Killer whales look so elegant when they travel along the surface, you might never guess that they can be loud and chatty. But underwater, they make a whole lot of interesting noise.

B.C. killer whales mainly live in darkness - sunlight doesn't reach very far down into the ocean in this part of the world. So to navigate and talk to each other, killer whales use sound.

Sound waves travel five times faster in water than they do in air, and they travel a lot farther too. That’s why loud noise, or noise pollution, from boats or sonar testing can be so harmful to these animals.

Do you speak whale?

Killer whales have dialects, just like we do. The sounds they use to talk to each other aren’t genetically passed down from generation to generation – they’re learned. And just as our languages change with time and distance, killer whale dialects differ from group to group. By analyzing the similarities in the calls of different whales, scientists can figure out how closely they’re related.

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Killer whales look so elegant when they travel along the surface, you might never guess that they can be loud and chatty. But underwater, they make a whole lot of interesting noise.

B.C. killer whales mainly live in darkness - sunlight doesn't reach very far down into the ocean in this part of the world. So to navigate and talk to each other, killer whales use sound.

Sound waves travel five times faster in water than they do in air, and they travel a lot farther too. That’s why loud noise, or noise pollution, from boats or sonar testing can be so harmful to these animals.

Do you speak whale?

Killer whales have dialects, just like we do. The sounds they use to talk to each other aren’t genetically passed down from generation to generation – they’re learned. And just as our languages change with time and distance, killer whale dialects differ from group to group. By analyzing the similarities in the calls of different whales, scientists can figure out how closely they’re related.

Different whales, different sounds

In B.C., each killer whale ecotype (resident, transient, or offshore) makes different types of sounds. This is unusual for mammals – most mammals in the same species make very similar sounds to communicate with each other. In fact, unlike birds, most mammals can't learn or produce complex sounds. The exceptions are toothed whales, like killer whales, and humans.

© Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre 2006. All rights reserved.

Click on the Speaker icon to hear the call sounds of killer whales.

About Killer Whale Calls

When killer whales want to introduce themselves or announce their presence in an area, they send out a call. It’s their way of saying, “Hi! I’m here! I’m part of Mary’s matriline.” These squeals, squeaks and screams are most commonly heard by scientists researching killer whale languages.

Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre

© Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre 2006. All rights reserved.


Click on the Speaker icon to hear the Click sounds of killer whales.

About Killer Whale Clicks

Much like bats, killer whales send out a sound signal that bounces back to them if it hits something. This animal version of sonar is called echolocation. For killer whales, the sound is a long series of clicks, which scientists call a click train.

Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre

© Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre 2006. All rights reserved.


Click on the Speaker icon to hear the whistle sounds of killer whales.

About Killer Whale Whistles

Killer whales can make cool sounds that sound like whistles. These are used to socialize with other killer whales when they’re close together.

Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre

© Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre 2006. All rights reserved.


Click on the Speaker icon to hear the sounds of resident killer whales.

About Resident Killer Whale Sounds

Resident killer whales are talkative. They chat a lot, whether they’re chasing down a school of fish, traveling, or just hanging out. Killer whale pods that are closely related usually have similar dialects.

Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre

© Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre 2006. All rights reserved.


Click on the Speaker icon to hear the sounds of transient killer whales.

About Transient Killer Whale Sounds

Transient killer whales sound very different than resident killer whales. They don’t make as much noise as the residents do. Because marine mammals can hear their clicks and whistles, transients need to be silent to sneak up on their prey. And unlike residents, they all sound very similar to each other. Scientists think that because transients don’t travel with the same group all their lives, they don’t have a chance to develop their own dialects.

Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre

© Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre 2006. All rights reserved.


Click on the Speaker icon to hear the sounds of offshore killer whales.

About Offshore Killer Whale Sounds

Offshore killer whales are very chatty, like residents. They have completely different calls than the residents or transients, but they haven’t been studied as closely yet.

Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre

© Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre 2006. All rights reserved.


A killer whale swimming by a Steller sea lion haulout

Photo : L. Barrett-Lennard

© Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre 2006. All rights reserved.


Unlike residents, transient killer whlaes hunt in virtual silence so they can sneak up on their prey!
Unlike residents, transient killer whlaes hunt in virtual silence so they can sneak up on their prey!

© Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre 2006. All rights reserved.

Dr. Lance Barrett-Lennard preparing to deploy a hydrophone from a boat

Photo : K. Heise

© Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre 2006. All rights reserved.


Learning Objectives

The learner will:
  • familiarize himself with the vocabulary used in biology;
  • assess human impacts on biodiversity, and identify ways of preserving biodiversity;
  • describe how personal actions help conserve natural resources and protect the environment in their region;
  • demonstrate an understanding of the dynamic nature of ecosystems.

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