Things aren’t always what they seem on the surface, especially when it comes to our oceans. So many mysteries hum below its watery surface. So, you may just have to use your ears when it’s too dark to see exactly what’s going on down there.

Dr. Kaylee Byers looks into the ocean giants that lurk in the depths and the unique songs they share with us. She sits down with whale biologist Dr. Jennifer Allen on how whale songs are imparting a cultural exchange between populations that are hundreds of miles apart. Filmmaker Joshua Zeeman shares his journey to find the infamously dubbed ‘Loneliest Whale’. And Paeleobiologist Dr. Travis Park from the Museum of Natural History in London tells us how whales developed their unique singing superpowers by taking us back through millions of years of evolution. Finally, researcher Grace Baer brings us to a remote west coast station studying whale populations and the effects of ocean traffic noise.

It’s a whale-sized episode taking you on a listening journey into this wonderful watery world! Special thanks to Captain Gaelen Krause of the Island Odyssey, for capturing recordings on his journey to search for whales along the British Columbia coast.


5:55 - 9:42

"Hello neighbour", explaining the cultural exchange of whale song with Dr. Jennifer Allen

15:28 - 27:00

The Loneliest Whale, filmmaker Joshua Zeman searches for the infamous whale dubbed 52

34:25 - 40:46

Ocean giants and their marvelous evolution with Dr. Travis Park




Grace Baer: I’m just grabbing the line here, and I’ll hop into the boat and tie it.



Dr. Kaylee Byers: That’s Grace Baer.



Grace Baer: And I am the research and field station manager for BC Whales.



Dr. Kaylee Byers: She’s taking us through some of the day- to- day of her work.



Grace Baer: All right, I’m in the boat now, ascending the canoe a bit less than gracefully to where we tie it up.

Read Transcript


Dr. Kaylee Byers: Grace is operating out of a remote research station called Fin Island in British Columbia. She and her fellow researchers are studying what lurks beneath the ocean waves.


Grace Baer: Fin Island. Fin Island. Alamia on 06.


Charlene: Alamia. Fin Island.


Grace Baer: Hey, Charlene. I’m on my way.


Charlene: All right. See you soon.


Dr. Kaylee Byers: But sometimes seeing is a lot easier with your ears.


Grace Baer: Push it onto the rocks.

One of the things we recognized very early on is the need to be listening into the water to get the full picture of how whales rely on the habitats that they use up here on the North Coast.

Okay, you’re good to come on.

Because only observing them from above water is truly giving us a fraction of the inference that we need to understand their reliance on this space.

That’s everything?


Crew: Yeah.


Grace Baer: Okay.


Dr. Kaylee Byers: By eavesdropping on the ocean, folks like Grace are gleaning a greater understanding of the world of whales.


Grace Baer: We have hydrophones in the water that are listening 24/ 7 every single day of the year, and recording the sounds of the water. What that allows us to do is to track changes to ambient noise levels, as well as track all whale presence in the area here. I’m going to walk you inside and these are live feeding calls coming into the Fin Island station.


Dr. Kaylee Byers: British Columbia, my home, is known for its whales swimming up and down its coast, but the number of those whales has dropped and has struggled to recover. For instance, southern resident killer whales, think Free Willy, the big black and white whale with the infamous white spots on its head, was designated as endangered in 2001. At that time, there were just over 70 individuals left. Since then, researchers like Grace have been working to better understand these whales. They’re using sound and genomics in order to reverse the decline.


Grace Baer: Wow. It really just takes your breath away, actually. You just want to be in the moment.


Dr. Kaylee Byers: If we listen in ourselves, could they be telling us a thing or two about their secret lives in the ocean, and could they be giving us a tails up about some of the biggest challenges we’re facing on the surface?


Grace Baer: Go around the corner. That little grumble you just heard was a social call from one of these whales in this group.


Dr. Kaylee Byers: You’re listening to Nice Genes where we peek into the world of genomics, sponsored by Genome British Columbia. I’m your host, Dr. Kaylee Byers, suited up with my diving gear to be your guide in the genomic depths.

In this episode, we are wiretapping into the world of whales. Submerging just a few feet under the ocean surface. You can hear a symphony of sound, and in some of those melodies, whales might be sharing a lot of helpful information. But what can we learn from their songs? To wrap our heads around this idea, we are tuning into a few different whale species to get a clearer picture of what the different sections of this orca-stra is up to. Hold your applause. Orca-stra? No. Okay.

In this particular ensemble, there are five sections. Section One would be our violins and strings. Those are orca whales. They’re the highest pitch of our troop. Next section are the sperm whales, a bit deeper. They’re our cellos. The next three rows are baleen whales. The songs they sing are much deeper. Humpbacks, they are our woodwinds, oboes, flutes, and clarinets. Fin whales are our brass instruments, trumpets and horns. And finally, the deepest of them all, and the biggest, our percussion section, the blue whale.

It’s a cacophony down there. Whales, fish, reefs, shrimp, all are contributing to this ocean soundscape. While eavesdropping, researchers have uncovered a couple of peculiar mysteries. One, some whales, despite having thousands of miles between them, are singing the same song. Why? And second, blue whales seem to be shifting their tune to lower and lower registers. These whale songs have stories to tell, not just about their lives underwater, but about how we are connected to them.


Dr Jennifer Allen: I don’t know if that, I could probably tighten this bad-


Dr. Kaylee Byers: So I brought in Dr. Jennifer Allen, who’s one of the scientists, with her ears to the water.


Dr Jennifer Allen: All right, I’m ready to go.


Dr. Kaylee Byers: Thanks so much for taking the time to come in chat with me today. Can you begin and tell us what it is you do?


Dr Jennifer Allen: I am a whale biologist. I study kind of a lot of different aspects of whale biology and ecology.


Dr. Kaylee Byers: Jenny recently studied the various vocals of humpback whales in Australia, French Polynesia and New Zealand. And through those recordings, Jenny and her colleagues discovered something unusual. Individual populations of whales were sharing songs, but those songs were shifting. It was a sort of cultural exchange where songs sung by one group were being repeated by another.

So can you tell us a little bit about that study? How did you get involved in it? What were you looking at?


Dr Jennifer Allen: One of my supervisors, Dr. Ellen Garland, she had found this huge ocean basin wide cultural transmission where songs were being transmitted from one population of humpback whales to another across basically the entire South Pacific. When we say it’s the same song, is it exactly the same? Is it all the same sounds? Are there some differences? What are those differences?

We decided to look at two populations where we had a lot of data over a long period, and that was East Australia and New Caledonia. We would go out in a boat, you find a whale that’s singing, you drop the microphone in, and you record. Sometimes you’re trying to measure the acoustic features, so we’ll use what’s called a spectrogram. A spectrogram is basically a visual representation of sound. Low sounds will be lower down on the Y axis and high frequency sounds will be really high up. And from that you can take measurements. And then you can also just look at the pattern of the song and saying, “Okay, so this song was A, B, B, A, B, B, and that one was A, B, B, C, A, B, B, C”. And now I have distinct patterns that I can look for.

The East Australian population transmits their song to the new Caledonian population. Basically, in any given year, the new Caledonian population is singing what East Australia was singing the previous year.


Dr. Kaylee Byers: Interesting.


Dr Jennifer Allen: Yeah. Right now, if you were to stick your head in the water in New Caledonia, you’d hear the exact same song that East Australia was singing if you stuck your head in the water here last year.


Dr. Kaylee Byers: What did you find from sitting on boats and putting these hydrophones in the water and staring at a computer probably for far too long. What did you find?


Dr Jennifer Allen: One of the most exciting things that we found was that for all humpback whale populations, the song changes every year. Most humpback whale populations have what’s called evolutionary change, which is the small little changes that progressively turn it from song A into song B. But in the South Pacific, every kind of one to three years, we get what’s called a revolution where they just abruptly throw out the old song and bring in the new one. When a revolution comes, it’s really simple compared to the song that it just replaced and then it would start building and getting more complex and getting more complex, then another revolution would happen, become really simple again. That was one of the first key things that we found that was really cool.


Dr. Kaylee Byers: I have so many questions. I just have so many questions. The first thing I was thinking of when you were talking about the songs evolving through these little changes, as I was almost thinking of it like a game of telephone. You hear it from somebody and then it changes a little bit because you’ve misheard it. But here you’re saying they’re like adding bits to it, making it longer. Do we know why they’re changing the song?


Dr Jennifer Allen: We don’t know, but one of our hypotheses that we think might be happening is we know that the song has something to do with reproduction because only male humpback whales sing. They sing primarily in the breeding grounds and to and from the breeding grounds. And one suspicion is that these are basically embellishments. Because one of the things that we measured was with patterns like this, you can measure something called entropy. And in this context, what entropy means is predictability.

For example, if you are playing Wordle and a Q comes up, it’s pretty predictable that a U is going to follow because that is a very common pattern. If something is really predictable, it doesn’t contain that much information. If something is not predictable, then there’s lots of different options and it potentially contains a ton of information. And even when these patterns were getting super, super complicated, they were still very predictable.

We think that it’s basically embellishments. We think that they’re just, everybody has to sing the same song. And so if everybody has to sing the same song, how are you going to stand out? Well, I’m going to sing the same song, but I’m going to add a little flourish. And then everyone else hears you and goes, “Oh, you’re trying to step it up a little bit? Well, I can do that too,” so then they’ll learn those changes and then they’ll say, “And now I’m going to add this.” But everybody is trying to keep up with everybody else. And so you end up with this increase in the complexity of the pattern as a result, but essentially getting complicated in a rather meaningless way.


Dr. Kaylee Byers: Is there any indication that you know of where female humpback whales find more complex songs just like a little sexier?


Dr Jennifer Allen: I’m really glad that you used that terminology because New Caledonia is really unique in the sense that we have recordings, photo identification, and genetics, which basically allows us to determine the identity of the whale and what aspects of the song are resulting in higher success. In bird song specifically, there’s a theory called the Cognitive Capacity Hypothesis. What that suggests is that in bird song, we’ve seen that a more complicated song is preferred by females because it basically suggests, well, if you’re clever enough to sing this super complex song, you’re probably a better mate. And so are the whales with the more complex versions of the song, are they more successful in mating?


Dr. Kaylee Byers: We’ve got this other group of whales and I get the song gets really complex and then there’s a whole shift. They wipe the plate clean, they go, “Nah, new song.” Do we think that that’s because the song has just gotten so complex? I mean, you were saying earlier the complexity is almost maybe meaningless.


Dr Jennifer Allen: There’s two options and we’re not sure which one it is, but one possibility is that the song kind of reaches a critical mass of complexity, and they’re sort of at their limit of what they can learn. Let’s throw it out and start fresh because let’s just all agree that this has gotten out of hand. The other possibility, everybody’s trying to make these additions and make the song more and more complicated and more complicated, and some enterprising young buck comes along and goes, “You guys just keep making the old song really complicated. I’m going to sing something entirely new,” and maybe that’s more impressive because… do the ladies, do they want something that just has lots of bells and whistles, or do they want something new and exciting?


Dr. Kaylee Byers: Okay, I can’t help but think that this would be an incredible Broadway musical and I would in fact very much like to see it-


Dr Jennifer Allen: Exactly.


Dr. Kaylee Byers: … underwater, preferably actually. If we get to do it.


Dr Jennifer Allen: Yeah. Surely there’s space on Broadway for this idea.


Broadway singer: [singing] “…when they return each July” [whale sounds]


Dr. Kaylee Byers: The way they share songs tells us a lot about humpbacks, their families and how they interact with each other across the ocean. But all whales are different. Millions of years of evolution has led to differences in genetics, physiology, and behaviors among species. Now I want to take us to another story that is, you could say, about an animal that’s less social and kind of an introvert.


Joshua Zeman: I haven’t told this story in a while, so I get to redo it.


Dr. Kaylee Byers: To kick off the story, I spoke with Joshua Zeman, a filmmaker and-


Joshua Zeman: I am the director of The Loneliest Whale: The Search for 52.


Dr. Kaylee Byers: Can you tell us about the loneliest whale? How did you first hear about it?


Joshua Zeman: Well, this is a 10 year journey. I first heard about the whale back when I did this art colony called McDowell, and there was a animal behaviorist who was writing a book named Vint Virga, and he asked me to read a chapter. And so I went home after dinner one evening and read this story that he had about the loneliest whale. And at the time, I had just broken up with a girl and I read this story and I was floored. I was like, “Oh my God, this whale is me.” And so the next morning, all the artists, they kind of meet for breakfast, and I said, “Guys, has anybody heard of this story that Vint had wrote about in his book about the loneliest whale? It’s the most amazing story ever. I can’t stop thinking about it.”

I’m a filmmaker, so I’m constantly pitching my little stories to see how people react to see if it’s a good idea. And I would tell people, “Hey, you ever hear the story of this lonely whale? It’s this whale that theoretically scientists don’t really know, but he’s swimming out in the ocean and there’s only one of him they think, they don’t know. And supposedly he’s calling out and never receiving a response.” And all these people will be like, “What? There’s one whale out in the ocean and it’s swimming about and it’s never receiving response?” And I’m like, “Yeah, is that a good story?” And they would be like, “Is that a good story!? Oh my God, I want to go find this whale.”

A couple weeks later I got a call from one of the other guests who was there and they said, “Oh, you remember that story that you told that at breakfast about the loneliest whale? Well, I wrote a play about it” and then somebody else spoke to me, said, “Hey, you remember that story about the loneliest whale? I did a painting about it.” And then another person said, “Oh, I did a poem about it.” And I was like, what is it with this story with this whale? I knew it was something about the loneliness and something about the whale. And so I started to do all this research.

And so just to back up a little bit, it had all come from a New York Times article that this writer named Andy Revkin, who’s really great. He had found this deep sea research paper that these bioacousticians had put out basically. And the story said that they were working with the US government listening for whales in these hydrophones that are all around the world’s oceans. And they used to listen for submarines back in the Cold War.

Well, when the Cold War ended, they kind of handed those microphones over to scientists and they heard this very interesting sound in the 52 hertz range. They didn’t know what it was. It didn’t sound like the low frequency whales that they’re used to hearing, blue and fin whales that are in the 15 to 20 hertz. And it didn’t sound like a whale that they would hear closer to shore like a humpback whale that’s in the 60 or above range. It was 52 hertz. They didn’t know what it was.


Scientist: Now we’ve seen that signal a couple times and we dismissed it as being another source.


Host: What did you think it was before you realized it was a whale?


Scientist: That I can’t tell you.


Host: Something classified?


Scientist: Something mechanical, that’s it.


Joshua Zeman: And the navy was scratching their head. They thought maybe it was like a Chinese sub or something like that, and something totally new. They really thought it was a enemy submarine for a while. And so finally a guy by the name of Bill Watkins, who’s this kind of legendary bioacoustician says, ” No, I think it’s a whale.” And so they wrote this paper about it, about this mysterious sound in the ocean and how they thought it was a whale.

When Andy Revkin read this article in Deep Sea Research Magazine, one of the things that struck him as a reporter was how the scientists kept using really emotional terms like ‘lonely’, which is not something that scientists usually do or supposed to do in papers. And so he wrote about it, and that’s the story that kind of sparked the legend of the loneliest whale. It seems to just strike a chord with all these people all across the world. They were the artists that I knew, BTS, the most famous boy band in the world, wrote a song called ‘52 Whalien’ about it. (singing) “Lonely, lonely whale”. It was just so amazing. It was the question of why? Obviously it was the loneliness and could we find this whale?


Dr. Kaylee Byers: I mean, can you find a whale? How do you find a whale in an ocean? Is it trying to find a needle in a haystack, but slipperier?


Joshua Zeman: Well, that’s what they kept telling me. I kept asking these scientists, I was like, “What would it take if we were to find this whale?” And they thought we were… They kind of laughed me out of the room. They were like, “It’s going to take a lot of money and it would take years.” And so I said, “Okay.” We ended up hooking up with Adrian Grenier and Leonardo DiCaprio and-


Dr. Kaylee Byers: Famous scientists.


Joshua Zeman: Yeah, famous scientists. Famous scientists/ movie stars. That was part of the quest as well. The other part of the quest was to do some really amazing science. This was a great opportunity all around. We ended up getting $500,000 and I went back to the scientist and I said, “Okay, now we have all this money. Can we really go out there and find it?” And then they said, “Okay, now you’re talking.”

Finally, we go out and we get this great boat called ‘The Truth’. We got John Hildebrand, one of the foremost bioacousticians around. Then we got this guy John Calambokidis, and John Calambokidis is like the old man in the sea. He’s like the world’s foremost whale tracker. He goes around on a boat and he sticks tags on whales. It was 22 scientists. They were packed into this tiny scuba boat. And then it was me and my crew, wonderful cinematographer, sound guy. And we’re all just sitting there watching these scientists do what they do to go out and try and find this whale.

And we have all this really cool equipment, some that we got from the Navy that they used to hunt submarines. Well, we can use those to listen for whale song and then we try and triangulate. But just because you hear a whale doesn’t mean you know it’s the actual 52 hertz whale. Not only do you have to hear it, then you have to kind of hone in on it. Then you have to follow it, then you have to see it rise up onto the surface to breathe and then go back down. And that’s how you know that that particular whale is making that particular frequency sound. And it really was like “check one check”. “Oh, I got it, check”. “We got the whale, check”. “Drone, hit the drone!” It was really quite a choreography. Either it was choreography or it was a heist movie basically.


Dr. Kaylee Byers: I love this heist analogy. It really feels to me like a missed opportunity here was naming the documentary “Ocean’s 52”. I really feel like you had the opportunity here.


Joshua Zeman: Be like, “Where are we going to hide this whale? Oh my God. It’s a lot bigger than I thought.”


Dr. Kaylee Byers: In the casino!


Joshua Zeman: Absolutely. Under my tuxedo.

So, it took us four years to prove that 52 was even alive.


Dr. Kaylee Byers: That is excellent news for you. It is especially excellent news for 52. Why? I mean, through that work, did you uncover why 52 was at 52 hertz?


Joshua Zeman: Good question. There are a couple different theories. We were like, “Is he the first of his kind? Is he the last of his kind?” Or, and this is what a lot of the smarter scientists knew. They thought he was a hybrid basically, a cross between a blue and a fin whale.


Dr. Kaylee Byers: Did they actually test the DNA? Did they collect DNA from 52 to test to find that there was this hybrid?


Joshua Zeman: Well, the question is did you find 52?


Dr. Kaylee Byers: Oh yeah. Okay, so sorry, Step One. Step One, 52 is alive. Step Two, find 52. Did you find 52?


Joshua Zeman: Well, let me say that while filming, we came really close to finding 52, but we did not find 52 and it was a very sad trip home. However, we made an incredible discovery on the way home and about a month later.


Dr. Kaylee Byers: Okay, well that is an incredible cliff hanger. Give us the discovery. What did you discover on the way home? So we don’t quite find 52, we get real close. But what do you find on the way home?


Joshua Zeman: Well, one of the scientists that we had been talking to had said that they had been in the same area about a month before and they did basically put something on a whale and they did find out that this whale was a hybrid, but we don’t know if that’s the same whale that’s making the song. What they found out is that this whale at a specific date had gone over one of the microphones. If that whale is going over the hydrophone at that right moment and it happens to be singing, we could say that that was the whale, and we would have known that that is exactly 52.

So, you’re saying that you know when the whale went over this harp, that whale that they tagged?

We go back. John Hildebrand at Scripps goes and listens to the hydrophone information.


John Hildebrand: We have a station off of Point Conception and it’s that station where the tagged whale from Bruce passed right over the top of our sensor. He only had it tagged for a few weeks. And we looked at those time periods really carefully.


Joshua Zeman: And he turns to me and he says…


John Hildebrand: The times that Bruce’s whale swam over our instrument-


Joshua Zeman: I’m sorry.


John Hildebrand: … it was not singing.


Joshua Zeman: But the whale when it went over the hydrophone was not singing, so I can’t 100% say that that whale is in fact 52. However, and one of his partners is a woman named Anna who’s an amazing oceanographer, and she says, “I found something else.”


Anna: This is off of Los Angeles?


Joshua Zeman: She says, “While we were listening for the sound and following that 52 hertz call on the tracker listening, we heard another call a couple hundred miles away.”

Two different 52 hertz whale songs coming from two different places. There’s not one 52, there’s two 52 whales.


Dr. Kaylee Byers: Not alone after all.


Joshua Zeman: Not alone.


Dr. Kaylee Byers: Oh, it’s so heartwarming.


Joshua Zeman: Not alone. Not alone. While we didn’t actually find 52, we did answer the question was he lonely? And the answer is no, he was not. There was another one out there. And the other amazing thing is that we didn’t know that there were all these hybrids out there until we started listening. But that’s all we had to do. That’s all it took. It was just such a simple and interesting, and maybe off the wall question-


Dr. Kaylee Byers: But you highlighted… There’s so much that we don’t know about these animals really, and there’s so much more to learn. What did you learn going through this experience? What did you come away with?


Joshua Zeman: That’s a great question. I like to think that I learned to be a better human being by trying to understand a whale. And it really is true. I found a lot more empathy in my life because I was dealing with these animals and I like to think that I learned at least the importance of listening.


Dr. Kaylee Byers: We have a hypothesis that this is a hybrid whale because they have found in that area using these trackers that they put on the whale, which also takes a little bit of genetic material for testing.


Joshua Zeman: That’s correct.


Dr. Kaylee Byers: They were able to say, we’ve got hybrids that are part fin whale and part blue whale.


Joshua Zeman: That’s correct.


Dr. Kaylee Byers: And that could explain why they’re singing at this different hertz. Am I getting that right?


Joshua Zeman: Yes, that’s correct. Again, we would’ve never known that there were these hybrids out there if we didn’t ask and we weren’t curious. And we asked crazy questions like, “How hard is it to find one whale in an entire ocean?”


Dr. Kaylee Byers: The big blue whale sized question, literally, why are blue whales voices getting deeper and deeper?


Joshua Zeman: It actually turned out that this story, trying to find a whale, is a really great experience for understanding this problem, which is ocean noise pollution.


Dr. Kaylee Byers: I want to ask another question sort of related to our singing whales, is a phenomenon about blue whale voices getting deeper. Can you tell us a little bit about that? What’s happening there?


Dr Jennifer Allen: Humpback whale song, it’s got tons of different sound units. You have low sounds, you have high sounds. It goes from 100 hertz, which is really, really low to 7 kilohertz, which is really, really high. Blue whale song, they’re always very, very low, below 100 hertz. And they’re very, very simple. What they’ve found is that over the last few decades, one of those sound types is progressively getting lower. It’s getting lower by 5, 10, 15 hertz. Doesn’t sound like a lot, but so when you look at overall these sounds have been very, very steady. And so a change of 15 hertz, it’s a very consistent shift. One possibility is that it’s a way to compensate for noise in the ocean.


Joshua Zeman: We’re putting so much sound pollution into the ocean that it’s kind of what they call ‘acoustic smog’.


Dr Jennifer Allen: We’re getting more shipping, we’re getting more recreational boats, we’re getting drilling, we’re getting offshore developments for things like wind farms.


Joshua Zeman: When suddenly there is the sound of a huge, and I mean huge ocean tanker going by, suddenly it throws this wall of sound over you and it’s like smog but with sound. And so they can’t communicate. It is there 24/7. I’m saying in scientists, “Okay, where’s the whale?” And they say, “We lost it.” I mean, what do you mean we lost it? It was like, “Oh, this ocean tanker just went by and it totally blew everything up and now we can’t hear it again.”


Dr Jennifer Allen: And so one hypothesis is that their calls are getting progressively lower as a way to compensate for that. They’re shifting lower to try and get below the noise. Lower sounds travel further than high sounds. It’s why when a car drives by, you can hear the base but you can’t hear the singing. Bass is very low. Low sound travels a lot further. One possibility is that they’re lowering the sound to try and have their song go further through this increasing noise.


Joshua Zeman: And it was really in your face, it was really organic. And so now I realize what a problem it is.


Grace Baer: It’s a beautiful September morning here on Fin Island and we woke up and our entire research area was shrouded in fog, and so we’ve just been playing the waiting game and waiting and waiting for this fog to lift so that we could get out on the water and complete a routinely scheduled survey, document all marine mammal and vessel presence in the area. And we’re doing this now because in a few years there’s going to be an LNG tanker route coming through. Any increase in the amount of noise in this area will have a huge impact on their lives and we hope to be able to document that.


Dr. Kaylee Byers: Just like with so many questions in science, we don’t always have an answer, but we do have hypotheses. They give potential explanations for what we see. One hypothesis is that blue whales might be singing deeper and deeper in order to compete with the noise that we humans are creating in their environment.


Grace Baer: So I’ll play a raw unfiltered clip for you. You’ll hear some boat noise and within that there’s actually whales communicating.


Dr. Kaylee Byers: If you’re the orchestra, but you’ve got a loud noise playing right next to you, how do you make yourself heard?


Dr. Kaylee Byers: If and when whales shift their voices to be heard above human ocean traffic is still being studied. But answering this question is important because that information can help guide strategies that reduce our impacts on whales.

You’re listening to Nice Genes, a podcast all about the fascinating world of genomics and the evolving science behind it, brought to you by Genome British Columbia. I’m Dr. Kaylee Byers, your host, and we want to get more people listening to the genomic stories that are shaping our world. If you like Nice Genes! hit Follow on Apple podcasts or wherever you get your shows. Help those deep ocean calls break to the surface by sharing this episode with a friend like a couple of humpback whales.

All right. Hey Travis, thanks for joining us.


Dr. Travis Park: Thank you for having me.


Dr. Kaylee Byers: To get a better understanding of how whales have acquired their unique vocal range, I got a hold of Dr. Travis Park.


Dr. Travis Park: I’m a paleontologist or a paleo biologist.


Dr. Kaylee Byers: Travis uses fossils to study the evolutionary history of vertebrates. He has a particular penchant for peering into the past of marine mammals, which includes whales.


Dr. Travis Park: I’ve always been interested in fossils and paleontology, so something I’ve wanted to really dig into for years. There’s a paleontological joke for you.


Dr. Kaylee Byers: While working on his PhD, Travis observed a rather striking fossil.


Dr. Travis Park: Yes, there was. In terms of living groups of whales, you have two major groups. You have the baleen whales, so these are the ocean giants, the things like the blue whale, humpback whale. The other living group is the tooth whales or the odontocetes. And as the name suggests, they have teeth and they include animals such as orcas, sperm whales, dolphins and stuff like that.

During my PhD research, we were looking at the shape of the inner ear of a fossil tooth whale and I ran this analysis that basically compares the shape of it to lots of other different species of both living and fossil whale. I was expecting it to be much closer to tooth whales because it was a tooth whale itself, but it fell like closer to baleen whale, so it was telling me that its hearing abilities were actually very different to what it should have been. And I was like, “Oh, okay, that’s, that’s really interesting and unexpected!”


Dr. Kaylee Byers: Travis has a lot of insight into the various species of whales. To help understand the mystery of the odd fossil, he uses 3D scanning and phylogenetics to understand whales’ histories.


Dr. Travis Park: The tooth whales have high frequency hearing, so they use that when they are doing echolocation to sense their environment, look for prey and communicate with one another even, as well. And then baleen whales, they have much lower frequency hearing, even infrasonic below the sounds that humans can hear in some of the biggest species. And this particular fossil that I was working on, we got the specimen, CT scanned it, used that data to build a 3D model of the inner ear, and then what’s going on? It’s quite an old tooth whale. It’s near when those first tooth whale species were just evolving and changing. The question is whether or not its ancestors have that high frequency hearing and then this evolves back to low frequency hearing, or has high frequency hearing not actually evolved later on in the tooth whale group. It was quite a puzzler at the time.


Dr. Kaylee Byers: Those distinct groups are the result of millions of years of evolution. Modern whales share a common ancestor some 34 million years ago, but since then they’ve had some time to really come into their own and acquire some neat adaptations along the way. Like the ability to echolocate among toothed whales like orcas and the ability to sing long and far reaching songs among baleen whales like humpbacks.


Dr. Travis Park: It’s one of the most spectacular stories in all of evolution. Obviously, I’m biased. In terms of the fossils we have actually documenting that transition from an animal that was originally running around on land on four legs about the size of a dog, had little small hooves on the end of its feet because they’re a part of the Artiodactyl group, which includes cows and hippos and things like that. It would’ve looked very, very different to an orca for example.

And in the space of about say 10 million years or so, they’ve went from this land animal to something that has to actually live in the sea. It’s lost its legs, it’s completely bound to the sea and has figured out how to survive. And then we have excellent fossils as well from, like I said, the two main living groups. And so we can see how they’ve changed over time. For example, how baleen wheels got huge and evolved baleen because originally they had teeth, so there were toothed baleen whales just to confuse you with toothed whales as well.


Dr. Kaylee Byers: With that being said, let’s zoom in to the feature that makes our whale so musical, their ears and infamous songs.


Dr. Travis Park: As well as the massive changes that were going on outside the body in terms of blow holes moving and legs disappearing and tails evolving, stuff like that, their hearing abilities were changing rapidly as well. If you can imagine yourself when you’re swimming in the sea or in a swimming pool, you can hear sounds, you can hear lots of different sounds when you’re underwater very easily and because sound can travel much faster in water. However, for us it’s really difficult to actually pinpoint the direction that the sound’s coming from because it’s actually traveling that fast and the density of our bodies is about the same as the water.

This is something that early whales have had to deal with, and they’ve changed the structures inside their ear and how they actually detect sounds to compensate for this. Terrestrial mammals like you, me or a cow or an elephant or whatever, will have sounds that come in through our ear and go through the ear drum and in through the little ear bones until it reaches the inner ear. If you take a dolphin, for example, when sound first reaches them, it actually travels, it first enters that auditory pathway through a specialized fat pad in the back of the jaw called acoustic fats.

And the molecular structure of those fats are actually… They’ve evolved to actually be able to transmit sound preferentially quicker through these fat pads and any other part of the surrounding body up into those same little miniature ear bones that me or you would have, and then into the inner ear. We’ve got the fossils so we can see how that’s got bigger over time and then how those other bones surrounding that area would’ve changed.

When you’re in water past a certain depth light doesn’t go any further. As these animals were evolving, it’s become more and more specialized to be in the water, they were able to dive deeper and deeper and then to exploit the really vast resources of biomass down there, so things like squid and all the different deep sea fish that were coming up and down during day time and nighttime. You needed a way to be able to make your way around without just swimming around blindly. Sound becomes their superpower.


Dr. Kaylee Byers: These animals have traversed our oceans for millennia migrating between feeding and mating grounds. But now we come to a bittersweet melody. Human induced changes to the environment, including climate change, are rapidly changing the planet and putting pressures on whales. I want to throw it back to Dr. Jenny Allen to understand the threats that whales are facing and what their journey suggests about the future.

And I want to come back to humpback. They used to be on the threatened species list in Australia and they’ve been now taken off. Could you tell us a little bit about how they became threatened to begin with and what we know about this comeback they’re making?


Dr Jennifer Allen: The reason that they were threatened in the first place was predominantly whaling. Whales were hunted usually for blubber more than for meat, but sometimes also for meat, also sometimes for the baleen. Humpback whales are a baleen whale and it would be used to make a lot of things like corsets and stuff like that. Originally, they were hunted in the kind of mid- 1800s, being hunted pretty extensively and it was already starting to damage the population.


Announcer: It’s a whale of a catch for Miss Seafood and quite a plug for San Francisco and the opening of the seafood season.


Dr Jennifer Allen: But then the ’40s and ’50s, we just developed technology to hunt them so efficiently that we decimated the populations of basically almost every large whale species.


Announcer: Moby Dick may not be pretty, but look at Miss Seafood, the season’s best catch.


Dr Jennifer Allen: That’s what really put almost all of these large whale species on the endangered list in the first place was because of whaling. One of the big steps to recovery, one was to get the public on side.


Joshua Zeman: We never wanted to save whales until we heard them sing. Hundreds of years we were killing whales. And then suddenly this album comes out called ‘Songs of the Humpback Whale’. And it was compiled by this guy Roger Payne, who is a scientist, and he had heard these whale songs and someone was recording them and he put them out on an album. Well, this album became one of the best selling nature albums of all time. They freaked out. They were like, “What is it? What’s this creature that could make this haunting sound? It must be spiritual, it must be sentient, it must be something.” And if you’ve ever heard these songs, you know exactly what I’m talking about. That kickstarted, the Save the Whale movement. It was these recordings. It was singing that basically made us want to save whales.


Dr Jennifer Allen: In the ’70s and early ’80s, we started to get the public on board.


Announcer: In Australia as elsewhere conservationists called the continuing slaughter of the world’s diminishing population of whales a crime.


Dr Jennifer Allen: And then there’s a body called the International Whaling Commission. They decided to put a moratorium on whaling. Now, something that’s important to understand is a moratorium is not the same as a ban. They didn’t make whaling illegal. They don’t have that power. That’s something that individual countries have to do. But they decided to put a moratorium, which is essentially setting the catch limit of whales at zero. And all the countries who agree to that moratorium then can’t whale as per the moratorium. If you want to keep wailing, you just have to object to the moratorium and say, “Well, I don’t want to do that.”


Announcer: Since 1986, there has been a moratorium on commercial whaling and Japan and Norway have killed whales every year since then. So this is just a fraud, a joke.


Dr Jennifer Allen: But that moratorium was a huge step because it got a lot of countries, two of which were really big players were Australia and the US because they were two places that had a lot of whaling because we had big coastlines and a lot of resources. Once we got a lot of the major countries on board with this moratorium, that’s when populations really were able to start rebounding. That’s why in some ways they’re kind of a success story because they’ve been able to bounce back.

East Australia and West Australia we think might actually be starting to get to what’s called the carrying capacity, which is basically they’re starting to get to a size that they’re kind of maxing out at how big the population can get given the resources that they have.


Dr. Kaylee Byers: That resurgence of humpback whales has allowed researchers like Jenny to observe whales and gather some really valuable information. Humpback whale song is teaching us a lot about humpback whale ecology. What can humpback whales teach us about the climate?


Dr Jennifer Allen: Humpback whales, particularly in the southern hemisphere, they all go to Antarctica to feed. If Antarctica is in a poor state, the whales are typically in a poor state, so they serve as what’s called a sentinel species. Sentinels basically are, it’s the canary in the coal mine. A woman that I work with at Griffith University, she has this big program where she collects biopsies from the East Australian whales and she looks at a few different health metrics, one of which is adiposy, so basically how fat are they? And if they’re fat, then they’re eating a lot, means that Antarctica was in pretty good shape that year. If they’re really skinny, they probably weren’t eating a lot. Antarctica wasn’t in very good shape that year.

Instead of going to Antarctica and collecting samples on sea ice cover, you can go about an hour and a half east of where I am right now, go out in a boat, get a little biopsy sample of their tissue, which tells us basically how fat they are and what they’ve been eating and how much they’ve been eating and be home in time for tea. It’s much cheaper, it’s much more effective, and it’s a way for us to monitor the health of the Antarctic ecosystem, which is being impacted very strongly by climate change.

Humpback whale in particular, are a really useful tool for studying climate change. We’re going to be going down to Antarctica and going down, and I’m looking at the strategies that the humpback whales are using to feed. They started using a new feeding strategy and we don’t know why. And one possibility, is this a response to the changing climate?


Dr. Kaylee Byers: I got to know. What’s the new strategy?


Dr Jennifer Allen: Oh yeah. The new strategy that has started appearing is called ‘bubble- net feeding’. They dive down a bit and they blow a ring of bubbles and then they come up in the middle of that ring of bubbles and they lunge at the surface. Alaskan humpback whale are very famous for it, but it hadn’t really been seen in the Antarctica. And so what we’re trying to figure out, is this just a cultural trend that started happening in Antarctica or is it a response to changing climate and changing environmental conditions? And so that’s a question that I’m going to spend the next three years trying to answer.


Dr. Kaylee Byers: Best of luck. Sounds like a good way to spend the next three years.


Dr Jennifer Allen: Yeah, I can’t complain.


Grace Baer: We’ve just come up to a group of six bubble- net feeding humpback whales, and it’s only seen in certain regions of the coast and only by certain members of that population. Not every whale that we have in this population knows how to bubble- net feed and it’s something that’s passed on culturally throughout the population.


Gaelen Krause: Well, good morning. This is Gaelen Krause, Captain of the Island Odyssey, about to head out and start looking for whales. Should be a beautiful day.


Dr. Kaylee Byers: My guests for today have been Dr. Jennifer Allen from the University of Queensland School of Veterinary Science, filmmaker and documentarian Joshua Zeman, and Dr. Travis Park, paleo biologist from the Natural History Museum in London. A special thanks to Grace Baer from BC Wales for taking our ears to the Fin Island Station, an initiative that wouldn’t be possible without the 20 year partnership with the Gitga’at First Nations community in Hartley Bay. And finally, thank you to Gaelen Krause, Captain of the Island Odyssey for contributing sound recordings from his own whale spotting journey.

Join us next time when we take another plunge into our oceans and look at clever ways scientists are preparing our planet for climate change.


Dr. Shayle Matsuda: We can’t pretend that everything’s going to be okay. A lot of folks who ask us all the time, “How does it feel to study an organism that is dying right in front of your eyes?” And while it’s really heartbreaking, it is also some of the most motivational things you can have. There is still time.


Dr. Kaylee Byers: You’ve been listening to Nice Genes, a podcast brought to you by Genome British Columbia. If you like this episode, go check out some of our previous ones wherever you listen from. Share us with your pod of pals. You can also DM the show on Twitter by going to @genomebc and we also have Learn-A-Long sheets added to the show description. We’d whale-y like it if you’d leave us a review and a thumbs or fins up. Until next time, sea you later.


Gaelen Krause: Alright, we’ve just come across a couple of humpbacks travelling.


Guest: Oh my God.


Gaelen Krause: Bit exciting. They just changed directions slightly and came up basically right in front of us.



Cracking the Code on Coral: Preparing the Environment (Pt.1)



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