Mysticete Sounds

  • Thomas J. Thompson
  • Howard E. Winn
  • Paul J. Perkins


Historic literature contains many allusions to mysterious sounds heard at sea, and these tales may comprise the earliest references to mysticete sounds. The “songs” that sirens sang and the sounds of “ghosts” on ships were perhaps partially based on the sounds of mysticete whales. Many of the stories were probably derived from experiences of sailors traveling by shallow banks and islands in the tropics (L. Winn, personal communication). Much of this lore may be attributable to the humpback whale song, which is emitted during the mating and calving season and could easily be heard through the wooden hull of sailing vessels. Aldrich (1889) stated that whaling captains listened for “singing” whales during their expeditions. Whales included in this subjective account were bowhead, right, humpback, and devil-fish (gray whale), all capable of producing various sounds. On occasion, sounds were heard from live stranded whales. Little else was reported until hydrophones were extensively employed during World War II and various “groans” and “moans” were heard. Although the sound source was usually not known, it was often suspected that at least some of these sounds were produced by whales. However, most hydrophones were incapable of detecting very low frequency sounds below 100 Hz.


Killer Whale Minke Whale Humpback Whale Gray Whale Baleen Whale 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. Aldrich, H. L., 1889, Arctic, Alaska, and Siberia, Rand, McNally, Chicago, pp. 32–35.Google Scholar
  2. Anon., 1969, Singing whales, Nature 224(5216):217.Google Scholar
  3. Asa-Dorian, P. V., and Perkins, P. J., 1967, The controversial production of sound by the California gray whale, Eschrichtius gibbosus, Nor. Hvalfangst-Tid. 4:74–77.Google Scholar
  4. Backus, R. H., and Schevill, W. E., 1966, Physeter clicks, in: Whales, Dolphins, and Porpoises (K. S. Norris, ed.), pp. 510–528, University of California Press, Berkeley.Google Scholar
  5. Beamish, P., 1974, Whale acoustics, J. Can. Acoust. Assoc. 2(4):8–12.Google Scholar
  6. Beamish, P., 1978, Evidence that a captive humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) does not use sonar, Deep-Sea Res. 25(5):469–472.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Beamish, P., and Mitchell, E., 1971, Ultrasonic sounds recorded in the presence of a blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus), Deep-Sea Res. 18:803–809.Google Scholar
  8. Beamish, P., and Mitchell, E., 1973, Short pulse length audio frequency sounds recorded in the presence of a minke whale (Balaenoptera acutorostrata), Deep-Sea Res. 20:375–386.Google Scholar
  9. Busnel, R-G., and Dziedzic, A., 1966, Acoustic signals of the pilot whale Globicephala melaena and of the porpoises Delphinus delphis and Phocoena phocoena, in: Whales, Dolphins, and Porpoises (K. S. Norris, ed.), pp. 607–648, University of California Press, Berkeley.Google Scholar
  10. Caldwell, M. C., Caldwell, D. K., and Hall, N. R., 1972, Ability of an Atlantic Bottlenosed Dolphin (Tursiops truncatus) to Discriminate Between and Potentially Identify to Individual, the Whistles of Another Species, the Common Dolphin (Delphinus delphis), Marineland Res. Lab., Tech. Rep. 9, 7 pp.Google Scholar
  11. Cummings, W. C., and Phillipi, L. A., 1970, Whale Phonations in Repetitive Stanzas, Naval Undersea Res. and Dev. Center, NUC TP 196, San Diego, 4 pp.Google Scholar
  12. Cummings, W. C., and Thompson, P. O., 1971a, Underwater sounds from the blue whale, Balaenoptera musculus, J. Acoust. Soc. Am. 50(4 pt. 2): 1193–1198.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Cummings, W. C., and Thompson, P. O., 1971b, Bioacoustics of marine animals; R/V Hero cruise 70–3, Antarc.J. U.S., 6(5):158–160.Google Scholar
  14. Cummings, W. C., and Thompson, P. O., 1971c, Grray whales, Eschrichtius robustus, avoid the underwater sounds of killer whales, Orcinus orca, Fish. Bull. 69(3):525–530.Google Scholar
  15. Cummings, W. C., and Thompson, P. O., Sounds from Bryde’s and finback whales in the Gulf of California (unpublished manuscript).Google Scholar
  16. Cummings, W. C., Thompson, P. O., and Cook, R., 1968, Underwater sounds of migrating gray whales, Eschrichtius glaucus (Cope), J. Acoust. Soc. Am. 44(5): 1278–1281.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Cummings, W. C., Fish, J. F., and Thompson, P. O., 1972, Sound production and other behavior of southern right whales, Eubalena glacialis, Trans. San Diego Soc. Nat. Hist. 17(1): 1–14.Google Scholar
  18. Cummings, W. C., Thompson, P. O., and Fish, J. F., 1974, Behavior of southern right whales: RV Hero cruise 72–3, Antarct. J. U.S., March-April 1974, 33–38.Google Scholar
  19. Dudok van Heel, W. H., 1962, Sound and cetacea, Neth. J. Sea Res. 1(4):407–507.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Eberhardt, R. L., and Evans, W. E., 1962, Sound activity of the California gray whale, Eschrichtius glaucus, J. Audio Eng. Soc. 10(4):324–328.Google Scholar
  21. Fish, J., and Turl, C. W., 1976, Acoustic Source Levels of Four Species of Small Whales, Naval Undersea Center, NUC TP 547, 14 pp.Google Scholar
  22. Fish, J. F., Sumich, J. L., and Lingle, G. L., 1974, Sounds produced by the gray whale, Eschrichtius robustus, Mar. Fish Rev. 36(4):38–45.Google Scholar
  23. Fish, M. P., 1949, Marine Mammals of the Pacific with Particular Reference to the Production of Underwater Sound, Office of Naval Res., Tech. Rep. No. 8, Ref. no. 49–30, 69 pp.Google Scholar
  24. Fleischer, G., 1976, Hearing in extinct cetaceans as determined by cochlear structure, J. Paleontol. 50(1):133–152.Google Scholar
  25. Fraser, F. C., and Purves, P. E., 1954, Hearing in cetaceans, Bull. Br. Mus. (Nat. Hist.) 2:103–116.Google Scholar
  26. Fraser, F. C., and Purves, P. E., 1960, Hearing in cetaceans, Bull. Br. Mus. (Nat. Hist.) 7:1–140.Google Scholar
  27. Gales, R. S., 1966, Pickup, analysis, and interpretation of underwater acoustic data, in: Whales, Dolphins, and Porpoises (K. S. Norris, ed.), pp. 435–444, University of California Press, Berkeley.Google Scholar
  28. Gilmore, R., 1969, Populations, distribution, and behavior of whales in the western South Atlantic; Cruise 69–3 of R/V Hero, Antarct. J. U.S. IV(6):307–308.Google Scholar
  29. Griffin, D. R., 1955, Hearing and acoustic orientation in marine animals, Deep-Sea Res. 3(Suppl.):406–417.Google Scholar
  30. Hafner, G. W., Hamilton, C. L., Steiner, W. W., Thompson, T. J., and Winn, H. E., 1979, Signature information in the song of the humpback whale, (in preparation).Google Scholar
  31. Hosakowa, H., 1950, On the cetacean larynx with special remarks on the laryngeal sac of the sei whale and the aryteno-epiglottideal tube of the sperm whale, Sci. Rep. Whales Res. Inst. 3:23–62.Google Scholar
  32. Johnson, C.S., 1967, Sound detection thresholds in marine mammals, in: Marine Bio-Acoustics (W. N. Tavolga, ed.), Vol. 2, pp. 247–260, Pergamon Press, New York.Google Scholar
  33. Katona, S., Richardson, D., and Hazard, R., 1975, A Field Guide to the Whales and Seals of the Gulf of Maine pp. 1–63, Maine Coast Printers, Rockland.Google Scholar
  34. Kibblewhite, A. C., Denham, R. N., and Barnes, D. J., 1967, Unusual low-frequency signals observed in New Zealand waters, J. Acoust. Soc. Am. 41(3):644–655.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Leatherwood, S., Caldwell, D. K., and Winn, H. E., 1976, Whales, Dolphins, and Porpoises of the Western North Atlantic, A Guide to Their Identification, NOAA Tech. Rep. NMFS CIRC-396, 175 pp.Google Scholar
  36. Levenson, C., 1969, Behavioral, Physical, and Acoustic Characteristics of Humpback Whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) at Argus Island, Naval Oceanogr. Office, Informal Rep. 69–54, 13 pp.Google Scholar
  37. Levenson, C., 1972, Characteristics of Sounds Produced by Humpback Whales (Megaptera novaeangliae), NAVOCEANO Tech. Note 7700–6–72, 17 pp.Google Scholar
  38. Levenson, C., and Leapley, W. T., 1976, Humpback Whale Distribution in the Eastern Caribbean Determined Acoustically from an Oceanographic Aircraft, NAVOCEANO Tech. Note 3700–46–76, 7 pp.Google Scholar
  39. McVay, S., 1973, Stalking the Arctic whale, Am. Sci. 61:24–37.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  40. Nishiwaki, M., 1972, General biology, in: Mammals of the Sea (S. H. Ridgway, ed.), pp. 3–33, Charles C. Thomas, Springfield, Illinois.Google Scholar
  41. Norris, K. S., 1969, The echolocation of marine mammals, in: The Biology of Marine Mammals (H. T. Andersen, ed.), pp. 391–423, Academic Press, New York.Google Scholar
  42. Norris, K. S., Goodman, R. M., Villa-Ramirez, B., and Hobbs, L., 1977, Behavior of California gray whale, Eschrictius robustus, in Southern Baja California, Mexico, Fish. Bull. 75(1): 159–172.Google Scholar
  43. Northrup, J., Cummings, W. C., and Thompson, P. O., 1968, 20-Hz signals observed in the Central Pacific, J. Acoust. Soc. Am, 43(2):383–384.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Northrup, J., Cummings, W. C., and Morrison, M. F., 1971, Underwater 20-Hz signals recorded near Midway Island, J. Acoust. Soc. Am. 49(6 pt. 2): 1909–1910.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Painter, D. W., 1963, Ambient noise in a coastal lagoon, J. Acoust. Soc. Am. 35(9): 1458–1459.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Patterson, B., and Hamilton, G. R., 1964, Repetitive 20 cycle per second biological hydroacoustic signals at Bermuda, in: Marine Bio-Acoustics (W. N. Tavolga, ed.), Vol. 1, pp. 125–146, Pergamon Press, New York.Google Scholar
  47. Payne, R., 1972, The song of the whale, in: The Marvels of Animal Behavior, pp. 144–166. National Geographic Society, Washington D.C.Google Scholar
  48. Payne, R., 1977, “Deep Voices,” a long playing album produced by R. Payne, Capitol Records, Inc., Survival Anglia Limited.Google Scholar
  49. Payne, R., and McVay, S., 1971, Songs of humpback whales, Science 173:583–597.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Payne, R., and Payne, K., 1971, Underwater sounds of southern right whales, Zoologica 4:159–165.Google Scholar
  51. Payne, K., and Payne, R., 1979, Annual changes in songs of humpback whales, Z. Tierpsychol. (in press).Google Scholar
  52. Payne, R., and Webb, D., 1971, Orientation by means of long range acoustic signalling in baleen whales, Ann. N.Y. Acad. Sci. 188:110–142.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Perkins, P. J., 1966a, Passive sonar aids deep-sea research on Trident, Undersea Tech. March:3.Google Scholar
  54. Perkins, P. J., 19666, Communication sounds of finback whales, Nor. Hvalfangst-Tid. 10:199–200.Google Scholar
  55. Poulter, T. C., 1968, Marine mammals, in: Animal Communication; Techniques of Study and Results of Research (T. Sebeok, ed.), pp. 405–465, Indiana University Press, Bloomington.Google Scholar
  56. Poulter, T. C., 1970, Vocalization of the gray whales in Laguno Ojo de Liebre (Scammons Lagoon) Baja California, Mexico (unpublished manuscript).Google Scholar
  57. Poulter, T. C., 1971, Recording of marine mammals in the arctic, U.S. Navy J. Underwater Acoust. 1:97–104.Google Scholar
  58. Purves, P. E., 1966, Anatomy and physiology of the outer and middle ear in cetaceans, in: Whales, Dolphins, and Porpoises (K. S. Norris, ed.), pp. 320–380, University of California Press, Berkeley.Google Scholar
  59. Rasmussen, R. A., and Head, N. E., 1965, The quiet gray whale (Eschrichtius glaucus), Deep-Sea Res. 12:869–877.Google Scholar
  60. Reysenbach de Haan, F. W., 1957, Hearing in whales, Acta Otolaryngol. 134(Suppl.):1–114.Google Scholar
  61. Reysenbach de Haan, F. W., 1966, Listening underwater: Thoughts on sound and cetacean hearing, in: Whales, Dolphins, and Porpoises (K. S. Norris, ed.), pp. 583–596, University of California Press, Berkeley.Google Scholar
  62. Ross, G. J. B., Best, P. B., and Donnelly, B. G., 1975, New record of the pygmy right whale (Caperea marginata) from South Africa, with comments on distribution, migration, appearance, and behavior, J. Fish. Res. Board. Can. 32(7): 1005–1017.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Schevill, W. E., 1964, Underwater sounds of cetaceans, in: Marine Bio-Acoustics (W. N. Tavolga, ed.), Vol. l, pp. 307–316.Google Scholar
  64. Schevill, W. E., and Watkins, W. A., 1962, “Whale and Porpoise Voices,” a phonograph record, Woods Hole Oceanographie Inst., Woods Hole, Massachusetts, 24 pp.Google Scholar
  65. Schevill, W. E., and Watkins, W. A., 1972, Intense low-frequency sounds from an Antarctic minke whale, Balaenoptera acutorostrata, Breviora 388:1–8.Google Scholar
  66. Schevill, W. E., Backus, R. H., and Hersey, J. B., 1962, Sound production by marine animals, in: The Sea (M. N. Hill, ed.), Vol. 1, pp. 540–562, Interscience Publishers, J. Wiley and Sons, New York.Google Scholar
  67. Schevill, W. E., Watkins, W. A, and Backus, R. H., 1964, The 20 cycle signals and Balaenoptera (fin whales), in: Marine Bio-Acoustics (W. N. Tavolga, ed.), Vol. 1, pp. 147–152, Pergamon Press, New York.Google Scholar
  68. Schreiber, D. W., 1952, Some sounds of marine life in the Hawaiian area, (abstract), J. Acoust. Soc. Am. 24:116.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  69. Tavolga, W. N., 1968, Marine Animal Data Atlas, Naval Training Device Center, Tech. Rep., NAVTRADEVCEN, 1212–2, 239 pp.Google Scholar
  70. Thompson, P. O., and Cummings, W. C., 1969, Sound production of the finback whale, Balaenoptera physalus, and Eden’s whale, B. edeni, in the Gulf of California, Proc. Sixth Ann. Calif. Biol. Sonar and Diving Mammals (abstract), Stanford Res. Inst., p. 109.Google Scholar
  71. Thompson, T. J., and Winn, H.E., 1977, Temporal aspects of the humpback whale song (abstract 147), Anim. Behav. Soc. Meeting, Pennsylvania State University.Google Scholar
  72. Tyrrell, W. A., 1964, Design of acoustic systems for obtaining bio-acoustic data, in: Marine Bio-Acoustics (W. N. Tavolga, ed.), Vol. 1, pp. 65–86, Pergamon Press, New York.Google Scholar
  73. Walker, R. A., 1963, Some intense, low-frequency, underwater sounds of wide geographic distribution, apparently of biological origin, J. Acoust. Soc. Am. 35(11): 1816–1824.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  74. Watkins, W. A., 1966, Listening to cetaceans, in: Whales, Dolphins, and Porpoises (K. S. Norris, ed.), pp. 471–476, University of California Press, Berkeley.Google Scholar
  75. Watkins, W. A., 1967a, The harmonic interval; fact or artifact in spectral analysis of pulse trains, in: Marine Bio-Acoustics (W. N. Tavolga, ed.), Vol. 2, pp. 15–43, Pergamon Press, New York.Google Scholar
  76. Watkins, W. A., 1967b, Airborne sounds of the humpback whale, Megaptera novaeangliae, J. Mammal. 48(4):573–578.Google Scholar
  77. Watkins, W. A., 1976, Biological sound-source locations by computer analysis of underwater array data, Deep-Sea Res. 23:175–180.Google Scholar
  78. Watkins, W. A., and Schevill, W. E., 1976, Right whale feeding and baleen rattle, J. Mammal. 57(1):58–66.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  79. Wenz, G. M., 1964, Curious noises and the sonic environment in the ocean, in: Marine Bio-Acoustics (W. N. Tavolga, ed.), Vol. 1, pp. 101–119, Pergamon Press, New York.Google Scholar
  80. Weston, D. E., and Black, R. I., 1965, Some unusual low-frequency biological noises underwater, Deep-Sea Res. 12:295–298.Google Scholar
  81. Winn, H. E., and Perkins, P. J., 1976, Distributions and sounds of the minke whale, with a review of mysticete sounds, Cetology 19:1–12.Google Scholar
  82. Winn, H. E., and Winn, L.K., 1978, The song of the humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) in the West Indies, Mar. Biol. 47:97–114.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  83. Winn, H. E., Perkins, P. J., and Poulter, T. C., 1971, Sounds of the humpback whale, Proc.Seventh Ann. Conf. Biol. Sonar and Diving Mammals, Stanford Res. Inst., pp. 39–52.Google Scholar
  84. Winn, H. E., Bischoff, W. L., and Taruski, A. G., 1973, Cytological sexing of cetacea, Mar. Biol. 23:343–346.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  85. Winn, H. E., Edel, R. K., and Taruski, A. G., 1975, Population estimate of the humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) in the West Indies by visual and acoustic techniques, J. Fish. Res. Board Can. 32(4):499–506.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  86. Winn, H. E., Beamish, P., and Perkins, P. J., 1978, Sounds of two entrapped humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) in Newfoundland (manuscript).Google Scholar
  87. Wright, B. S., 1962, Notes of North Atlantic whales, Can. Field Nat. 76:62–65.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Plenum Press, New York 1979

Authors and Affiliations

  • Thomas J. Thompson
    • 1
  • Howard E. Winn
    • 1
  • Paul J. Perkins
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Zoology and Graduate School of OceanographyUniversity of Rhode IslandKingstonUSA

Personalised recommendations