- hard to find the right words. But I'll try.


  3. So what happens to the life on the reef when these vocalizations are going on? I understand that Humpbacks do not feed on tropicals, but are the reef fish at all affected by these loud and distracting conversations? Do you find that the reefs are a little more vacant or are they unaffected in these winter months?
    Here in Florida we experience Pilot Whales offshore in the spring. They are not quite as big as the Humpback but do cause boaters some concern as they may strike a whale capsize their boat. They are also very rarely seen (if at all) on the shallow reefs.

  4. Hi Christopher - Yours is a good question. First, you are right. The whales do NOT feed on reef fish, so there's no reason for them to fear the whales.

    Activity on the reefs does not seem much affected by the whale sounds. The whale sounds get very loud when the whales are close by, but they move around constantly, so what you get is a crescendo/decrescendo kind of thing, with some periods of silence, or near-silence.

    They do swim over the reef areas. We have seen them in areas as shallow as 10 meters (about 33 feet). When that happens, they quite literally dominate the space as they pass over the reef. Everybody ducks into the coral, which, I think, is the little fishies' automatic response to anything big -- including a shadow -- passing directly overhead.


  5. Hey us flowers are intrigued by whales and the last lot we saw were off the South African coast, near Hermanus - simply breath taking!

  6. Hi Flowers - Yes, seeing these creatures is an unforgettable experience, isn't it?



We welcome your comments and invite your questions. Dialogue is a good thing!

Bobbie & Jerry