University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo graduate student Sabena Siddiqui is researching the social sounds made by Megaptera novaeangliae, known colloquially as the humpback whale, when they are not singing.
Few scientific researchers are dedicated to studying humpback whales’ social vocalizations. Siddiqui’s research focuses on spectral analysis of the social sounds of the humpback whale population that breeds in Hawaiʻi.
“Social sounds can be heard while they are migrating, feeding or breeding, and can be produced by males, females and calves. [This] is a whole other aspect of their communication that is clearly important, but we don’t know anything about it,” said Siddiqui. “We don’t know even basic things, like the structure of the sounds or if there is a catalog of sound types. This is what I am trying to discover.”
The humpback whale is a migratory species that travels to island waters every winter for breeding season. “Hawaiʻi is this critical breeding ground for the entire North Pacific population. It is a very special area with high significance for these animals,” said Siddiqui.
The whales are known to adjust their communication when confronted with alien noises that interfere with the marine soundscape. Anthropogenic ocean noise has been increasing due to activities like sonar testing and vessel traffic from commercial and recreational use.
Studies show that such noises can change humpback whale behavior. It can make them change how they produce sounds—some become quieter, some become louder, trying to “yell” over the noise.
Scientists are also worried that anthropogenic noise is “blinding” the whales. “Sound is how cetaceans see,” said Siddiqui. “It’s like the equivalent of us being under constant strobe lights and we cannot escape it.”
In addition to her graduate studies, for the past seven years Siddiqui has served as the student chair of the American Cetacean Society, the world’s oldest whale conservation organization. Her role is to mentor and guide student leaders of other groups on the UH Hilo campus.
Video by Adam Pack.
—A UH Hilo Stories article written by Leah Sherwood a graduate student in the tropical conservation biology and environmental science program at the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo