How Whale Sounds Travel Underwater

By Stu Grove on May 22, 2015

For this year's Science Fair Introductory Physics student Izzy P. chose to explore the ways in which whales communicate with one another by sending underwater sound signals capable of travelling great distances. She was especially interested in the vast array of varying sounds that whales are capable of making, and the unique way in which sound travels through water as compared to other mediums. As part of her presentation Izzy chose to create an interactive game for her visitors to play. Five different whale sounds were played, each unique to a particular species of whale; Orca, Right, Blue, Humpback, and Sperm Whale. In addition to this auditory component, Izzy chose to include tactile models of each of the species. If the 'contestant' was able to correctly match the sound to the species they walked away the proud owner of a Perkins water bottle. At the concluding awards ceremony Izzy herself won the award for 'Best Multisensory Project'. Below is a summary of the project as written by Izzy.  
Multi-sensory display with models and audio samples

Scientific Question:

How do the sounds whales make travel underwater?


I think sound travels faster under water than in air.

Research Information:

  • Sound travels much faster through water and solids.
  • If you put your ear up against a wall you can hear the sounds in the next room because sound travels faster through solids and water.
  • Sound travels a long distance under water at about 1,500m/s.
  • Sound travels at about 332m/s through air.
  • So you can see that sound travels faster through water than it does air.
  • Whales use the faster travel speed through water because the faster sound can travel long so other whales that are far away they can pick it up and send a wave back.
  • Whales can communicate by songs clicks and whistle.
  • Whales can communicate with their bodies instead of communicating by sound.
  • Whales will slap there pectoral flippers or there flukes to show confection.
  • Some whale songs can last up to 30 minutes.
  • Dolphins, Beluga Whales and Porpoises make sounds with a high frequency.
  • A whale might blow through its snout to warn some other whales to stay away
  • Some whales make such a high sound that even we cannot hear them.                                                                                     

student using iPad

I found out through my research that sound does travel faster through water than air. Sound travels about 1,500 m/s underwater, and sound travels about 332 m/s in air. If one whale is 4,000 meters away and the other whale is 6,000 meters away one whale will make a sound and the other one can pick it up because sound underwater travels faster and longer in water. The particles are more tightly packed together, so sounds travel faster through water.


To prepare for her project Izzy listened to sounds of whales collected and compiled on disc by oceanographers at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. From this she chose five species to focus on, and compiled her own collection of sounds taken from a variety of reputable online sources. She then began her research on the physics of sound and wrote a report based upon her findings. Additionally she collected her materials, constructed her poster, and designed the specifics of the game.
Student points to key points listed on poster


  • Whale Models
  • iPad
  • Speakers
  • The sounds of 5 different Whale species
  • Braille Labels

NGSS Standards:

  • The wavelength and frequency of a wave are related to one another by the speed of travel of the wave, which depends on the type of wave and the medium through which it is passing. (HS-PS4-1)
whale sounds collage
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