With additional funding from the National Geographic Society, Gedamke and Costa returned to the reef in 1998 and 1999, recording a total of 92 hours of whale sounds during 49 encounters.
By carefully matching the sounds they recorded with their logs of whale sightings, the researchers were finally able to nail it down. The bizarre sounds were, indeed, coming from the minke whales. They published their findings in the current issue of the Journal of the Acoustic Society of America.
Gedamke speculates they succeeded because they made their recordings at a different time, and in a different location, than other researchers who had also tried to catch the minke yapping. The whales at the Great Barrier Reef, called dwarf minkes because they are a little smaller than the two other minke populations in the Northern and Southern hemispheres, just seemed to love all the attention.
"Minkes in general have been known to be curious," Gedamke says, "but this particular population is really unlike anything else that's out there." Sometimes, the Undersea Explorer would just stop and drift, without a whale in sight, and within a few minutes whales would suddenly appear and start circling the boat. "We had one encounter that lasted almost 11 hours," he says. "Probably eight to 10 whales just circled the boat. It was amazing." The researchers, along with tourists who were along for the ride, repeatedly slipped into the water to socialize with the whales. "It's an absolutely incredible, surreal experience to be in the water, holding on to a line that's being towed behind the Undersea Explorer, and looking around and seeing whales everywhere you look."
Dwarfs at 14 Tons
Gedamke admits it can be a bit intimidating. These animals may be called dwarfs, but that doesn't mean they are small. Adults are about 30 feet long, and weigh up to 14 tons. "Here's this huge creature that's swimming around, coming within a few feet of you, and very clearly eying you up and down. So the first time you get in the water you might be a little intimidated by the size of these animals, but once you are in there for just a few minutes you realize they are completely passive. "They will just circle for hours on end, looking at us, looking at the boat and going about their lives," Gedamke says. "It's just an incredible experience." Gedamke could even hear the Star Wars sounds as he swam with the whales. If the animals were close enough, he could feel the acoustic waves pushing through the water, announcing that the whales were yakking it up. But it's not real clear just what they were trying to say. Gedamke theorizes it may be a mating sound, which would explain why it was heard so clearly in the courting area and not in the high seas, but he admits no one knows for sure. Maybe the whales were just saying that when nature talks, you better listen.
Lee Dye’s column appears weekly on ABCNEWS.com. A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.