Rarest Whale on Earth Recorded Singing for the First Time Ever

By GQ Pan

For the first time ever, scientists have recorded the song of one of the planet’s rarest whales.

The North Pacific right whales, unlike some of their very musical relatives, aren’t exactly known for singing magical songs.

New findings published by the researchers of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), however, suggest that the rarest whale of them all, the eastern North Pacific right whale, is able to sing.

North Pacific Right Whale in Bering Sea. (Dr. John Durban/NOAA/NMFS/AKFSC/NMML)

“During a summer field survey in 2010, we started hearing a weird pattern of sounds,” explains marine mammal expert Jessica Crance of NOAA Fisheries’ Alaska Fisheries Science Center. “So we started going back through our long-term data from moored acoustic recorders and saw these repeating patterns of gunshot calls.

The gunshot calls, as the name suggests, are calls made by right whales that sound like a gunshot.

“I thought these patterns look like song. We found them again and again, over multiple years and locations,” says Crance. It took her team until a voyage in summer 2017 to actually capture a right whale song with a sighting of the male making it.

“We can now definitively say these are right whales, which is so exciting because this hasn’t been heard yet in any other right whale population,” says Crance.

Right whales got the name because it was considered the “right” ones for whalers to hunt. They are very slow moving, easy to approach, live close to shore, and their carcasses stay buoyant after they are killed, making them the most desirable prey. According to NOAA, it was so heavily harvested that its population has not recovered, despite being protected for over 50 years. The U.S. Marine Mammal Commission estimates only about 30 eastern North Pacific right whales remain today, mostly sighted in the southern Bering Sea.

The “very remote, harsh, and large” Bering Sea has posted a major challenge to her team, according to Crance. It can be extremely difficult to locate an animal in an area so large when there are only 30 of them. In some of their 8 years, NOAA Fisheries researchers saw no right whales at all on their summer voyages.

Why do right whales sing in the first place? Crance hypothesizes that these songs are for reproductive purposes. “We have direct evidence of male right whales singing, and we think this may be exclusive to males,” she says. “But we have very limited data on vocalizing female right whales.”

With only 30 animals, finding a mate must be difficult.