Research in the South Atlantic: The Enigmatic Call of Humpback Whales

As of: 04/27/2022 6:13 p.m

Humpback whales are among the most studied whale species. Researchers were all the more amazed when they recorded a completely new sound from the animals almost 1000 kilometers off the coast of South Africa: the so-called “shot”.

By Jana Genth, ARD Studio Johannesburg

Divers know it because you can hear it for miles: the song of the humpback whale. Researchers recorded many sounds decades ago. But now scientists have discovered a whole new one, the so-called “shot.” It is a very short sound reminiscent of a knocking sound.

Researchers from a South African and a British university as well as scientists from the organizations Sea Search and Greenpeace recorded this sound at the deep-sea mountain Vema. It is located almost 1000 kilometers northwest of Cape Town in the Atlantic Ocean. The mountain is 4600 meters high from the sea floor and its summit is a good 25 meters below the water surface.

Kirsten Thompson from the University of Exeter in the UK was one of the scientists leading the project. “We decided to attach the hydrophones to the top of the seamount,” she reports. “It allows you to collect data while the crew is otherwise busy. We anchored the underwater microphones. I never thought we’d hear a new sound from humpback whales. They’re one of the most studied whale species, so that’s it now really interesting.”

Connection with eating behavior conceivable

The previously unknown call of a humpback whale has been recorded for the first time. Jack Fearey is one of the scientists at Sea Search, a Cape Town-based organization that studies marine mammals. He was on board with the expedition and is trying to interpret what the new sound in whale language might mean:

The closest we can guess is that it’s similar to a noise recorded in Australia in 2015. It’s called blisters. Whale sounds often have funny names like humming, knocking, tingling or trilling. The noise in Australia has been linked to feeding behavior. The southern right whales have an impulsive sound that sounds similar, which can be heard during mating season when they are aggressive. So there are several options.

The scientists agree that much more research is needed on the high seas because there are still many mysteries to be solved apart from the whales.

Seamounts as resting places for whales

This research trip was organized by the environmental organization Greenpeace, which advocates a network of protected areas on the high seas.

Their expedition leader, Thilo Maack from Hamburg, had hoped, among other things, that he could prove how species-rich life is on a seamount: “But that the result will be what has now come out, namely that these seamounts for many whale species, among other things Humpback whales, such a resting place, a stopover, are, on these almost 10,000 nautical miles long migration routes from the West African coast to the Antarctic, that was not known. It’s a bit like a nice resting place on a trip where you like to pull up and eats lunch. So obviously Vema – or the seamounts in general – is on the migration routes for whales.”

Whales seem to have a sophisticated system on their long journey, not only in their orientation or resting places, but also in their communication. Humpback whales can do more than just sing.

Mystery Humpback Whale: Researchers discover a whole new reputation

Jana Genth, ARD Johannesburg, April 27, 2022 5:12 p.m

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