A camera crew from NBC News captured what may be a first and aired it tonight: the song of a blue whale above the water. It is a low groan but you can hear it loud and clear.
The extraordinarily rare performance occurred off the coast of Long Beach, where four blue whales treated a boatful of whale watchers and the news crew to a wild show few people have ever seen.
“We heard it through the air, loud and clear,” she said. “It was a strange, alien sound. It really was an extraordinary thing."
Three smaller blue whales were pursuing one large blue whale (she presumed the smaller three were males, the larger a female, but others would argue there was no way to tell for certain). They were swimming faster than normal and in tight circles when the female surfaced along side the Christopher out of Harbor Breeze Cruises.
“If someone would have jumped in the water, they would have landed on top of her,” said Schulman-Janiger. “That’s how close she was to us.” The whales also lunged, chin-slapped and kept after the female.
Then the female let out a roughly 10-second low-pitched groan. The males were underwater and out of sight while the female just lay on the surface with a good part of her head above the surface. Then the whale made the same kind of sound on the other side of the boat.
Blue whale vocalizations have been picked up on numerous occasions using submerged hydrophones. The largest creatures to have ever inhabited the earth can communicate for up to hundreds of miles, but this was one of the few times, if ever, that a blue whale had ever been heard vocalizing above water.
“We kept looking around to see where the noise was coming from,” said Schulman-Janiger. “I thought someone was playing a joke or something because I have never heard such a sound nor expected it.”
Schulman-Janiger said she could clearly see the blowhole and there was no movement during the sound making. Schulman-Janiger has made thousands of whale watching trips, yet she could barely contain her excitement hours after witnessing the rare performance.
Schulman-Janiger told Pete Thomas Outdoors that she phoned John Calambokidis, one of the world's top blue whale scientists. He told her that in extensive study of blue whales around the world, he had never heard above-surface vocalization from a blue whale.
Very little is actually known about blue whale behavior. The enigmatic leviathan is believed to calf in the Costa Rican Dome, located 500 miles off the Central American country but not much more beyond that is known. Blue whales remain on the endangered species list. In 1931, over 29,000 blue whales were killed. In 1966, the International Whaling Commission banned all hunting of blue whales.
Kera Mathes from the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach felt privileged to have been part of the trip, shooting photographs and enjoying what truly may have been a once in a lifetime experience.
“I have never seen anything like it,” said Christopher Captain Danny Salas. “The whale came to the surface and seemed to be trying to communicate. It was like she was talking to us.”
Footage of the extraordinary encounter was aired Wednesday on the Nightly News.
From Pete Thomas Outdoors:
"We heard it through the air, loud and clear," said Alisa Schulman-Janiger, an American Cetacean Society biologist and researcher. "It was a strange, alien sound. It really was an extraordinary thing."
Kera Mathes, a naturalist with the Aquarium of the Pacific, described the experience as "astounding." The aquarium posted on its Facebook page Thursday that the bizarre sound was, in fact, captured on film.
Blue whales communicate, for up to hundreds of miles, with low-pitched vocalizations. The vocalizations can sometimes be picked up via submerged hydrophones. But the majestic leviathans, which are the planet's largest creatures and can measure 100 feet and weigh 150 tons, are not known for making sounds other than those associated with breathing while at the surface. About 2,000 blue whales -- part of an endangered global population of roughly 10,000 -- migrate into California waters in early summer to take advantage of vast blooms of krill.
The whales feed almost constantly but the four whales alongside the Christopher were clearly cavorting. They lunged, or raced across the surface, at times lifting their heads and chin-slapping in what seemed a game of follow the leader. Typically during this type of behavior, the leader is a lone female.