Moans, screams, and gunshots: Other right whale sounds

The moan call

Right whales make other sounds--very different from the up-call--to communicate in special circumstances. These sounds include a variety of vocal notes whose meanings scientists are still working out. They also make less tuneful noises such as the recently discovered “gunshot” sound. Even seemingly mundane sounds such as blowing at the surface and slapping the water with fins, body, or tail may send a message to other whales. Here are a few examples:

The moan call

This “moan” call is an eerie, wavering note that lasts about 4 seconds.

Curious about what other whale species sound like? See and hear more whales on the Bioacoustics Research Program site

The scream call 

The scream call

Right whales often make brief, shrill “scream” calls when they gather in groups at the surface. These common gatherings center around a particular female, but they can include 30 or more males, females, and calves, all milling around, splashing, and calling.

The gunshot sound

The gunshot sound

Males also produce a peculiar “gunshot” sound--a very loud pop or bang that so far seems to be used as an aggressive call toward other males. They tend to make gunshot sounds one at a time when involved in a group of whales at the surface. At other times males give an elaborate display, swimming in circles or slapping the water while making dozens of loud gunshot sounds.

Humpback whale notes

Sound-alikes: other whales and fish

Humpback whales

A few living creatures can also sound like up-calling right whales. Most similar are notes that humpback whales make during their long, involved songs. Here’s a 30-second portion of a humpback song; the final note in particular is very similar to a right whale call.

Listen to other humpback whale vocalizations:

Curious about what other whale species sound like? See and hear more whales on the Bioacoustics Research Program site

Black drum (a fish)

Fish sounds

Some fish, like this black drum, make curious thumping sounds that can trigger the buoys’ detection software. The sounds are created when the fish strikes its own swim bladder using bones or muscles.

False alarms such as these are why the auto-detection buoys route their detections to human analysts for final approval. The buoys are intentionally programmed to accept sounds that aren’t an exact match for a typical right whale call. That way, the buoys avoid ignoring right whales that happen to sound a little unusual. Experienced listeners at the Bioacoustics Research Program identify the false positives and remove them from the data used to warn ship captains to slow down.