Minke whales make Star Wars noises

Dwarf minke whales are not the strong, silent type after all, say two California researchers.

An acoustics researcher and dwarf minke whale study each other. Qamar Schuyler

Other whale scientists hadn’t noticed much vocalization from minkes. Nevertheless, Jason Gedamke and Daniel Costa of the University of California, Santa Cruz went to Australia to record the local dwarf minkes, one of the seven variants of the species.

Just who was studying whom wasn’t always clear. The 30-foot-long whales often clustered around the scientists’ submersible vehicle, approaching within yards. On one occasion, whales hung around and watched human antics for 11 hours.

Such close encounters yielded more than 90 hours of recordings of what Gedamke calls “complex and varied vocalizations.” He describes one as startlingly like the sound of laser guns in Star Wars movies (listen to calls at

http://people.ucsc.edu/~jgedamke).

Such reports didn’t immediately convince others, who advised the California team to check with the Australian Navy. Military sources assured the whale watchers that naval maneuvers weren’t responsible for any underwater laser-gun noises.

After extensive recordings with simultaneous videotapes, the researchers report that dwarf minke whales really do make “laser noises.” The full description of the vocalizations appears in the June Journal of the Acoustical Society of America.

Some ocean observers now report they heard the puzzling laser sounds but dismissed them as calls of fanciful “guitarfish.” Gedamke and Costa are pursuing other oddball sounds in hopes of discovering more whale vocalizations. For example, they now wonder whether Atlantic minke are behind mysterious repetitive noises nicknamed “the A train.”

Susan Milius is the life sciences writer, covering organismal biology and evolution, and has a special passion for plants, fungi and invertebrates. She studied biology and English literature.

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