Cetacean Communication

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Did you know that cetaceans have highly developed communication systems?

This communication is divided into non-vocal acoustic communication, such as jumps, fluke slaps, jaw claps, bubble production, etc., and vocal acoustic communication such as whistles, pulsed sounds, songs, and visual communication such as color patterns, morphological features, and gestures.

In non-vocal communication, tail slaps against the water’s surface stand out, indicating the presence of a threat or dissatisfaction. Sometimes during our whale watching tours, we see young individuals making these movements to express that “they are very big” and that caution is warranted around them; these babies are very brave!

We also have breaching, meaning the spectacular leaps they make out of the water. The sound they produce upon re-entry can travel for kilometers, serving to maintain contact or inform about sexual stimulation, food presence, or to remove dead skin and avoid parasites.

In vocal communication, we have a wide repertoire of sounds produced by dolphins and whales in their daily lives. Here we distinguish between:

*Baleen whales (mysticetes): these animals produce low-frequency sounds that can travel hundreds of kilometers for communication; high-frequency sounds related to social contexts; and whistles and songs, as in humpback whales. Overall, these serve to maintain contact over large distances to synchronize biological activities such as feeding or reproduction, as these animals do not typically travel in large groups.

*Toothed whales and dolphins (odontocetes): Only toothed dolphins produce pulsed sounds, also known as echolocation, meaning they know the distance to the object they are echolocating, its size, speed, and tissue density. They also produce low-frequency whistles that can travel longer distances than pulsed sounds, allowing deep-diving dolphins like pilot whales to communicate with individuals remaining at the surface, thus staying connected. Even within some species, such as bottlenose dolphins, each individual has its own distinctive whistle, akin to a name. This process begins from gestation, forming an intense mother-calf bond.

Finally, visual communication encompasses behaviors or gestures such as keeping the jaw open in case of threat, aerial leaps, movement of pectoral fins, or postures resembling an “S.” All of these can also indicate the presence of predators or prey or help synchronize family group activities. Additionally, there’s sexual dimorphism, as seen in male narwhals with their long spiral tusks, marking their sex, or the coloration of common dolphins indicating the species.

In our Whale Watching vessel in Tenerife, we offer eco-tours guided by marine biologists who can demonstrate these sounds during the journey as we have a hydrophone on board. Although much remains to be studied about cetacean communication, it’s incredible to think they can communicate “like us,” learn new sounds, attribute sounds to specific objects or situations, navigate and hunt in complete darkness, or maintain contact with individuals tens of kilometers away.

Don’t wait to discover this and many other wonderful experiences in Tenerife, one of the best whale watching areas in the world, accompanied by experts who will tell you everything they know about them. We await you on board!


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