How Whale Sounds Travel Underwater

Students with visual impairments study how the sounds of whales travel underwater

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 traveling 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 Multi-sensory Project’. Below is a summary of the project as written by Izzy.  

Multi-sensory display with models and audio samples
Multi-sensory display at Science Fair 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:

student using iPad
Student using iPad at Science Fair

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
Student points to key points listed on poster

NGSS Standards:

PS4.A: Wave Properties

By Stu Grove

Collage of whale sounds

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