Marine mammal navigation

How do marine mammals use sound to navigate?

Sound plays an important role in marine mammal navigation. It may be critical when other senses are of limited use.

Echolocation by odontocetes (toothed whales) has been extensively investigated. They produce a rapid series of clicks and the return echoes provide important information about objects in their vicinity (for more information, please visit the page on Marine mammal feeding). Deep diving sperm whales produce a series of clicks at the start of their dives. The interval between their clicks is consistent with detecting multiple elements of their environment, including distance to the seafloor or to the surface.

Migrating bowhead whales may use acoustic cues to detect ice presence and thickness. The migratory path of bowhead whales takes them under the Arctic pack ice. Their migration begins in winter when there is little to no sunlight and often no open water. Along their route, the whales use the arched area around their blowhole to push up against the ice, break through it, and create breathing holes/cracks. When looking at the acoustic properties of bowhead whale sounds and the scattering properties of different stages of ice, scientists concluded that the whales’ calls would reflect differently off a thick ice floe or ice keel versus an area of thin ice. This perceived difference could allow whales to detect thin, new ice that would be better suited for breaking.

Bowhead whales use the arched area around their blowholes to push up on pack ice and break it, creating a fracture and/or hole (hummock) through which they can breathe. Illustration credit: Craig George, Department of Wildlife Management, North Slope Borough, Barrow, Alaska.

Bowhead whale surfacing in an open lead (or a crack in sea ice). Note the spout coming up through the ice crack. Photo credit: Craig George, Department of Wildlife Management, North Slope Borough, Barrow, Alaska.











Bowhead whale moans recorded in the Arctic Ocean, off Point Barrow, Alaska. ©North Slope Borough, Barrow, Alaska.

Ice seals such as Antarctic Weddell seals and Arctic ringed seals mate and give birth in areas dominated by continuous ice cover. The seals create and maintain breathing and haulout holes in the ice and must be able to reliably relocate these holes after under-ice trips. Weddell seals have been found to return to a given breathing hole after underwater trips of 2 km (1.2 miles) or more under sea ice 2 m (6.6 ft) thick. Although it is hypothesized that the seals use visual landmarks to navigate and can also locate areas of thin and thick ice by visually scanning the water surface and looking for differences in light patterns, during periods of dark, the seals must use another means to locate their breathing holes. Scientists conducting experiments with blindfolded Weddell and ringed seals found that the animals could accurately locate holes when sounds such as tapping, water splashing, and/or scratching, were produced in the vicinity of the hole. Without these acoustic cues, the blindfolded seals were unsuccessful at locating the breathing holes.

Weddell seals create and maintain breathing holes in the ice. They may use acoustic cues to help relocate these holes after they have made trips under the ice. Image credit: Michael Cameron, NOAA.

Additional Links on DOSITS

Additional Resources

  • Bengtson, J., & Stewart, B. (1992). Diving and haulout behavior of crabeater seals in the Weddell Sea, Antarctica, during March 1986. Polar Biology, 12(6–7).
  • van Opzeeland, I., & Slabbekoorn, H. (2012). Importance of Underwater Sounds for Migration of Fish and Aquatic Mammals. In A. N. Popper & A. Hawkins (Eds.), The Effects of Noise on Aquatic Life (Vol. 730, pp. 357–359). New York, NY: Springer New York.


  • Clark, C. C., & Ellison, W. T. (2004). Potential use of low-frequency sounds by baleen whales for probing the environment: Evidence from models and empirical measurements. In J. A. Thomas, C. F. Moss, & M. Vater (Eds.), Echolocation in Bats and Dolphins (pp. 564–585). Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.
  • Ellison, W. T., Clark, C. W., & Bishop, G. C. (1987). Potential use of surface reverberation by bowhead whales, Balaena mysticetus, in under-ice navigation: Preliminary considerations. Report of the International Whaling Commission, 37, 329–332.
  • Elsner, R. (1999). Living in water: solutions to physiological problems. In J. E. Reynolds III & S. A. Rommel (Eds.), Biology of Marine Mammals (pp. 73–116). Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press.
  • Elsner, R., Wartzok, D., Sonafrank, N. B., & Kelly, B. P. (1989). Behavioral and physiological reactions of arctic seals during under-ice pilotage. Canadian Journal of Zoology, 67(10), 2506–2513.
  • George, J. C., Clark, C., Carroll, G. M., & Ellison, W. T. (1989). Observations on the Ice-Breaking and Ice Navigation Behavior of Migrating Bowhead Whales (Balaena Mysticetus) near Point Barrow, Alaska, Spring 1985. Arctic, 42(1).
  • Jaquet, N., Dawson, S., & Douglas, L. (2001). Vocal behavior of male sperm whales: Why do they click? The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 109(5), 2254–2259.
  • Payne, R., & Webb, D. (1971). Orientation by means of long range acoustic signaling in baleen whales. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 188(1 Orientation), 110–141.
  • Schusterman, R. J., Kastak, D., Levenson, D. H., Reichmuth, C. J., & Southall, B. L. (2000). Why pinnipeds don’t echolocate. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 107(4), 2256–2264.
  • Tyack, P. L. (1999). Communication and Cognition. In J. E. I. Reynolds & S. A. Rommel (Eds.), Biology of Marine Mammals (pp. 287–323). Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press.
  • Tyack, P. L. (1997). Studying how Cetaceans use Sound to Explore their Environment. In D. H. Owings, M. D. Beecher, & N. S. Thompson (Eds.), Communication (Vol. 12, pp. 251–297). Boston, MA: Springer US.
  • Wartzok, D., Elsner, R., Stone, H., Kelly, B. P., & Davis, R. W. (1992). Under-ice movements and the sensory basis of hole finding by ringed and Weddell seals. Canadian Journal of Zoology, 70(9), 1712–1722.
  • Zimmer, W. M. X., Tyack, P. L., Johnson, M. P., & Madsen, P. T. (2005). Three-dimensional beam pattern of regular sperm whale clicks confirms bent-horn hypothesis. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 117(3), 1473–1485.