The Songs of Whales and Elephants

“The ocean is really huge. When you get out on a little boat, you know it.
You’re clinging to a cork. And out there, rolling around and swimming through and perfectly at home in the waves are these enormous animals. And by golly, they’re singing. And so what that has done for me is to make me feel that what lies ahead is absolutely limitless. We are not at the pinnacle of human knowledge.
We are just beginning.”  –  Katy Payne

Photo by Silvana Palacios on

Katy Payne is an acoustic biologist who has studied whales off the wild coast of Argentina and studied elephants in the rainforests of Africa. She discovered that humpback whales compose ever-changing songs. Similarly, she found that elephants also communicate across long distances by way of sounds that, like whale songs, are beyond human hearing. They are low sounds – infrasound – below our hearing range.

She is the author of Silent Thunder: In the Presence of Elephants which tells the stories of elephants and their families that she has studied. They have names and personalities and are very social creatures. That includes their complex interactions with humans, especially those who love and protect them.

Photo by FUTURE KIIID on

I heard a rebroadcast of a radio program about her work and learned that she is a practicing Quaker. She is also a student of the spiritual philosopher Gurdjieff. Is there a spiritual side to studying nature? I believe there is and I think that might be particularly true of someone who studies nature and wildlife by listening, as opposed to capturing and dissecting a species, for example.

She studied both biology and music as an undergrad, so it seems fitting that she was one of the early group of scientists that discovered that whales communicate by song. More importantly, it was found that those songs are not something whales are born with and repeat over and over. The whales are “composers” and the songs are constantly evolving.

During the mating season, male humpbacks emit vocalizations that sound to human ears like barks, chirps, and moans. A whale’s unique song slowly evolves over a period of years, never returning to the same sequence of notes even after decades.

Joshua Smith, a doctoral student at the University of Queensland, Australia,  investigated songs of humpback whales during three seasons. “Singers are joining females with calves more often and singing for a much longer duration with them than with any other group,” Smith said, but he thinks it’s more likely that the songs are directed to females showing them the males’ fitness, based on their song qualities and allowing them to compare the males and choose the one they consider the fittest.

They are singing love songs

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A lifelong educator on and off the Internet. Random by design and predictably irrational. It's turtles all the way down. Dolce far niente.

2 thoughts on “The Songs of Whales and Elephants”

  1. listening to the radio program (excellent BTW) I was struck at how Payne believes that all of us can experience feeling the low level rumbling of elephants (at a zoo perhaps) is we are only aware or mindful of it. As a people, we are so unconnected and so mindful of so much of what is around us – nature, people, the elements – that this type of program and writing is in great need.


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