How Orcas Make Sounds

Orcas make three kinds of sounds—calls, clicks and whistles. Unlike people, they don’t open their mouths to make sounds. The sounds are produced by squeezing air between balloon-like sacs in their heads. For people, this would be like talking through our noses.

Examples of Whale Sounds
Whale Call

Calls are unique patterns of sounds that can be easily identified by ear or on a spectrogram. Here's an example of the S1 call. (Click here to view the spectrogram of this call.)

Whistles are single tones that can last for several seconds. (Click here to view the spectrogram of this whistle.)

Clicks are pulses of sound that orcas use for echolocation. Echolocation helps the whale to find food, recognize objects, and know where they are in the dark water. To do this, the whale sends out a rapid series of short clicks, using a fatty part of its head (called the melon) to focus the clicks in one direction. The clicks hit an object and bounce back to the whale's throat and jaw and then up to the ear. The echos of the clicks and the time it takes them to return gives the whale a "sound map" of what surrounds it. (Click here to view a spectrogram of this click train.)

How do orcas make sound?
Clicks are pulses of sound that orcas use for echolocation.
Illustrations by Uko Gorter
How to Read a Spectrogram

Sometimes researchers use spectrograms to study sounds. These graphs are a different way to study sounds—by looking at them. The vertical axis represents frequency, or how low- or high-pitched the sound is. The horizontal axis represents time, starting on the left and moving to the right. The colors show how loud the sound is—the warmer and brighter the color, the louder the sound.