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Absorbing the Ethereal Sounds of Humpback Whales with Dr Barry McGovern

The complexity of a Humpback Whale song astounds scientists every day, and anyone who is privy to hearing a Humpback Whale sing firsthand is almost always left breathless by the beautiful – and what is sometimes described as haunting – melody.

“It’s one of the most complex communication signals in the entire animal kingdom,” explains Dr Barry McGovern, Australia Research Associate at Pacific Whale Foundation, the parent company of Pacific Whale Foundation Eco-Adventures Australia. “A whale song is usually made up of moans, groans, grumbles and grunts. The sounds are pulled together in a hierarchical structure with multiple units combining to make phrases, and then the phrases are combined to make up a song, which can last up to 30 minutes. This song can then be repeated a number of times to make a singing session.” 

Mugging with pax phoneHumpback Whale mugging. Image: Pacific Whale Foundation Eco-Adventures Australia

The discovery of the Humpback Whale song occurred in 1968, when bio-acoustician Dr Roger Payne and his wife Katy Payne boarded navy engineer Frank Watlington’s vessel. The group discovered that the sounds Frank had been hearing for years were, in fact, whale songs, and the Paynes later produced a record-selling album using Frank’s recordings. “Humpback Whales have a large repertoire of sounds, including their songs and other nonsong communication sounds,” says Barry.

Spy Hop with Shocked PassengerHumpback Whale spyhopping in front of guests. Image: Pacific Whale Foundation Eco-Adventures Australia

“On board the Pacific Whale Foundation EcoAdventures Australia tours, the crew bring a hydrophone along, which is a microphone that is able to be used underwater. It picks up any sound within a certain distance, depending on species. Dolphins can be picked up within approximately a 500-metre radius, while a singing whale can be picked up kilometres away, depending on the environmental conditions.” Guests are able to hear whale songs, and sometimes dolphin calls at the same time, almost always.

Hydrophone - Pacific Whale FoundationResearch team using hydrophone. Image: Pacific Whale Foundation Eco-Adventures Australia

Barry says that, although guests are already awestruck at this stage, it gets even better. “For many years it was thought that Humpback Whales only sang around the breeding grounds to attract females or compete with males, but now we know songs have been heard all the way along the migration route, and occasionally even in the feeding grounds in Antarctica,” he explains. “When you tell guests that the song changes slightly from year to year, and then once every few years it changes to a completely different song, it leaves a pretty strong impression.

Watch - Pacific Whale Foundation Eco-Adventures Australia: Our Story

Ultimate Hervey Bay Whale Watching

Explore the world’s first declared Whale Heritage Site at Hervey Bay, known for coming alive with thousands of Humpback Whales between July and October. This region is known for having some of the most active and inquisitive whales found anywhere across the globe, with breaches, whale songs and muggings common practice.

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