Africa: Whales, Too, Sing Sweet Love Songs

Sometimes a whale just carries a tune.

Just like human beings, displays of affection win hearts among creatures of the sea.

Humpback whales, some of the largest sea mammals in the world, stand out as among those who impress their mates with ‘love songs’.

While they sound nothing like Sauti Sol, the repeated snorts, clicks, whistles, moans, grunts, blasts and shrieks delight the females and are an object of fascination for experts and laypeople alike.

Some underwater acoustic devices have, for the first time, been anchored to the bottom of the Watamu Marine Reserve to capture the love songs of the passing male whales.

For years, humpback whales have been migrating from Antarctica to warmer climates, congregating in Kenyan waters between July and August to calve and mate.

Journey back to Antarctica

After spending two months nursing their calves, the whales then make their journey back to Antarctica around September.

In East Africa, the whales travel up to 4,000 kilometres to reach Mozambique, Tanzania, or Kenya to take care of their new-borns.

Mr Michael Mwang’ombe, the marine mammal project coordinator at Watamu Marine Association (WMA), said male whales communicate through song, which to the human ear sounds more like a haunting melody.

Researchers aren’t entirely sure why whales sing, although most agree that it has something to do with courtship.

Given that the singers are male and they mainly sing during the mating season, the songs are probably used to attract females, or perhaps they are territorially used to keep away other males.

Just like our own sound of music, the whales’ songs evolve over time. Every year units and phrases are added, changed, or dropped.

The males learn songs like the verses of a human song and can remix them. And each region has its own dialect.

Social learning

Similar to the way we humans transfer language through social learning, humpbacks pass down their songs from one whale to another. Whales from diverse locations gather and learn new songs from other whales.

The music mixes different pitches and textures — from high wails to deep growls, rhythmic scratches to choruses that have a full range of emotions in the longest song performed by any animal.

“It can be compared to the development of different traditional Kenyan songs. The whales sing the same song, though some decide to modify the tunes, a sort of improvising, which is specific to an area, again like Kenyan traditional music,” said Mr Mwang’ombe.