Song of the Humpback Whale


By - Nancy Terrell - (reprinted from Nautical Scene - 2002)


As a lover of both nature and music, I was overjoyed when whale "listening" expert Paul Knapp invited me to eavesdrop to the song of the Humpback whale.  What a joyous experience!  There we were - huddled together in Glenn Collins' new 4.5 Avon dinghy, off the North Shore of Tortola, listening to the songs of two whales not more than a couple of miles away.  Cybele Knaebler had also joined us, cuddling her arms around her knees in pure ecstasy, as Knapp dropped his hydrophone to a depth of 50' and we heard the live singing of Humpbacks through an amplifier and speakers. It was all quite exciting - a wonderful occurrence that I shall never forget.


A generous man in the sharing of knowledge about Humpbacks and an expert in the field of "listening", Knapp presents a picture to the world, of these intriguing songs, through his tapes and CD's which are published at his own expense and sold on the Compass Label.  He has donated hundreds of tapes to libraries, schools, hospitals and civic groups throughout the Caribbean, United States and Europe.  Recently he spoke to Clive Petrovic's students at the H. Lavity Stoutt Community College on Tortola as well as the Montessori School in Road Town.  He frequently gives "Whale Lectures" throughout the Virgin Islands as well as abroad.


Listening to the sound of whales is very beneficial to health.  When Knapp donated his North Atlantic Humpback Whale tapes to the Children's Medical Center in Connecticut for use with traumatized children, one of the many responses he received in thanks was from Child Life Specialist (CLS) Eileen Henzy.  Henzy reported that a 14 year old boy had received multiple injuries that required hours of orthopedic surgery.  Henzy used one of Knapp's tapes of Humpback sounds to help reduce the pain and trauma associated with the surgery.  The patient recovered much more quickly than usual and with less pain.


Humpback whales belong to the Balaenopteridae Family. They range in color from completely black, to black with white markings on the throat, abdomen and sides. Sometimes their bellies may be completely white and they can have white markings behind the eyes and on their backs and head, which is large and round. They have  distinctive flippers - long and narrow and up to 30 % of their body length and short, robust bodies.


The average length of a humpback whale is 50' with the females being somewhat smaller at around 45'.  Their life span ranges  between 40 to 65 years. In the north-west Atlantic, Humpbacks spend the summer on feeding grounds around Iceland, southern Greenland, Gulf of St. Lawrence and Gulf of Maine. In autumn, they head south to the Caribbean, mainly north of the Dominican Republic on the Silver & Navidad Banks and in the Virgin Islands where they breed (calving) in February.  They migrate south to Grenada and the Grenadines.  They generally stay near to the coast and are often seen along the edges of continental shelves. When diving they remain submerged from anywhere from 6 to 30 minutes.


The whales we heard were most vocal with sounds that were fairly long and organized. Only the males "sing" and this is thought to be in a display of courtship. These "mating calls" may be a part of dominance in vying for the attentions of the females.  Humpbacks sing in cyclical, hierarchically-structured sequences with repetitions at intervals of between 5 to 15 minutes and are audible for up to 10 minutes in deep water.  Many whale experts believe that the "songs" are comprised of "themes" which consist of patterns of repeated "phrases".  These phrases are made up of single calls called "units". Themes, phrases and units follow each other in a repetitive sequence.  The structure of the song evolves slowly. Over time, the number of repetitions and duration of themes and phrases change. The songs 'rhyme', in the sense that 'phrases in adjacent themes have similar beginnings or endings'.  This rhyming might be a memory-aid, all of which sounds fairly complex to me.  


Humpback whales join all marine mammals in being under the direct threat of dangerous sonar resounding from US Navy submarines.  They are also endangered by hunting in places such as Bequia  in the Lesser Antilles.  Because of their coastal habit, they are vulnerable to many activities in the near-shore zone such as collisions with vessels, habitat degradation, pollution and entanglement in fishing gear.


Knapp feels that "the beauty of Humpback songs are so lovely that if people knew and could hear them they would stop and listen."  Totally agreeing, I thank Knapp for a most enjoyable & memorable day. I spent the next several days listening to his tapes & CDs which take me to another world on my Walkman.  They can be obtained by writing to Paul at P.O. Box 38173, Bridgeport, Conn. 06605, USA.

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