Hearing Humpback Whales Underwater

Humpback whales are a species of baleen whale that live in all the world’s oceans. They are known for being a very vocal whale. Males produce a complex song which they repeat for hours at a time during their mating season in their breeding grounds.

Humpback Whale Campbell River BC

Photo by Andy Scheffler.

Male can be heard singing starting in September in their feeding grounds here in British Columbia, often at night, as they start practicing their song for the upcoming reproductive season. Then around November, they will begin their migration south to breeding grounds near the equator, arriving back in the spring. Only a few remain in this area during the winter, and the reason is unclear to researchers. 

So, imagine our confusion and excitement when we heard a humpback singing underwater in January 2023.


We had a group of divers from the mainland of British Columbia visiting for a Campbell River diving charter. Over a weekend, we dove sites around Discovery Passage, which is known for its high current flow, abundant marine life, and exciting wildlife encounters. Little did we know… we were in for an especially exciting encounter on the last dive of the weekend!

Following a dive on the HMCS Columbia wreck, we took a surface interval doing some sightseeing and looking for wildlife. We found two humpback whales, which in itself was very exciting, considering most humpbacks had already left for their summer breeding grounds. This was in early January, remember.

We were approaching slack tide, so we headed to Steep Island for the last dive of the weekend. We dropped the divers in the water and watched their bubbles slowly drifting down the wall of the narrow island.

diver on a wall of tubeworms, steep island near campbell river bc

Steep Island boasts an impressive wall of northern feather duster tubeworms. Photo by Seaproof.tv


After around 20 minutes, I looked at Jason and said, “I wonder where those humpbacks went”. Not 10 seconds later, we saw a blow further down Steep Island, about 200m from the divers’ bubbles.

Over a few minutes, the humpbacks slowly moved off the island and behind the boat as we remained near the bubbles. After some time, the first diver surfaced, and asked “where are the whales?”.

As the rest of the divers surfaced, we were shocked to hear that for most of the dive, the divers could hear the loud calls of the humpbacks. The grunts, shrieks, and thwops were so loud they could feel the vibrations. For most of the dive, they slowly drifted down the wall facing outwards, listening to the calls.


Luckily, we still had a hydrophone onboard from our whale watching tours in the summer. We dropped the hydrophone in the water, and began listening to the calls of the humpbacks.

For over an hour we sat in the pouring rain, huddled together, listening, and watching the whales. The underwater calls were echoing off the canyon walls, clearly heard with the hydrophone. The whales remained close by the entire time.

It was only after the winds started picking up that we reluctantly tore ourselves away and back to the dock, all smiling and in disbelief.

This was truly a once-in-a-lifetime encounter!

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Blog written by Shannon Groenewegen




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