mysteries of life

What Do Whales Gossip About?

Her baleen plates are full of secrets. Photo: Stephen Frink/Getty Images

If you have found yourself leaning heavily on chat — back-to-back video chats, hyperactive group chats, dating-app chats, hell, maybe even some (sexy?!) phone chats — during the isolation age, please know you are not alone. The whales have also been using this period of mandatory downtime to catch up with old friends, taking advantage of the quiet to really shoot the shit. Ah, to be a barnacle on one of those behemoth bods, intercepting all that hot whale goss, am I right?

The Guardian reports that, with global shipping and travel tightly curtailed by the coronavirus pandemic, underwater noise levels have dropped dramatically. David Barclay, assistant professor of oceanography at Dalhousie University, told the outlet that sound signals measured at seabed observatories near the Port of Vancouver showed a significant and consistent drop-off between January and April 1 — “a change of four or five decibels,” Barclay said, that coincided with a 20 percent reduction in trade through that site. Meanwhile, noise levels in adjacent deep-sea areas dropped by about 1.5 decibels. Cruise-ship activity has — finally, mercifully — also ground to a halt, allowing marine life a well-deserved moment of aural peace.

“We have a generation of humpbacks that have never known a quiet ocean,” Michelle Fournet, a marine acoustician at Cornell University who studies Southeast Alaska’s humpbacks, told the Guardian. Typically, heavy maritime traffic impedes whale talk: When things get busy and loud, Fournet said, whales call less (relatable). But now, she added, “I expect what we might see is an opportunity for whales to have more conversation, and to have more complex conversation.”

I am imaging this conversation as the oceanic equivalent of an Entmoot, one whale singing the news of the day in long lowing tones, or hashing out inter-pod drama with a band of its brethren. Whales famously love to gossip: What do you think they’re dishing about down there? The Russian spy whale? A leviathan-baby surprise? Whether or not their newsboy-cap-wearing peers are actually pulling off that look? Those belugas who invited that narwhal to their sex party? How this bowhead whale gets her skin so good? Us?!

Hmm. Much to think about. Although me, personally? I bet it’s the sex party.

What Do Whales Gossip About?