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Whales Speak: Breaking Down Language Barriers

The Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic (LEX-NG) Fund aims to protect the last wild places in the ocean while facilitating conservation, research, education, and community development programs in the places we explore. This blog entry spotlights some of the exciting work our grantees are doing with support from the LEX-NG Fund.

By Madeleine Pauchet

Along the coast of Southeast Alaska, you are bombarded by the sound of chattering seagulls, the crash of waves, and the purr of the boat’s motor. Wind whips at your ears and you pull your hood up; you can’t hear anything now.

You kill the engine somewhere in the Pacific, but don’t quite stop moving; it’s difficult to be at a standstill on a boat this small. You are alone. Well, maybe. You wonder about what’s hiding beneath the surface. You take your hood down and listen. Seagulls. Waves. If you’re lucky, the loud “puff” of a whale’s blowhole.

AWF monitors a tagged sperm whale in the waters off Southeast Alaska. Andy Szabo, NMFS Research Permit No. 14599
AWF monitors a tagged sperm whale in the waters off Southeast Alaska. Andy Szabo, NMFS Research Permit No. 14599

You came prepared with an underwater mic and drop it over the side of your boat. With a snug pair of headphones, you listen to the haunting lilt of whale calls beneath the waves.

Now what?

The Alaska Whale Foundation (AWF), with the support of the Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic Fund, has analyzed hundreds of humpback whale vocalizations. To this day, very little is known about the role that communication plays among humpback whales. Do they fight? Flirt? Exchange at length on American romanticism? (Answer, at least to this last question: probably not).

Humans are well equipped to differentiate between tones and acoustics, and can use this skill to decipher the subtle differences among vocalizations and classify them into different “call types.” Sitting alone in a Zodiac and listening through a hydrophone, it may be difficult to determine the content of a humpback’s call, but AWF, with the help of student volunteers, has created a classification scheme that spans a range of moods and behaviors that humpbacks use to communicate. It is the first comprehensive catalogue of vocalizations produced by humpback whales in their foraging grounds.

Michelle Fournet, an AWF researcher and Oregon State University graduate student, uses a hydrophone to listen to and record whale calls underwater. Photo by Andy Szabo, NMFS Research Permit No. 14599
Michelle Fournet, an AWF researcher and Oregon State University graduate student, uses a hydrophone to listen to and record whale calls underwater. Photo by Andy Szabo, NMFS Research Permit No. 14599

More and more, AWF is working to bridge the gap between humans and whales. As researchers learn to recognize their communication patterns, they can tap into their language and understand the way they relate to each other. These invaluable data are revealing more about the idiosyncrasies, feeding habits, and behavior of humpback whales—this, in turn, helps scientists target conservation efforts. Knowing where and when they feed and breed helps fishermen keep their nets away and avoid trapping or injuring whales, a serious problem in Southeast Alaska.

To assist these efforts, AWF has recently helped develop a citizen-science application, Whale mAPP, with Dr. Lei Lani Stelle from the University of Redlands, that allows volunteer boaters to record marine mammal sightings and simultaneously raise awareness of important conservation issues. Lots of people help collect data, including travelers aboard Lindblad-National Geographic expeditions through Southeast Alaska. The app is currently in beta testing, and AWF hopes to engage more boaters, including commercial fishermen, pleasure boaters, and charter vessel operators through a targeted outreach program.

By involving tourists in the collection of important information on humpback whales, AWF is banking on the idea that education and conservation go hand-in-hand; the more people who learn about this mesmerizing marine megafauna, the more engaged they will be in its protection.

AWF also recently opened its Center for Coastal Conservation on Baranof Island in Southeast Alaska, another project partly geared toward education. Among its many uses, the facility works on broad, long-term monitoring programs, offers volunteer opportunities, and provides immersive educational programs that allow students to participate directly in stewardship and conservation.

The Center for Coastal Conservation on Baranof Island, Alaska is an important outpost for research, conservation education, and outreach in the region. Photo by Andy Szabo.
The Center for Coastal Conservation on Baranof Island, Alaska is an important outpost for research, conservation education, and outreach in the region. Photo by Andy Szabo.

Additionally, the Center acts as an interpretive and outreach center to raise awareness of the conservation concerns facing the region. It is open to the public as an outreach center, and provides educational material and natural history lectures to several thousand visitors to the area.

Humans may never be able to hold a straight conversation with whales. But if everyone keeps protecting them and their habitats, we may eventually understand a little more than we do today.

So perhaps the next time you’re alone with a hydrophone off the coast of Southeast Alaska, surrounded by the giddy cawing of seagulls, maybe you’ll overhear a discussion about if Moby Dick had been a humpback, how he could have avoided the whole Ahab incident…in whale-speak.

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If you would like to learn more about the Alaska Whale Foundation, or other projects supported by the LEX-NG Fund worldwide, please contact the Fund by email. To contribute to the LEX-NG Fund, click here.