Episode 1: Humpback Whale Tune of the Summer season

There’s a humpback whale tune experience that’s sweeping the South Pacific. We’ll find out about the blossoming research study of “whale culture”– and why these extremely clever cetaceans may have a lot more in common with us than we ‘d ever imagined.


BRIAN SKERRY (National Geographic Explorer):You can envision you’re in this sort of blue space. You’re out in oftentimes open ocean. And you see this whale and it’s stationary it’s just sitting there and in that position without moving.

VAUGHN WALLACE (Host, Overheard):Wow

SKERRY: And you hear these, these practically otherworldly noises emanating from this animal

[whales singing]

WALLACE: Brian Skerry is kind of a legend around here. He’s a professional photographer who’s dealt with NatGeo for more than 20 years, doinga lot of our undersea stories. We have actually sent him out to shoot sharks, sea turtles, even a pirate shipwreck. But a number of his most remarkable pictures involve going nose to nose with whales. This noise we’re hearing– it’s the song of a male humpback.

SKERRY: Sometimes they can seem like a creaking door like something you ‘d hear in a scary motion picture. Other times it is more melodic, it has more of a tune quality to it. And the sound is simply vibrating inside of you. It’s surreal.

[music starts]

WALLACE: Brian’s constantly been captivated by humpback tune– but just recently … he found out something about these songs that made him believe of them really differently.

SKERRY: It’s like no method that can’t be happening.I began to hear this sort of you understand description of it being the American Idol of the ocean.

WALLACE: A humpback song isn’t just one single animal’s emotional noise. It’s part of a popular songphenomenon: the whale world’s equivalent of Gangnam Style or the Macarena.

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

SKERRY:I mean I would love to think so right. I would think that for whatever reason you understand they get that earworm right. Something states oh that’s the one, and I love it. You understand 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 program where we get to be all ears on the wild discussions Nat Geo explorers and scientists are having everyday. and then we follow them to the edges of our big, unusual, lovely world. This week: Humpback Hit Factory. We’re going to have a look at a whale tune feeling that’s sweeping the South Pacific. What you hear may simply change the way you look at animal habits permanently.

[music ends]

WALLACE: So … just what makes a whale song catchy?I knew that to get to the bottom of this I required to speak with a whale music magnate– a Simon Cowell of the sea.

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

WALLACE: This humpback pop tune phenomenon we’re discussing– that’s Ellen’s specialty. However to assist us understand it, Ellen’s gon na start by providing us some whale tune 101.

GARLAND:These are incredibly acoustic animals. It’s everything about noise.

WALLACE: All humpback whales utilize noise to interact, but it’s simply the males who do those big tune efficiencies that Brian Skerry was explaining. Scientists believe they’re a breeding thing– a sexual display screen. But HOW these attractive whale songs actually operate is still a little a mystery.

GARLAND:We’re not really sure if the song is directed at females trying to draw in the males saying I’m huge I’m strong. Please come and mate with me or whether they’re singing to other males stating you understand I’m big I’m strong and I’m gon na outcompete you.

WALLACE: Whatever’s going on here, it issupercrucial to these whales– and it’s a lot more complicated and intriguing than your common animal mating call. The tunes themselves are intricate too. In truth, your average whale top 40 tune breaks down a lot like a human one. You begin with a fundamental 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 organized in a sequence that makes a phrase.

WALLACE: Phrases get duplicated and set up to make themes. Stick a few styles 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 tune on repeat:

GARLAND:And after that the tune is sung over and over and over again for lots of hours by an individual male.

WALLACE: Another remarkable thing to understand here is that humpbacks are big-time conformists when it pertains to their musical tastes. In truth if you’re listening in on a male singing, there’s a 99%possibility he’s singing essentially the very same song you ‘d hear from every other male because population. But, that doesn’t suggest they’re stuck singing the very same thing forever.

GARLAND: As time goes on at the tunes develop. So little changes occur in the songs so units can be replaced. Or can be erased or included and the same for styles but all males will make these same changes to their tune. We could then trace it developing in good little steps// as one really great song lineage.

WALLACE: Take this little chunk of song taped back in2002 In this theme we’ve got a bellows …

[humpback whale singing]

… That’s that sound.

and then 3 croaks.

[humpback whale singing]

However over the next several years, the whales keep making these tiny, tinkery modifications and the theme gradually changes. So, by the time we struck the year 2008 – that bellows now has actually become a long grumble with this little “bird trill” included 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 tunes usually develop. Through these little evolutionary actions that take place very gradually. But, there’s one specific corner of the South Pacific, down around where Ellen works, where things get truly funky. It happens every number of years. Ellen will have been tracking a tune …

GARLAND: So in some cases we have these longer songs. Can be well melodic. And you sort of see good development of song through time

[humpback whale singing]

And after that all of a sudden they toss that straight out the window

[humpback whale song changes]

And they discover this brand new song type. No resemblance to the previous song plan. All of a sudden you have actually got some of those greater frequency noises and whistles and some truly bothersome rising noises which do not sound very great to listen to.

WALLACE: Ellen and her coworkers calls these rapid shifts “tune revolutions”

GARLAND: All of these males quickly in synchronicity abandon their existing tune. I indicate it’s such a clear modification and you can hear it when you hear a new tune to come and you’re like wait what are they doing?

WALLACE: To figure out what they’re doing, you really require to zoom out and listen to the songs whales are singing across the whole ocean basin– which is exactly what Ellen did a couple of years back. She and her colleagues coded a years’s worth of whale tune year by year, in various whale populations stretching from Eastern Australia– all the method to Tahiti. And as soon as she did that, something jumped out at her.

GARLAND: We began to see this remarkable pattern emerge. And what we found was that the tunes from the east coast of Australia would expand throughout the South Pacific in this extremely step-by-step and directional style.

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

GARLAND: It’s this incredible network the social learning of this tune type which has actually been culturally transferred to another population. And there is no other animal we’ve found up until now in the animal kingdom that does that does these sorts of population wide cultural modifications at this fast pace except for human beings.

WALLACE: That’s right. To Ellen, the way these humpback whales tunes take the ocean by storm looks extremely familiar. Like the spread of a style pattern … or diet fad. or internet meme.

GARLAND: Or, you understand, pop song changes. Which is why you may have become aware of whale pop idol.

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

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

Among those puzzle pieces might pertain to the geography of the South Pacific.

GARLAND: Many of the song transformations have actually 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 a whole continent in the way in between those 2 and they can’t hear each other. So the ones of West Australia, their song is happily evolving by itself and the ones of Australia that’s gladly evolving.

WALLACE: Till … the whales make contact. Every couple years, a couple of males from the east coast team may bump into some West coasters– possibly due to the fact that their feeding premises or migratory paths overlap a bit that year. And all the unexpected the water around these east rollercoasters is filled with this strange and appealing new groove.

GARLAND: And it seems that the tune from the West Australian population is used up by the East Australian population since it’s unique.

WALLACE: Just like in human music, huge minutes in humpback tune history are more most likely to take place when isolated musical customs collide.) Think of the Beatles. You remember their early things– for the first part of the 60 s it’s all kinda poppy, sweet rock n’ roll. Then, in 1965, someone hands George Harrison a record of Ravi Shankar’s sitar music- and Shankarblows Harrison’s mindwith thiswhole brand-new Indian musical universeThat one meeting helped transform popular music.Ellen thinks that exact same kind of cultural cross-pollination might be driving humpback tune waves.

GARLAND: So they actually liked novelty. And we think that this is driving it attempting to be unique if you’re trying to obviously you know display screen to the women

WALLCE: It’s possible that brand-new whale songs are memorable for the very same factor new human songs are: they’re surprising and cool.But … hold up. There’s a word we’ve been tossing around a lot here that we need to unpack.

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

WALLACE: Let’s stop for a 2nd and consider this word, culture. Because it’s an effective concept. Culture is the word we utilize when we talk about sophisticated tea events, a symphony, or dressing up for Halloween. It’s things that makes life as a human being extremely abundant and intricate and different and stunning. Which is why traditionally, when biologists speak about various variations of animal habits, they tend to utilize more cautious terms, like “behavioral ecology.” However over the last couple decades, there’s been a growing feeling among a variety of biologists like Ellen that perhaps, as human beings, we’re not so unique. Here’s how Ellen specifies culture:

GARLAND: It’s the social knowing of info or habits from the animals around you of your species, of your community.

WALLACE: Behavior is what we do: hunting, consuming, singing, interacting. Culture is how we do those things: the searching techniques you use, whether your household eats with chopsticks or a fork, thesort of songs you sing. You don’t visited that things utilizing instinct alone. You discover it from your household, or your social group, or your pals. And that’s precisely what these humpbacks are doing. And it’s not just humpbacks. Remember professional photographer Brian Skerry, from earlier?

SKERRY:I began to speak with researchers that studied sperm whales and beluga whales and whale and all these various species. And this sort of style of culture began to emerge, and how it plays an important function in these animals lives.

WALLACE: Brian’s next picture project for National Geographic is really a huge multi-species feature on whale culture, all over the world. When you look at whales through this lens, a lot of their social behaviors unexpectedly come into focus. For example- communication. Brian’s been talking to researchers in the caribbean who study the clicking patterns of sperm whales. These patterns are so unique between different sperm whale groups that scientists describe them as specific “dialects.” Whales that share the exact same dialect feed together, take care of each other’s calves, and they’ll even stay away from other groups of Sperm whales close by who do not speak their same language. And, truly notably– ingrained in these different whale cultures is important info about how to survive in the regional environment:

SKERRY:Things like feeding techniques. You know dolphins and whales or a few of the only animals on earth that develop unique feeding techniques to successfully forage depending where on the planet 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. Orcastherereally require themselves out of the water– intentionally beaching themselves– to snatch infant sea lions straight off the sand.”

SKERRY: As far as we understand, there is no other place worldwide where whale do that.

That’s the only location. And it’s this one family this one pod that has actually been passing that method down generationally Mom’s mentor calves. I imply I photographed you know a mommy grabbing a puppy, pulling it off the beach, and after that you know tossing it into the air with her tail and in the very same frame you can see the little orca dorsal fin sticking out of the water so she’s teaching her calf.

WALLACE: When you consider whale behavior by doing this, something truly striking and urgent becomes clear. We’ve always considered securing animals in terms of their numbers. How numerous rhinos, hownumerous wildebeest … the number of whales. However even in a whale species like whales– a species that isn’t technically categorized as threatened as a whole– there are specific populations that are on the brink of overall collapse.– they’re being poisoned by toxins, and starving to death because human beings are disrupting their natural feeding strategies. And when agroup of whales vanishes … a whole rich, colorful, special method of life disappears with it.

SKERRY:If we lose a whale culture, the knowledge and the knowledge that those animals understand will be gone permanently. And it would be analogous to losing a human culture. You understand if we lose an Inuit culture in the Arctic and they’re gone permanently and you take a person like me, you know an Irish man from Boston you stick him up because location,

I’m not going to understand how to work. I’m not going to understand the things that those ancient cultures understood and the knowledge that they have which’ll, that’ll never come back. Just since these are deep ocean animals that we only get brief looks of does not imply that they don’t have complicated societies.

WALLACE: It’s pretty unbelievable to imagine the ocean as this cultural melting pot– a cacophony of languages and customs– and even popular song– that we barely look from the surface area.

SKERRY: I want to believe that you know in the time ahead a lot more richness will be revealed through- through science and exploration. But you understand we are at this tipping point where it might all disappear and slip through our hands and a lot of folks would never know that it even existed.


WALLCE: You can see a few of Brian’s extraordinary whale pictures, and find out more about various whale cultures all around the world by inspecting out the links in our program notes right there in your podcast app.

And while you exist in your app, please, subscribe to Overheard at National Geographic!

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Which is incredible, because we’re incredibly thrilled to share the stories we’ve got lined up for you this season.

Make certain to tune in next week– We’ll be back with an episode on lying and … why it might not be such a BAD thing when your kid lies to your face.

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 aid from Nick Anderson, Grahame Davies. and Devin Ocampo. [oh-comp-oh]

Roger Payne recorded a lot of those stunning whales tunes you were hearing, back in1970 And they actually have a really terrific back story. We’ll link you to that in the program notes too.

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

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

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

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