New web series chronicles whale songs in the key of climate change

© Rodolphe Holler

Off the coast of a remote island in the South Pacific, a team of scientists and volunteers recently gathered on a boat to hear this year’s hit song.

The singers, in this case, are endangered Oceania humpback whales near the island of Niue, where they are considered sacred — and are a key to understanding the status of migratory marine species amid a changing climate.

A new series of videos created by New Zealand filmmaker Richard Sidey follows the team as they collect data about migratory Oceania humpback whales in the waters of Niue, which became a national whale sanctuary in 2003 and recently declared 40 percent of its ocean territory a large-scale marine protected area. The male humpback’s song — an example of the largest-scale documented cultural learning experience outside of the human race — is recorded using a hydrophone, or underwater microphone.

“All of the males at each breeding ground sing the same song, yet every year the song is different,” said Olive Andrews, a Conservation International scientist and researcher with the South Pacific Whale Research Consortium. Male humpback whales sing a complex, culturally transmitted song, she continued. “Its main function is for mate selection, but research suggests that singing males also attract other males. In this way, the song is learned and transmitted across the entire Pacific Ocean basin, originating on the east coast of Australia and moving east over time.” The songs can be used to calculate where whales are coming from and identify different breeding locations — important information when determining how to better conserve this species.

Andrews, who has been studying whales for more than 20 years, helps to manage and conserve the whale population in Niue through local partnerships with various government agencies of Niue and a local nonprofit organization called Oma Tafuā (which means “to treasure the whales”).

Olivia DeSmit is a staff writer for Conservation International.