How Whales — and People! — Use Songs to Navigate

By Lauri deGaris

Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of 10 articles about whales, spaced out every other Monday during the season of right whale visitors, which once again are arriving at our shores for calving, which starts Dec. 1

Being an elder in many cultures means it is time to share wisdom with the next generation. As an elder, I am sharing wisdom bestowed upon me about how whales and humans can communicate across language barriers by singing a songline. Songlines have been used by whales and people to navigate their environment and communicate throughout time. Creating a songline is a skill we inherited from our relations under the waves. Don’t forget, whales and humans do share a large amount of DNA.

Lynne Keely of the Natural History Museum in Australia defines songlines as a knowledge system for a non-text-based society. Moving from location to location throughout a landscape, Aboriginal people perform a ritual at each site – the ritual being simply a repeated event like a song or a story or a dance that shares information. This information might be about where you might find fresh water or where to find flint.

In whales, songlines are thought to be used to embed navigational, mating and foraging knowledge into each generation. Songlines are like subheadings in a knowledge system. Subheadings can include a landscape mark like where a river meets the ocean; the location of a granite island; or a trough in the Atlantic Ocean. The young generation learn a note for each significant location and practice it over and over until the songline is memorized.

Dr. Roger Payne produced an album from underwater audio recordings titled “Songs of the Humpback Whale” in the 1970s. “The definition of a song is simply a repeated rhythmic pattern,” said Dr. Payne, “but whale song transmits a message that gets to other levels of your brain.” Some of the laws of musical composition of humpbacks’ songs are the same as in human music, he notes. “Whales, for example, use sonata form: the establishment of a theme and then a variation, then a return.”

Dr Ellen C. Garland, is a Royal Society University Fellow at the University of St Andrews. She studies cultural songs used by whales. Her research includes animal culture, social learning, bioacoustics, and behavioral ecology. Her main research focuses on cetaceans, and in particular the cultural transmission, vocal learning, and function of humpback whale songs.

According to Dr. Garland, “Animal culture and social learning is a ground-breaking area of research, with growing evidence of cultural processes in primates, cetaceans, and birds. Humpback whale songs are one of the most startling examples of transmission of a cultural trait and social learning in any non-human animal.”

Songs of the humpback whale are one of the most elaborate acoustic displays in the animal kingdom. Dr. Garland points out that within each population of whales, there is a strong link to a song. The songs of the male humpback are constantly changing according to Dr. Garland. This is a slow gradual process in which changes in the song occur over the entire population. Groups of humpbacks within an ocean basin sing similar songs. The similarity of the song depends on geographic distances. The transmission of a song changes across a region. You can learn more about Dr. Garland’s exciting research here.

Dr. Garland is not the only scientist interested in whale songs and acoustics. Postdoctoral fellow at the Institute of Geophysics in Prague, Vaclav Kuna, made an interesting discovery as part of his research. “Kuna was searching through data related to an earthquake from seismic stations on the bottom of the ocean when he realized it included fin whale songs in addition to the movement of the water waves.”

WBUR and National Public Radio show “Here and Now” interviewed Kuna in 2021 about his discovery. Kuna told them, “Fin whale songs are one of the loudest sounds in the ocean at 189 decibels.” That is comparable to a large ship engine, he says.

Seismologists collect data about the thickness of the Earth’s layers for the oil and gas industry. This data has additional uses in geology and climatology. Most seismologists use seismic air guns to penetrate the Earth’s crust and bounce off a receiver to return data. Fin whales produce a song that is quieter with a narrow frequency range as compared to noisy air guns.

Air guns are expensive and many believe cause ecological harm. “The fin whales are already out there and we have recorded so many of them,” says Kuna. “And we just don’t need to create artificially those signals that may bother the wildlife out there.” Listen to NPR’s “Here and Now” interview with Kuna here.

Dr. Kuna and Dr. Garland are two contemporary scientists proving what Indigenous cultures have known for thousands of years. Whales use songlines to navigate, mate, and pass knowledge along generational lines across geographic ocean landscapes.

Aboriginal people from Australia are among the oldest cultural groups on Mother Earth. They remember the ancient ways of “dreaming” and “songlines.” Songlines are an ancient memory code used by indigenous cultures around the world.

Aboriginal stories are handed down orally and relate to the local environment, cultural values and spiritual wisdom. These stories can be about creation and they can be contemporary as well. Using songlines, Australians have acquired vast knowledge about thousands of plants and animals across the continent.

Lynne Malcolm and Olivia Willis are the authors of “Songlines: The Indigenous Memory Code” published in 2016. In this article, they point out that songlines are navigational tracks. “Elders will sing the landscape and therefore be able to move from location to location through it, teaching others along the way.” Sacred locations have a unique song and ritual that are repeated to become embedded in our memories. They are singing the story in song because stories are much more memorable in song than they are as a written list of facts. And, songlines allow for individual expression and emotion to be incorporated into the narration.

Songlines link positions in landscape. Each location in the landscape contains information valuable for one’s journey. These songlines often record accurate information about the changing landscape. Even sea level rise is depicted in a songline.

By singing the songs in the appropriate sequence, Aboriginal people can navigate vast distances with no written record. The continent of Australia contains an extensive system of songlines, some of which are of a few kilometers, whilst others traverse hundreds of kilometers through lands of many different cultures. These peoples may speak different languages and have different cultural traditions, but they are united by the songline.

What does this have to do with whales you may ask yourself? Well, our ancestors used songlines to navigate the landscape just like whales use songlines to navigate the oceans. This is another common characteristic we share with our relations under the waves.

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Peggy Bulger
Noble Member
Peggy Bulger(@peggy-bulger1949gmail-com)
7 months ago

I loved this article. Thank you for explaining the science that confirms the folklore of generations. We are all related and songlines are one of the systems that bind us together, as humans and beyond to our fellow mammals.

Mark Tomes
Trusted Member
Mark Tomes(@mtomes)
7 months ago

Sometimes people say that we are learning that animals are as smart as us people, but I see it as more that we are learning that we are as smart as animals, or at least, used to be.

Active Member
7 months ago

Love the article – thank you for the education 

Editor: Please check with the Whale Ambassadors – I don’t think it is mating season for the Right Whale. Our shoreline serves as a nursery for the newborn calves. Thank you for supporting the season with a series of articles! #savetherightwhale

Christine Hiebel
Christine Hiebel(@christine-hiebel)
7 months ago

I remember the ‘Songs of the Humpback Whale’, in fact I may have owned a copy! I was fascinated back then and this article helps me understand why. I enjoyed seeing these gentle giants when I worked for NOAA, so majestic. I also saw the devastation of men… a beluga whale floating by with only its head chopped off. Harvested for a small part of the body and then thrown back into the water without regard for the value of the life of these precious animals. Taking without understanding the balance of life, just taking…

Thank you for bringing connection to the story between us and the whales. When we understand our connection with the world around us, I believe we will no longer live like we can take without repercussion. We will understand the fine dance of reciprocity. Keep raising your voice, especially if it feels like you are shouting into a void.

Richard Timm
Trusted Member
Richard Timm(@rtimm-ontheislandgmail-com)
7 months ago

Thank you Lauri. I love how you share such interesting research.