The first ever recording of the rarest whale song on the planet

For the first time ever scientists have recorded the song of the North Pacific right whale, believed to be the rarest species of their kind. With just a few hundred individuals left in the wild, just how did they manage to record it? And most importantly, what does it sound like?

A closely related Southern right whale breaches 

Whale songs are often touted as some of the most beautiful and relaxing sounds in nature. They are also vitally important to many aspects of the complex social lives of these amazing animals. However there are still certain species whose songs we have never got the chance to hear. One of those is the elusive North Pacific right whale, believed to be the rarest of all these majestic mammals. But luckily new research by NOAA has led to the first ever recording of their unique sounds. With only a few hundred individuals left it is a minor miracle that they have managed to find them let alone record them. So how did they manage to do it? What does it sound like? And how are we impacting their ability to hear each other?

Singing in the blue

In the deep dark world of the oceans sound is an important tool for the animals that live there. This is especially true for cetaceans and other marine mammals, but in particular whales. Sound waves travel through water 4 times faster than air and across much greater distances. These gentle giants take advantage of this by using sound to communicate with one another across vast oceans basins, as well as for navigation and foraging. They experience the world around them using sound in a very similar way to how we rely on our eyes to experience our world above the surface. As a result they have a variety of impressive audio adaptations that allow them to communicate in ranges of frequency that we and most other animals cannot comprehend. Resulting in a wide range of extremely varied whale songs that are very unique to each species. But the one thing they all have in common to be recognised as a ‘song’ is a rhythmic pattern of sounds that is clearly recognisable and consistent.

A female North Pacific right whale accompanied by her young calf

The rarest whale in the world

North Pacific right whales are one of several species of right whale from across the world. The North Pacific species can be found across the Berring Sea but also as far west as Hawaii and even California. Right whales are baleen whales which means they feed on shirmp-like krill and small fish which they filter from seawater using baleen plates. They weigh in at around 100 tonnes and can reach over 60ft in length. Unfortunately due to high levels of commercial whaling in the first half of the 20th century North Pacific right whales have become one of the rarest sights in our oceans. It is believed that at the turn of the century, at their lowest levels, there were only around 30 individuals left. Recovery of the population has taken significant time due to their long lives that can span up to 70 years. But thankfully there are now believed to be a few hundred of these beautiful creatures living in our oceans. However because of their rarity and wide geographical range studying these animals is a challenging task and as a result we have had no idea what their songs sound like. Until now.

‘Seven years of frustration’

So just how did researchers manage to capture the sound of these elusive right whales for the very first time? Well it all began by accident during a study into the better known songs of humpback and bowhead whales in 2010. Using moored acoustic recording devices researchers from NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) made several recordings of the songs in the area. To their surprise they noticed a different sound in the background which they could not identify. NOAA marine biologist Jessica Crance told the guardian “we thought it might be a right whale, but we didn’t get visual confirmation”. So she and her team decided to review other similar studies to see if they could find the mystery sounds. As a result they detected four distinct songs over eight years at five locations in the Bering Sea.

distribution map
A species distribution map, just a few hundred individuals can be found in the large shaded area

All they had to do was catch a right whale producing these songs to confirm their theory which Crance said led to ‘seven years of frustration’ because of how hard it is to find them. The breakthrough came in 2017 when Crance and her team heard one of the whale songs in real time from the acoustic recorders on buoys. Because they used a group of four buoys to record the sounds across the area they could use them to triangulate the origin of the sound and locate the whale that made it. After years of struggling they had finally found their man, a male North Pacific right whale. Crance said “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”.

Hitting the ‘right’ notes

So after all that time spent tracking the North Pacific right whale, what does it sound like? Check out the released audio clips from NOAA in the video below

As you can hear in the video the North Pacific right whales have a very unique song that is very different to the much more recognisable and melodic songs of humpback and blue whales. The predominant call sounds similar to a high pitched gunshot. However they also variate by making upcalls, downcalls, moans, screams and warbles. While it is unlikely that people will be listening to their songs to relax or unwind it is still nonetheless a very impressive and distinctive sound. It is also very informative and tells researchers a lot about their lifestyles. The North Pacific species unlike their more numerous cousins are now believed to be the only species of right whale to produce a song. Researchers like Jessica Crance believe that the most likely reason for this is that they have struggled to find each other due to their low numbers and have had to resort to using sound to find each other. With this in context it makes the songs sound all the more special and important.

Turning it up to 11

In a changing ocean whales like most marine animals face an array of human caused threats to their survival. The most obvious issues that jump to mind are commercial whaling, plastic pollution and climate change. However there is another big problem we are creating that less people are aware about. Marine noise pollution. Due to increased shipping activity, military testing, sonar and renewable energy projects in the ocean the marine world is louder than ever. This may not seem like a problem to me and you but as we have already seen sound is vitally important to marine mammals like whales for multiple aspects of their survival. All our noise is therefore acting as interference for key behaviours and can lead to temporary or permanent hearing loss, increased risk of boat collisions and beach strandings. As well as this because of how sound travels underwater we are having a much greater effect than most people are aware of.  So whilst it is amazing that we have been able to capture the rare song of the North Pacific right whale. It is also a big concern that these beautiful creatures may be struggling to hear one another.

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