Marine Animal Communication

Are you scared of the Ocean? So am I, but why is that? So much of the ocean remains undiscovered, which is the whole beauty of it. Before we were asked to pick a topic for our research paper, I already had a vision of what my research would be on. My fascination with marine life started when I first watched the movie “Finding Nemo,” which gave me my first look into the depths of the ocean. Since it’s an animated movie, it tends to imagine certain aspects and the information isn’t as reliable as it would be if it came from a documentary. As a result, to learn more about the ocean, I had to gather information from more reliable sources, such as books and documentaries. More specifically, I began to learn about marine life and the underwater acoustic environment in high school when I took a class on marine biology. The main reason I chose this topic was to learn more about what goes on under the surface of the ocean. To hear a bird sing or a tiger roar, you can simply listen to the noise they make, but when it comes to whales singing or dolphins clicking, these sounds cannot be heard as easily. Unlike going to the jungle or a safari, it is much harder to go underwater and observe these sounds. In order to hear these sounds, outside technology is crucial. Only technology that records the sounds of these animals can give you the ability to hear them clearly.

The main topic of my research is animal communication. Though this could be a broad topic, I really focused on how important communication is for underwater animals like whales and dolphins. I focused on this more because it’s fascinating how certain marine animals use communication in order to survive (ex. Feeding, reproduction etc.). Also, I want to investigate how other sounds that are produced by humans, or the underwater environment itself, affect the sound production of whales and dolphins as well as their communication.

Some questions I want to answer throughout this research are: what role does communication have in everyday life of animals, how do communications differ in certain types of animals, how important is the environment when it comes to communication etc. In order to answer these questions, I will use the library as a primary source to books and academic journals that specifically talk about my topic. I intend to contact a librarian specialist, Janil Miller who specializes in marine science and interview her, which would help me answer my questions as well. I could use hydrophones to record an underwater environment so that way I can get a better picture of the sounds in environments where these communications happen.

A plethora of studies have been performed on this specific topic, allowing me to gather information from others’ research. One of these researchers I will focus on is Katherine Payne, who started her research career investigating whale communication. If I was ever involved in a discussion about this topic, my contribution to the conversation wouldn’t be incredibly big, but it would be meaningful and the information that I provide would be reliable. One of the things I could add on to the conversation is the question about noise pollution and how, in addition to ships and underwater sounds projects, this could be one of the things that alters whale and dolphin communication and their sound production.

One of the chapters from the book Animal Communication and Noise, “Effects of Noise on Acoustic Signal Production in Marine Animals”, provides most of the answers about my topic. The chapter primarily focuses on sounds that are produced by marine animals and how outside noise effects those sounds. This text addressed questions of why communication is important to marine animals and how humans interfere in that communication. The authors propose reasons why communication is so important to marine animals. It notes that sounds created by ship engines interfere with the communication between marine animals. The ships interfere with animal communication because they “caused a remarkable change in the global ambient noise of the deep ocean” (258). Extraneous noise leads marine animals to alter the way they produce their sounds in order to communicate. These alterations could be avoided if we, as humans, are more considerate and more aware of how important communication and sound production are for marine animals.

The next article I read was “Communication in Bottlenose dolphins: 50 years of Signature Whistle Research”, in which the authors focus on explaining the signature whistle and what it means to the dolphins. When the dolphins are isolated, “38–70% of all whistles produced are signature whistles” (Janik). Also, it serves as identification as different dolphins produce their own distinctive signature whistles. Each dolphin introduces a new signature whistle that becomes a part of their communication, and this ability to copy these whistles allows dolphins to create a communication system often compared to our own human language. Every whistle could represent a single word in a language. These signature whistles help scientists when it comes to studying dolphin communication because they are easy to recognize. Dolphin communication is very complex because of their cognitive and vocal abilities, which is why it is hard to find answers to some questions about this topic. Signature whistles help scientists when it comes to studying dolphin communication because the whistles are easy to recognize.

In the last article, “Exposure to Seismic Survey Alters Blue Whale Acoustic Communication”, the author grabs attention by addressing how certain underwater projects in the ocean affect the everyday communication between whales. A seismic survey is a technique used to develop images of rock layers below the ground, which ultimately help access gas and oil from the ocean floor. These surveys produce high frequency sounds that interfere with whale sound production. After 11 days of seismic surveys, the collected information had shown that blue whales increase the sound production during survey days as opposed to days when the survey sounds were not being produced. This helps me answer one of the biggest questions I have about this topic, which is how do other sounds affect acoustic communication among marine animals.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t record any underwater environments myself, but I was able to find some recordings online that could be helpful in my research. For example, after reading the article on seismic surveys affecting whale communication, I wanted to find sound recordings to get a better picture of how disturbing the noise really is. One of the recordings I was able to find was recorded by a diver off the coast of Cavo Greco in Cyprus. After hearing the first wave being fired from the boat, each wave is repeated every 10 seconds. There is no information provided about how far the boat is from where the diver was located, but these sounds from a single seismic survey can travel up to tens of thousands of square kilometers. It is extremely difficult for whales to avoid these noises since the surveys are performed often and on different locations.

seismic survey

It is a known fact that whales use echolocation and acoustic signals in order to hunt. A short YouTube video shows us how humans and ship engines interfere with this process. In this specific video, the main focus is the Killer Whales struggling to find food because, without echolocation, it is impossible for them to find any type of prey. Whales use echolocation for other survival activities like finding mating partners and reproducing, but again, echolocation is pretty useless when its being interfered by other sounds. This video shows how important acoustic signals are for marine life and by humans interfering with these sounds, we are causing more damage than we think.


My next step is to spread the word about the problem of human noise pollution in the ocean. A lot of people remain ignorant to this information because it is “under the surface”. People are afraid of the ocean, which is the big reason why most of it is still undiscovered, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t feel responsible for protecting the discovered part of it. Obviously oil spills from ships damage the ocean much more than seismic surveys or ship engines, but by focusing on solving these smaller problems can help a great deal in the long run. Hopefully in the near future ship companies will pay more attention the level of engine noise and how to limit this disruptive noise.

This research really opened my eyes to communication between underwater animals and the acoustic environment, and I learned things that I was clueless about before. Communication and acoustic sounds are a huge part of the underwater environment, which is why we should be more cautious when it comes to underwater noise pollution. We need to provide the whales and dolphins with an environment that allows them to do things like mate, feed or any other survival activity that involves sound production.


Brumm, Henrik. 2013. Animal Communication and Noise. 1st ed. Vol. 2. Dordrecht: Springer Berlin Heidelberg.

Di Lorio, Lucia, and Christopher W. Clark. 2010. “Exposure to Seismic Survey Alters Blue Whale Acoustic Communication”. Biology Letters 6 (1): 51-4.

Janik, Vincent M., and Laela S. Sayigh. 2013. “Communication in Bottlenose Dolphins: 50 Years of Signature Whistle Research.” Journal of Comparative Physiology A 199 (6): 479-89.

Parks, SE, DA Cusano, AK Stimpert, MT Weinrich, AS Friedlaender, and DN Wiley. 2014. “Evidence for Acoustic Communication Among Bottom Foraging Humpback Whales.” Scientific Reports 4: 7508.

Castellote, Manuel, Christopher W. Clark, and Marc O. Lammers. 2012. “Acoustic and Behavioural Changes by Fin Whales (balaenoptera physalus) in Response to Shipping and Airgun Noise.” Biological Conservation 147 (1): 115-22.

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