Web Extra: Listen to whale songs recorded off coast of New York City

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A humpback whale surfaces near the Statue of Liberty in this photo taken from a boat on New York Harbor in New York City, U.S., December 8, 2020. REUTERS/Bjoern Kils/New York Media Boat NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES. MANDATORY CREDIT. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

Sightings of humpback whales in the waters off New York have increased in recent years, thrilling whale watchers. Now, for the first time, scientists have proof of humpbacks singing in this area, not just in their Caribbean breeding grounds.

Lead study author Julia Zeh analyzed more than 6,000 hours of underwater recordings captured by Cornell scientists and she couldn’t believe her ears. “All of a sudden there in the background, it starts kind of quiet and then gets louder. I was so excited to hear it!” she says.

They sound mysterious, even eerie to us, but to whales, they may be love songs, loud and long, and sometimes lasting hours. “They all sing the same song within a population. And that song changes from year to year, kind of like pop songs,” says Zeh. Songs have only been recorded from male humpback whales and they can be heard underwater for more than 20 miles.

More of these massive humpbacks have been spotted near New York City, but these are also busy commercial waters, and one of the biggest threats to this endangered species is ship strikes. “We’ve had whales playing in the channel before, and some pretty close encounters with some cargo ships,” says Mitchell Steinhardt, naturalist and whale photographer.

Scientists say studying their songs could help protect humpbacks in this part of the Atlantic. “The more people get to interact with them, they become real. And you care more,” says Cody Geil, a whale watcher.

A siren song, asking us to listen.

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