Humpback whale vocalizations in Southeast Alaska are diverse and otherworldly. They sound like jaguars and horses, and sometimes how I imagine mermaids and ghosts might sound. As part of my Masters research, I lead a team of student volunteers at the Five Fingers Lighthouse in Frederick Sound that recorded the cacophony of sounds produced by the whales. Listening to the whales each day became a lifelong highlight and it was something I knew I would miss when I left.
I’ve since completed my Master’s program under the guidance of AWF’s director Dr. Andy Szabo, but I haven’t stopped listening to the whales. With Alaska Whale Foundation’s newly deployed hydrophone at the lighthouse we once again have the opportunity to eavesdrop on the animals and learn more about their non-song communication. The difference between my focus then and now is, instead of listening only to the present, I’m also listening to the past.
I’ve teamed up with AWF biologist Dr. Fred Sharpe, who has been collecting humpback whale vocalizations since the mid 1990’s. Fred has produced a decades-long dataset of ‘grunts’, ‘groans’, and ‘whups’ that is begging for analysis. As a PhD student in Oregon State University’s Department of Fisheries and Wildlife I’m using this dataset, together with calls I recorded from the lighthouse and new calls I am collecting in Glacier Bay National Park, to investigate how humpback whale vocalizations change (or do not change) over time, and what impact vessel noise may have on their use. The analysis of this combined long-term acoustic data set is the first step to answering some of the basic questions about how humpback whales communicate and how the animals may be affected by human activity.
There’s something magical about listening to vocalizations that were produced decades earlier and hearing some of the same calls that I’ve grown familiar with. Humpback whales are long-lived with lifespans that can reach up to 96 years, which means some of the whales in these historic recordings may still be vocalizing in the region today! And I’m extremely excited to be listening to them!
- Michelle Fournet