Explore The Science Of Singing Humpback Whales

by | Sep 2, 2015

“When you swim with humpback whales, their soaring song surrounds you and the echoes vibrate through your chest,” says Barbara MacGillivray, one of the filmmakers behind Humpback Whales 3D. The haunting, full-body experience would seem hard to replicate without access to a hydrophone, scuba gear and expensive transport to the waters off Alaska, Argentina, Hawaii or Tonga where humpback whales swim.

But when you experience the movie in our newly renovated Boeing IMAX Theater, water seems to swirls around you, and you feel the vibration of whale clicks and song as the humpbacks echolocate, thanks to the 12-channel sound and 4K laser projection system. “It is so spectacular when you hear the humpback whale song in the theater,” MacGillivray says. “I encourage everybody to come see it.” (Hear Barbara MacGillivray on PacSci Podcast.)

With whale song top of brain, we were delighted to discover National Public Radio’s summer series about decoding nature through sounds. You’ll hear spine-tingling recordings of whale song on this episode and meet Katy Payne a biologist and musician who translated whale acoustics into visual patterns and discovered that pods of whales, over time, compose and add to their songs—like jazz musicians riffing on each other’s tunes.

Another episode features Christopher Clark, an engineer who has becoming an expert at recording whale sounds and helped found the field of bioacoustics.

He told NPR:

“It’s a complete cacophony of voices and singers. It’s like, oh, my God, it’s like I just went into the twilight zone, into a completely different world — belugas, bowheads and bearded seals and ice. And you’re going, oh, my God, it’s a jungle underneath the ice!”

But Clark soon realized that he wasn’t the first person to hear all this. When he gave his earphones to a local Inupiat man to listen, the man already knew those sounds. “In their culture, they put the end of an oar up to their jaw and put the paddle into the water, and they listen,” Clark says.

The engineer discovered he could listen to deep whale sounds from thousands of miles away, meaning scientists could use sound as a tool to track whale migrations. In the process, Clark realized that annoyingly loud human-made sounds, mostly from shipping traffic, are polluting the ocean and causing whales to stop singing.

Treat yourself to a few minutes to explore the links above and then come enjoy Humpback Whales 3D in our Boeing IMAX Theater.

Girl with flowers in her hair using a microscope