Episode 1: Humpback whale song of the summer

What does the 2017 hit "Despacito" have in common with the songs of male humpback whales?

Photograph by Brian Skerry

There’s a humpback whale song sensation that’s sweeping the South Pacific. We’ll learn about the burgeoning study of “whale culture”—and why these super smart cetaceans may have a lot more in common with us than we’d ever imagined.


BRIAN SKERRY (National Geographic Explorer): You can imagine you're in this sort of blue void. You're out in often times open ocean. And you see this whale and it's motionless it's just sitting there and in that position without moving.

VAUGHN WALLACE (Host, Overheard): Wow. 

SKERRY: And you hear these, these almost otherworldly sounds emanating from this animal

[whales singing]

WALLACE: Brian Skerry is kind of a legend around here. He’s a photographer who’s worked with NatGeo for more than 20 years, doing a lot of of our underwater stories. We've sent him out to shoot sharks, sea turtles, even a pirate shipwreck. But many of his most memorable photos involve going nose to nose with whales. This sound we’re hearing--it’s the song of a male humpback.

SKERRY: At times they can sound like a creaking door like something you'd hear in a spooky movie. Other times it is more melodic, it has more of a song quality to it. And the sound is just vibrating inside of you. It's surreal.

[music starts]

WALLACE: Brian’s always been fascinated by humpback song--but recently… he learned something about these songs that made him think of them very differently.

SKERRY: It's like no way that that can't be happening. I started to hear this sort of you know description of it being the American Idol of the ocean.

WALLACE: A humpback song isn’t just one single animal’s soulful sound. It’s part of a pop music phenomenon: the whale world’s equivalent of Gangnam Style or the Macarena.

WALLACE (from interview): Does it work like humans like when we hear an addictive song?

SKERRYI mean I would love to think so right. I would think that for whatever reason you know they get that earworm right. Something says oh that's the one, and I love it. You know let's let's print that and make it a gold record.

WALLACE: I’m Vaughn Wallace, and this is Overheard at National Geographic. It’s a show where we get to eavesdrop on the wild conversations Nat Geo explorers and scientists are having everyday. and then we follow them to the edges of our big, weird, beautiful world. This week: Humpback Hit Factory. We’re going to take a look at a whale song sensation that's sweeping the South Pacific. What you hear might just transform the way you look at animal behavior forever.

[music ends]

WALLACE: So… what exactly makes a whale song catchy? I knew that to get to the bottom of this I needed to talk to a whale music mogul--a Simon Cowell of the sea.

ELLEN GARLAND (HUMPBACK WHALE RESEARCHER): I'm Dr. Ellen Garland and I'm at the University of St. Andrews. and I research humpback whale song culture

WALLACE: This humpback pop song phenomenon we’re talking about -- that’s Ellen’s specialty. But to help us understand it, Ellen’s gonna start by giving us some whale song 101.

GARLAND: These are extremely acoustic creatures. It's all about sound.

WALLACE: All humpback whales use sound to communicate, but it’s just the males who do those big song performances that Brian Skerry was describing. Researchers think they’re a mating thing--a sexual display. But HOW these sexy whale songs actually function is still a bit of a mystery.

GARLAND: We're not really sure if the song is directed at females trying to attract the men saying I'm big I'm strong. Please come and mate with me or whether they're singing to other males saying you know I'm big I'm strong and I'm gonna outcompete you.

WALLACE: Whatever’s going on here, it is super important to these whales--and it’s a lot more complex and interesting than your typical animal mating call. The songs themselves are complex too. In fact, your average whale top 40 tune breaks down a lot like a human one. You start with a basic set of units; for humans, that would be pitches and notes and rests. For humpbacks it’s—


[sound of whale moaning]


[sound of whale groan]


[sound of whale whooping]


[sound of whale bark]

Then a few units are arranged in a sequence which makes a phrase.

WALLACE: Phrases get repeated and arranged to make themes. Stick a few themes together, and you’ve got yourself a humpback whale song. It’s kind of like how a human pop song’s got a first verse, a second verse, a chorus that comes around a couple times... maybe a dance break. Then, put that song on repeat:

GARLAND: And then the song is sung over and over and over again for many hours by an individual male.

WALLACE: Another fascinating thing to know here is that humpbacks are big-time conformists when it comes to their musical tastes. In fact if you’re listening in on a male singing, there’s a 99% chance he’s singing basically the same song you’d hear from every other male in that population. But, that doesn’t mean they’re stuck singing the same thing forever.

GARLAND: As time goes on at the songs evolve. So small changes occur in the songs so units can be substituted. Or can be deleted or added and the same for themes but all males will make these same changes to their song. We could then trace it evolving in nice little steps// as one really nice song lineage.

WALLACE: Take this little chunk of song recorded back in 2002. In this theme we’ve got a bellows…

[humpback whale singing]

…That’s that sound.

and then three croaks.

[humpback whale singing]

But over the next several years, the whales keep making these tiny, tinkery changes and the theme slowly morphs. So, by the time we hit the year 2008 - that bellows now has changed into a long growl with this little “bird trill” added at the end.

[humpback whale singing]

And the three croaks---have split off into these little purr-barks.

[humpback whale singing]

This is the way whale songs normally evolve. Through these small evolutionary steps that happen very slowly. But, there’s one particular corner of the South Pacific, down around where Ellen works, where things get really funky. It happens every couple of years. Ellen will have been tracking a song…

GARLAND: So sometimes we have these longer songs. Can be nicely melodic. And you sort of see nice evolution of song through time

[humpback whale singing]

And then suddenly they throw that straight out the window

[humpback whale song changes]

And they learn this brand new song type. No similarity to the previous song arrangement. Suddenly you've got some of those higher frequency sounds and whistles and some really annoying ascending sounds which do not sound very nice to listen to.

WALLACE: Ellen and her colleagues calls these rapid shifts “song revolutions”

GARLAND: All of these males rapidly in synchronicity abandon their current song. I mean it's such a clear change and you can hear it when you hear a new song to come and you're like wait what are they doing?

WALLACE: To figure out what they’re doing, you actually need to zoom out and listen to the songs whales are singing across the whole ocean basin--which is exactly what Ellen did a few years back. She and her colleagues coded a decade’s worth of whale song year by year, in different whale populations stretching from Eastern Australia--- all the way to Tahiti. And as soon as she did that, something leapt out at her.

GARLAND: We started to see this amazing pattern emerge. And what we found was that the songs from the east coast of Australia would spread out across the South Pacific in this very stepwise and directional fashion.

WALLACE: These waves of song were rippling out, from one group of whales to the next, over almost 6000 miles of ocean. It was like a massive game of humpback whale telephone.

GARLAND: It's this amazing network the social learning of this song type which has been culturally transmitted to another population. And there is no other animal we've discovered so far in the animal kingdom that does that does these sorts of population wide cultural changes at this rapid pace except for humans.

WALLACE: That’s right. To Ellen, the way these humpback whales songs take the ocean by storm looks awfully familiar. Like the spread of a fashion trend… or diet fad.. or internet meme.

GARLAND: Or, you know, pop song changes. Which is why you may have heard of whale pop idol.

WALLACE: That still leaves a big question though. Who are the edgy whale indie artists coming up with these new songs? And why is this one region where all the music innovation is happening?

GARLAND: Yeah. Trying to understand who's innovating and who's making these changes is, is challenging. But we do have little snippets of that puzzle…

One of those puzzle pieces might have to do with the geography of the South Pacific.

GARLAND: Most of the song revolutions have come from West Australia. So if we've got a population of whales singing off the west coast of Australia and a population singing off the east coast of course there's an entire continent in the way between those two and they can't hear each other. So the ones of West Australia, their song is happily evolving on its own and the ones of Australia that's happily evolving.

WALLACE: Until… the whales make contact. Every couple years, a few males from the east coast crew might bump into some West coasters—maybe because their feeding grounds or migratory routes overlap a bit that year. And all the sudden the water around these east coasters is filled with this strange and intriguing new groove.

GARLAND: And it seems that the song from the West Australian population is taken up by the East Australian population because it's novel.

WALLACE: Just like in human music, big moments in humpback song history are more likely to happen when isolated musical traditions collide.)Think of the Beatles. You remember their early stuff—for the first part of the 60s it’s all kinda poppy, sugary rock n’ roll. Then, in 1965, somebody hands George Harrison a record of Ravi Shankar’s sitar music- and Shankar blows Harrison's mind with this whole new Indian musical universe. That one meeting helped transform popular music.Ellen thinks that same kind of cultural cross-pollination might be driving humpback song waves.

GARLAND: So they really liked novelty. And we think that this is driving it trying to be novel if you're trying to of course you know display to the ladies

WALLCE: It’s possible that new whale songs are catchy for the same reason new human songs are: they’re surprising and cool. But... hold up. There’s a word we’ve been throwing around a lot here that we need to unpack.

GARLAND: Culture is quite a buzzword at the moment and it has been for a little bit.

WALLACE: Let’s stop for a second and think about this word, culture. Because it’s a powerful idea. Culture is the word we use when we talk about elaborate tea ceremonies, a symphony, or dressing up for Halloween. It’s stuff that makes life as a human being incredibly rich and complex and varied and beautiful. 

Which is why traditionally, when biologists talk about different variations of animal behavior, they tend to use more cautious terms, like “behavioral ecology.” But over the last couple decades, there’s been a growing feeling among a number of biologists like Ellen that maybe, as humans, we’re not so special. Here’s how Ellen defines culture:

GARLAND: It’s the social learning of information or behaviors from the animals around you of your species, of your community.

WALLACE: Behavior is what we do: hunting, eating, singing, communicating. Culture is how we do those things: the hunting techniques you use, whether your family eats with chopsticks or a fork, the kinds of songs you sing. 

You don’t come by that stuff using instinct alone. You learn it from your family, or your social group, or your friends. And that’s exactly what these humpbacks are doing. And it’s not just humpbacks. Remember photographer Brian Skerry, from earlier?

SKERRY: I started to talk to researchers that studied sperm whales and beluga whales and orca and all these different species. And this sort of theme of culture began to emerge, and how it plays a vital role in these animals lives.

WALLACE: Brian’s next photo project for National Geographic is actually a giant multi-species feature on whale culture, all over the world. When you look at whales through this lens, a lot of their social behaviors suddenly come into focus. For instance- communication. Brian’s been talking to researchers in the caribbean who study the clicking patterns of sperm whales. 

These patterns are so distinct between different sperm whale groups that researchers refer to them as individual “dialects.” Whales that share the same dialect feed together, take care of each other’s calves, and they’ll even steer clear of other groups of Sperm whales nearby who don’t speak their same language. And, really importantly—embedded in these different whale cultures is critical information about how to survive in the local environment:

SKERRY: Things like feeding strategies. You know dolphins and whales or some of the only animals on the planet that devise unique feeding strategies to successfully forage depending where in the world they live.

WALLACE: Take orcas—the scary geniuses of the ocean. In Norway, there are groups that flash their white underbellies to herd fish into little tight packs, and then whack ‘em with their tails to stun them. 

But off the coast of Argentina, the menu and the preparation is different. Orcas there actually force themselves out of the water—deliberately beaching themselves—to snatch baby sea lions right off the sand."

SKERRY: As far as we know, there is no other place in the world where orca do that.

That's the only place. And it's this one family this one pod that has been passing that technique down generationally Mom's teaching calves. I mean I photographed you know a mom grabbing a pup, pulling it off the beach, and then you know tossing it into the air with her tail and in the same frame you can see the little orca dorsal fin sticking out of the water so she's teaching her calf.

WALLACE: When you think about whale behavior this way, something really striking and urgent becomes clear. We’ve always thought about protecting animals in terms of their numbers. How many rhinos, how many wildebeest... how many orcas. 

But even in a whale species like orcas—a species that isn’t technically classified as endangered as a whole—there are individual populations that are on the verge of total collapse. They’re being poisoned by pollutants, and starving to death because humans are disrupting their natural feeding strategies. And when a group of whales disappears… a whole rich, colorful, unique way of life disappears with it.

SKERRY: If we lose a whale culture, the knowledge and the wisdom that those animals know will be gone forever. And it would be analogous to losing a human culture. You know if we lose an Inuit culture in the Arctic and they're gone forever and you take a guy like me, you know an Irish guy from Boston you stick him up in that place,

I'm not going to know how to function. I'm not going to know the things that those ancient cultures knew and the wisdom that they possess and that'll, that'll never come back. Just because these are deep ocean animals that we only get brief glimpses of doesn't mean that they don't have complex societies.

WALLACE: It’s pretty incredible to imagine the ocean as this cultural melting pot—a cacophony of languages and traditions—and even pop music—that we barely glimpse from the surface.

SKERRY: I'd like to think that you know in the time ahead so much more richness will be revealed through- through science and exploration. But you know we are at this tipping point where it could all vanish and slip through our hands and most folks would would never know that it even existed.


WALLCE: You can see some of Brian’s incredible whale photos, and learn more about different whale cultures all around the world by checking out the links in our show notes right there in your podcast app.

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Overheard at National Geographic is produced by Kristen Clark, Emily Ochsenschlager, Brian Gutierrez, Robin Miniter and Jacob Pinter.

Our editor is Casey Miner.

Hansdale Hsu composed our theme music and engineers our episodes, with additional help from Nick Anderson, Grahame Davies. and Devin Ocampo.

Roger Payne recorded a lot of those gorgeous whales songs you were hearing, back in 1970. And they actually have a really great back story. We’ll link you to that in the show notes as well.

Special thanks to: Pineapple Street Media, Greta Weber, Shane Gero and Jim Darling.

This podcast is a production of National Geographic Partners, Susan Goldberg is the editor in chief of National Geographic Magazine.

I’m your host, Vaughn Wallace. Thanks for listening, and meet you back here next week.