“From our research, one can say that whales have signature tones,” said Heike Vester from her lab in the northern Norwegian town of Hennigsvaer. “When many pods of whales come together, the sounds the whales make is very different than if they are just with their own family. This is very important for communicating between groups.”
Pods of whales use clicks for echolocation of food, but the songs they sing are a distinct language that can give instructions too once the food has been found. This means the whales can set a hunting strategy.
“The groups have their own modifications to the language that are learned dialects. It shows other whales the dynamics of that group,” the 39-year-old marine biologist from Baden-Württemberg explained. Killer whales have as many as 17 different tones in their whistles, hum and click that each pod can produce to communicate with the community around them.
When more than one pod of whales meet at a school of herring, these tones allow the whales to communicate specifically with their own pod when hunting, like a family calling each other by name.
Vester has been studying killer whales and pilot whales near the Norwegian coast for 10 years and hopes more understanding of the animals will further protect them. Norway is not bound by a worldwide 1985 moratorium against whaling.
“It's difficult being a whale researcher in Norway,” Vester said, noting that whale hunters and researchers are in a constant battle for what happens at sea. There is little financial support for her research and her team relies on microphones placed in the area by the World Wildlife Fund.
“The whale population still has yet to recover from the whaling that was done. They continue to suffer from the garbage in the sea, the driving nets and chemical pollution such as pesticides out there. These animals are endangered and they need our protection,” she said.