Dating is hard when you’re a whale. These aquatic mammals must assert their dominance and attract females — much like human males do — but instead of showing off their fancy car or comforting their girlfriend after a rough day, whales woo by singing. And what does a whale’s song even sound like? Researchers recently released the largest set of recordings of bowhead whales singing ever organized, and the results are equal parts funny, confusing, and surprisingly sweet.
When asked to describe the sounds a singing whale makes, Kate Stafford, an oceanographer at the University of Washington and part of the team that released the whale tapes, put it this way: “It’s hard to put into words. They shriek. They moan. They cry and they rattle and they whistle and they hum.” And hidden below the thick sheets of ice resting on the ocean’s surface, bowhead whales sing — according to Stafford — throughout the cold arctic winter.
“This crazy, crazy singing behavior really emphasizes how special the Arctic is, and how much is going on all the time in this place that people think of as dark and desolate,” Stafford said. “With bowheads, you never know where they’re going. If humpbacks are like classical musicians, bowheads are jazz singers.”
Listen to the bowhead whales sing in the audio clips below.
Why Bowhead Whales Are Mysterious Creatures
So why is it so rare to hear bowhead whales sing? These solitary creatures are the only baleen whales that live only in the Arctic, which means very few people get to hear or see them. (Baleen whales typically have two blowholes and are larger than their toothed relatives, which include dolphins and porpoises.) To capture these recordings, researchers had to tether an underwater microphone off the coast of Greenland in nearly half a mile into the water. The recorder was only turned on for 15 minutes every hour to conserve battery in the frigid ocean.
The data showed the whales singing almost nonstop from November to April, with a new set of songs emerging each season. In total, Stafford and Norwegian scientists Christian Lydersen and Kit Kovacs noted 184 different distinct songs. Because this occurred during mating season, Stafford and her team believe the calls were mating tunes belted out by the males in an attempt to win over females and ward off other males.
Considering whales have calves every couple of years, and the lifespan of a bowhead is — prepare yourselves — at least 200 years, according to National Geographic, that’s a lot of singing over one lifetime. So men, count yourselves lucky that some women are happy with being wooed only on date night (although we think we deserve to be wooed all the time)!
Watch the video below to see adorable footage of animals in love.