The Whale That Dines Alone

Researchers listened as solitary humpback whales made a supposedly social call.

Authored by Ashley Braun 

May 14th, 2018 

In the summer of 2012, Michelle Fournet had a dream job—studying humpback whales in Southeast Alaska’s Frederick Sound. The Oregon State University graduate student spent long days in a boat listening for the whales through underwater microphones and watching for them from a lighthouse. One day on the water, a whale’s call blasted through Fournet’s headphones. Simultaneously, a ring of bubbles appeared on the water’s surface about 50 meters away from her boat. When the call stopped, a humpback whale burst through the center of the bubbles, gulping down fish.

As impressive as it was to watch the spectacle from so close, it wasn’t until three years later, when Fournet was combing through the summer’s notes and recordings, that she realized the importance of that solitary whale’s call. Her observation would help shift scientists’ understanding of a well-documented humpback whale behavior.

That day, Fournet had heard the whale make a feeding call, a vocalization that pierces the water at a frequency of 500 hertz. It sounds like a series of haunting trumpets, or as Fournet describes it, “a really happy soprano.” Since 1974, when the call was first identified, researchers have documented some groups of Alaskan humpbacks making the feeding call while hunting Pacific herring. But those whales had always been in groups; Fournet’s whale was belting it out solo.

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