Tag Archives: blue whale

Episode 211: The Magnificent Fin Whale



This week let’s venture into the ocean and learn about the fin whale!

Further reading:

The songs of fin whales offer new avenue for seismic studies of the oceanic crust

Fin whales’ big gulp

The fin whale can hold a whole lot of water in its mouth (illustration from the second article linked above):

A fin whale underwater. Look at that massive tail. That’s pure muscle:

A fin whale above water. It’s like a torpedo:

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

It’s been too long since we had an episode about whales. Yes, okay, two weeks ago we talked about a couple of newly discovered whales, but I want to really learn about a particular whale. So this week, let’s look at the fin whale.

The fin whale is a baleen whale that’s only a little less enormous than the blue whale. The longest fin whale ever reliably measured was 85 feet long, or just a hair shy of 26 meters, but there are reports of fin whales that are almost 90 feet long, or a bit over 27 meters. An average American school bus is half that length, so a fin whale is as long as two school buses. Even a newborn fin whale calf is enormous, as much as 21 feet long, or 6.5 meters. Females are on average larger than males.

It’s a long, slender whale that’s sometimes called “the greyhound of the sea,” because it’s also really fast. It can swim up to 29 mph, or 46 km/hour, and possibly faster. If that doesn’t sound too fast, consider that the Olympic gold-medal swimmer Michael Phelps topped out at about 4.7 miles per hour, or 7.6 km/h.

Like other baleen whales, the fin whale has a pair of blowholes instead of just one. On its underside, it has up to 100 grooves that extend from its chin down to its belly button. Yes, whales have belly buttons. They’re placental mammals, and all mammals have belly buttons because that’s where the umbilical cord is attached when a developing baby is in its mother’s womb. I don’t know what a whale’s belly button looks like. Also, the proper term for belly button is navel, and if you’re wondering, that’s where navel oranges get their name, because they have that weird thing on one end that looks like a belly button. It’s not, though. I don’t know what it is. You’ll have to find a podcast called Strange Plants to explain it.

Anyway, the grooves on the fin whale’s underside act as pleats, or accordion folds. Other baleen whales have these pleats too. A baleen whale eats tiny animals that it filters out of the water through its baleen plates, which are keratin structures in its mouth that take the place of teeth. The baleen is tough but thin and hangs down from the upper jaw. It’s white and looks sort of like a bunch of bristles at the end of a broom. The whale opens its mouth wide while lunging forward or downward, which fills its huge mouth with astounding amounts of water. As water enters the mouth, the skin stretches to hold even more, until the grooves completely flatten out. The water it can hold in its mouth is about equal to the size of a school bus.

Technically, though, a lot of that water isn’t in the whale’s mouth. It’s in a big pocket between the body wall and the blubber underneath the skin. The ballooning out of the pocket stretches the nerves in the mouth and tongue to more than twice their length, and then the nerves have to fold back up tightly after the water is pushed out. The nerves fold in a complicated double layer to minimize damage during all this stretching.

After the whale fills its mouth with water, it closes its jaws, pushing its enormous tongue up, and forces all that water out through the baleen. Any tiny animals like krill, copepods, small squid, small fish, and so on, get trapped in the baleen. It can then swallow all that food and open its mouth for another big bite. Even more amazing, this whole operation, from opening its mouth to swallowing the food, only takes six to ten seconds.

Because it only eats small animals, the fin whale’s esophagus (which is the inside part of the throat) is actually quite narrow considering what a huge animal it is. In other words, it could not possibly swallow a human, in case you were worried. I was worried. If you did end up in a fin whale’s mouth, it would just spit you back out.

Baleen whales have a sensory organ on the chin that’s found in no other animal. It’s about the size of a grapefruit and situated between the tips of the jaws. It probably helps the whale determine how much potential food is in the water, which saves it from wasting time and energy gulping in water and filtering it out when there’s nothing much to eat.

The fin whale looks a lot like the blue whale and the two species are closely related, so much so that they sometimes interbreed and produce hybrid babies. It usually lives in small groups of up to around 10 individuals and a female fin whale has one baby every two or three years. It probably migrates seasonally to new feeding grounds, but we don’t actually know a whole lot about where it goes and whether all fin whales migrate.

Fin whales have extremely loud vocalizations, but most humans would barely be able to hear them, or wouldn’t be able to hear them at all, because they’re at the very bottom or below the range of sounds that the human ear can detect. The calls can be up to 188 decibels, a measure of loudness, which may be the loudest sounds made by any animal alive today. Technically the blue whale is louder, at 190 decibels, but on average the fin whale is louder. In comparison, a jet plane taking off is measured at 150 decibels. Of course, sound through water is different from sound through air, because water is much denser. A better comparison is with an offshore drill rig at 185 decibels or a supertanker ship at 190 decibels. The fin whale is about as loud as both, although of course the fin whale doesn’t make those noises all the time like drill rigs and ships do. The male fin whale makes short pulses of sound that last a second or two in specific patterns, which he repeats sometimes for days. Since the sounds travel long distances underwater, researchers think a female can hear a male’s calls and follow the sound so she can find him to mate. Of course, this means that females may have trouble finding a male these days since the ocean is full of noise from human-made things like offshore drill rigs and supertanker ships.

The fin whale is not only one of the loudest animals known, its vocalizations are among the lowest in frequency of any animal ever recorded. It turns out that this combination has a surprising benefit to human knowledge in a very specific way.

In an article published in Science just a few days ago as this episode goes live in February of 2021, a team of scientists discovered that fin whale vocalizations can help with seismic imaging of the oceanic crust.

The oceanic crust isn’t just the sea floor but what the earth below the sea floor is made up of. Scientists measure the reflections of a sound wave, and since sound waves travel at different speeds through different materials, and bounce off various types of rocks and other structures at different speeds and angles, the reflections can tell us a lot. Scientists use sensitive seismometers on the ocean floor to read the reflections. The problem is how to get the sound wave in the first place. Researchers usually use a giant air gun to make sound waves, but not only can this be dangerous to ocean life because it’s so loud, it’s also expensive and can’t be used in all areas.

But the fin whale does almost as good a job as an air gun. A pair of researchers studying earthquakes off the Oregon coast in North America noticed that when fin whales were around, their seismometers picked up extra signals. They figured out that the signals were actually from the fin whales’ vocalizations, and were surprised to find that the reflections matched those from the air gun sound waves. As an added benefit, the researchers could pinpoint exactly where each whale was since its signals were picked up by multiple seismometers.

Fin whale vocalizations are at the perfect frequency and strength for sound waves to travel through the ocean floor and be picked up by the seismometers. Best of all, fin whales live throughout almost all of the world’s oceans, including places where air guns can’t be used. Researchers just have to put the seismometers in place and the whales produce as many sound waves as the scientists need.

Because the fin whale makes such low-frequency noises, its hearing is different from other animals’. Big as a fin whale is, the low-frequency vocalizations it makes actually form a sound wave that’s longer than its body, which means the whale actually can’t hear it through its ears. But for a long time, scientists weren’t sure how the fin whale and other big baleen whales could hear those sounds.

Then, in 2003, a fin whale beached in California and died despite attempts to save it. Scientists were allowed to collect the body for research, and they took the head to an X-ray CT scanner designed for rocket motors to get a 3D image they could study. It turns out that the fin whale’s skull has acoustic properties that makes it sensitive to low frequency sounds and actually amplifies the sound waves as the bones of the skull vibrate. So fin whales hear each other with their skull bones instead of their ears.

Absolutely nothing can top that amazing fact, so that’s the end of this episode.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or just tell a friend. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 008: The Loneliest Whale and Other Strange Recordings



This week’s episode is a collection of strange animal sounds, some unknown, others identified. We start with “the loneliest whale.”

A blue whale. Not the loneliest whale, as far as anyone knows.

A tarsier:

This fox can see into your soul and does not like you:

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

One of the great things about making my own podcast is that I’m the one who gets to decide what topics to cover. I love podcasts about unexplained sounds captured on audio, so this week’s episode is just that.

With one or two exceptions, I’ve tried to keep to sounds that are definitely or probably made by animals. I’ve also tried to dig a little deeper to explore some sounds that I haven’t heard covered in other podcasts. I waded through a million pop-up ads so you don’t have to.

First, let’s talk about a whale you’ve probably heard of. It’s frequently called the loneliest whale. The story goes that this whale is lonely because its voice is too high to be heard or understood by other whales. It calls but never gets a response.

But that’s actually not the case. Its voice is higher than other blue whales, fin whales, and humpback whales, but they can certainly hear it, and for all we know, they answer. Since the individual whale hasn’t actually been spotted, we don’t know if it travels alone or with other whales.

The loneliest whale was first detected in 1989 by the US Navy listening for submarines in the North Pacific, then again in 1990 and 1991. At that time the recordings were classified due to the cold war, but in 1992, some were partially declassified, and word about the whale got out. The calls vary but are similar to blue whale calls. The main difference is the voice’s pitch. The loneliest whale calls at 52 hertz. That’s slightly higher than the lowest notes on a piano or tuba. Blue whale songs are typically around 10 to 40 hertz. The whale’s voice has deepened over the years to around 49 hertz, suggesting that it has matured.

Suggestions as to why this whale has a different call include the possibility that the whale is deaf, that it’s malformed in some way, or that it’s a hybrid of two different species of whale. Fin whales and blue whales do interbreed occasionally, but no one has successfully recorded a hybrid’s calls.

Whale researchers think the recordings seem to be of one individual whale, but in 2010, sensors off the coast of California picked up lonely whale type calls that might have been made by more than one whale at the same time. One suggestion is that blue and fin whale hybrids might be common enough that they band together. This seems a little far-fetched to me, but I’m not a whale expert.

The loneliest whale’s migratory patterns suggest it’s a blue whale. So do its call patterns, if not its actual voice, but no one has recorded the whale’s song since 2004.

A documentary called “52: The Search for the Loneliest Whale” is currently in production. There aren’t any dates listed on the official site, 52thesearch.com, but it’s supposed to be released some time this year, 2017. [Note from 2020: it doesn’t appear that this has ever been released.] The film’s expedition has concluded, although we don’t know yet whether the scientific and film teams actually identified the loneliest whale or recorded it.

Here is the call of the loneliest whale. This recording has been sped up 10x to make it easier to hear. The original recording is barely more than a rumble, depending on how good your hearing is and how good your speakers are.

[whale call]

And just for fun, here’s a recording of an ordinary blue whale, also sped up:

[another whale call]

Now let’s go from the largest mammal alive to one of the largest land mammals alive, the elephant. In 1984, biologist Katy Payne, a pioneer in the field of bioacoutics, was at a zoo in Portland, Oregon to give a talk about whale songs. While she was there, she visited the elephant exhibit and noticed that every so often she felt what she called a throbbing in the air. She got some recording equipment and came back to the zoo, recorded the elephants, and sped up her recording. Sure enough, the elephants were making sounds below 20 hertz.

She pursued the finding with wild elephants in Africa. It turns out that elephants communicate not only with the familiar trumpets and squeaks, but in infrasound—that is, sounds below the lower limits of human hearing.

Infrasound can travel a long distance, especially useful in forested areas with limited visibility, and at dusk and dawn when atmospheric conditions help propagate the sound waves so they can travel as far as six miles away [9.6 km]. Females in estrus make a special call to bull elephants, for instance, attracting potential mates from a long way away.

Here’s a recording of elephant rumbles—again, sped up so we can hear it:

[elephant sounds]

Other animals communicate in infrasound, generally large animals like rhinos, hippos, giraffes, and of course whales. Many more communicate in ultrasounds, sounds above the top hearing range of humans, about 20 kilohertz. Bat radar navigation and sonar navigation sounds made by many species of dolphins and toothed whales register in the ultrasonic range, as do many insect calls. But there are other much more surprising animals that communicate in ultrasound.

The Philippine tarsier is a tiny primate only about five inches tall [13 cm], a big-eyed nocturnal fluffball with long fingers. Researchers studying the tarsiers wondered why the animals frequently opened their mouths as though to make calls but produced no sound. Sure enough, they’re communicating at ranges far too high for humans to detect—higher, in fact, than has been discovered for any terrestrial mammal.

The Philippine tarsier most often communicates at 70 kHz and can hear sounds up to 90 kHz. Researchers think the tarsier uses its ultrasonic hearing to track insects, and communicates in frequencies too high for predators to hear. Here’s a tarsier call, slowed down so we can hear it. I’ll keep it short because it’s super annoying.

[tarsier call]

Another animal that uses ultrasound is the cat. Domestic cats can hear sounds up to 85 kHz. Some kitten calls fall in the ultrasonic range, so the mother cat can hear her babies but many predators can’t. Cats have evolved to hear such high sounds because many rodents communicate in ultrasound. Male mice, for instance, sing like birds to attract mates. Here’s an example, slowed down so we can hear it:

[mouse singing]

But so far these are all known animals, or in the case of the loneliest whale, probably known. What about truly mysterious sounds?

Probably the most famous mystery sound is the bloop. It was recorded by NOAA in 1997 off the tip of South America. It’s an incredibly loud sound, much louder than the loudest animal ever recorded, the blue whale, and for a long time, people speculated that it might be an enormous unknown animal. Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately because no one wants to awaken Cthulhu, NOAA has identified the bloop as the sound of an icequake. That is, massive iceburgs breaking apart. Here’s a clip of the bloop, sped up so we can hear it:

[the bloop]

Another solved mystery sound has been dubbed “bioduck,” since it sounds sort of like a robotic duck. It’s been recorded since the 1960s, when it was first reported by submarine operators in the southern ocean off the Antarctic. It’s common, heard almost year-round near Antarctica and Australia, and was not from any known human-made source. Then, in 2013, whale researchers attached suction-cup tags to two Antarctic minke whales. While the tags remained in place, they recorded not only where the whales went, but the sounds they made. And to the research team’s astonishment, both whales made bioduck calls. This finding is important, not just because it cleared up a longstanding mystery, but because it tells us a lot about the Antarctic minke whale that wasn’t known. Researchers thought the whales only lived in Antarctic waters part of the year. Now they know that some whales remain year-round while some migrate near Australia. They can also make better estimates of whale populations now that they can identify this distinctive call.

The Antarctic minke whale is a baleen whale that grows to around 40 feet [12 m], but usually much smaller. It’s gray with white belly and mostly eats krill. This is what they sound like:

[minke whale call]

In our sea monster episode a couple of weeks ago, I shared another baleen whale call, this one from an unidentified species. It’s been dubbed the bio-twang and has been recorded in the Mariana trench in the western Pacific year-round in 2014 and 2015. Researchers suspect the dwarf minke whale, but they don’t know yet.

[mystery whale call]

To get out of the water for a moment, in 2012 a supposed bigfoot recorded started going around the internet. It was supposedly recorded on a cell phone in the Umatilla Indian Reservation near Pendleton, Oregon. It’s more likely to be nothing more exotic than a red fox.

Here’s the unknown scream:

[creepy animal sound]

And here’s a recording of a red fox:

[equally creepy red fox sound]

To me the sounds are very similar. If you want to know how I know the red fox scream is actually a red fox screaming, google “red fox scream.” The first hit is a YouTube clip of a fox screaming. I pulled the audio from that one.

In 2014, an unknown animal was recorded in Lake Champlain in Vermont. Dennis Hall, who claimed to have spotted the lake monster known as Champ in 1985, and Katy Elizabeth, who runs an organization known as Champ Search, made the recording and thought it might be from a beluga whale.

But while Lake Champlain is connected to the ocean, a whale would have a hard time reaching the lake due to canals, and would most likely have been spotted either on its way to the lake or once it arrived. Certainly it would have been spotted once it died from trying to live in fresh water.

Other recordings of clicking and squeaking sounds like those of beluga whales have been recorded in the lake in the past, including by a Discovery Channel team researching Champ. In 2013, Dr. Lance Barret Lennard from the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Center, and an expert on whale acoustics, examined some of the echolocation patterns. He determined that not only are the recordings not of beluga whales, they’re not from any kind of whale. They’re probably not mammalian in origin.

Some turtles have been found to produce underwater signals that may be a form of echolocation, and many fish make clicking and drumming sounds. But we don’t know what’s making the sounds recorded in Lake Champlain.

Here’s the 2014 recording:

[Lake Champlain sounds]

Finally, here’s a sound that’s not mysterious, I just really like it. It’s the song of the veery, an attractive but rather plain thrush. I’ve heard it in person while hiking at high elevations in the Smoky Mountains, and it’s completely ethereal.

If you listen closely, you can hear that the veery is actually making two sounds at the same time. The avian vocal mechanism, called a syrinx, is much different from a mammal’s larynx, and allows a bird to product more than one tone at a time.

[veery call]

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us and get twice-monthly bonus episodes for as little as one dollar a month.

Thanks for listening!