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Campus Currents May 2007: Volume 4, Number 2

Blue Whale Blues

Blue whales sing across the vast expanses of the ocean to attract potential mates. John Hildebrand, Warren ’78, of Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego and his colleagues have discovered that the sound level of songs has been steadily creeping downward for the past few decades.

The researchers examined a list of possible causes for the frequency drop—from climate change to a rise in human-produced ocean noise—but believe it is best explained by the increase of blue whale numbers following bans on commercial whaling activities. In the heyday of commercial whaling, as blue whale numbers plummeted, it may have been advantageous for males to sing at a higher frequency to maximize transmission distance.

“When they make these songs they need to use most of the air in their lungs,” says Hildebrand. “It’s like an opera singer who sees how long he can hold a note. The (male) songs are made to impress the females and/or other males, so that’s how the male blue whales impress the females … by making a loud and long song.”

Hildebrand says such knowledge could be important in monitoring whale populations and recovery efforts.

—Mario C. Aguilera, ’89