Whales in Alaska are amazing animals, but have you heard them sing?
Michele Moede Parker has lived in Petersburg in southeast Alaska for 29 years. The whales in Alaska are one of the highlights each summer for Michele, her husband Tom and their two daughters as they utilize their boat to wait, watch and listen for the seasonal return of the humpbacks. Humpback whales migrate up to 16,000 miles a year moving from winter breeding grounds near Japan, Hawaii or Mexico to summer feeding grounds in more polar regions, which extend all the way from Washington State to the Chukchi Sea. Whales in Alaska may be seen spring, summer, and fall in the chilly Alaskan waters all the way from the Bering Sea to the Inside Passage of Southeast Alaska. They are here to eat and put on weight as they essentially go without eating and live off their fat reserves while migrating and hanging out in their breeding grounds.
Michele took this footage of whales in Alaska at the Frederick Sound north of Kupreanof Island which is in southeast Alaska. The humpback is the largest of the baleen whales and is the only one that “sings”. In this video you can hear the whales emit some sounds before rising to feed. Humpback whales have multiple methods of feeding, but these whales in Alaska can be seen feeding with what is known as the bubble net method. Swimming in a decreasing circle, a group, or pod, of whales dive and blow bubbles, trapping their prey in a ring or rising bubbles. With the cooperation and teamwork of up to a dozen whales, with some whales blowing bubbles, some diving deeper to push their food to the surface and others herding their meal into the bubble net by vocalizing (probably what you hear on the video). Then, as seen on the video, the whales swim upward with their mouths open through the “ringed and netted” prey, swallowing hundreds and sometimes thousands of fish in one gulp. Then the whales push the water out of their mouth and retain their prey using their baleen to hang onto or filter their food.
Whales in Alaska Bubble Net Feeding by Michele Moede Parker (sound on)
During the mating season the males emit a hauntingly, eerie sound that can last from 15-20 minutes. But the “song” can be repeated for hours at a time. It is not completely understood what the sounds mean but it is thought to be a factor in the mating process. At times there are acrobatic displays of groups of two to twenty males gathered around a single female—antics which include breaching, lob-tailing, tail-slapping, flipper-slapping and charging. By the way, the females are larger than the males: from 45-50 feet to the males’ 40-48. Their songs can be heard from miles away and their sounds are in the low range of 10Hz to 31Hz. Experts say the low frequency sounds can travel for up to a 1,000 miles underwater depending on the water conditions but are inaudible to the human ear. The low limit for human hearing is 20Hz so obviously some of the “music” we miss out on. The sounds of the humpback has been compared with music and male humpback whales have been described as “inveterate composers” of songs that are “‘strikingly similar’ to human musical traditions.
Whales in Alaska have at least a few things in common with Alaskans. We like to catch fish and we like to spend some of our winter in warmer climates. I’ve had the awesome experience of snorkeling near Maui Hawaii and after a boat ride that included whale watching, I could actually hear the whales when I put my head underwater and was snorkeling. I also took a helicopter flight and while looking at the many whales from the air, it was neat to think about how those are the same whales that will be back to my home State again in the summer.
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