THEORIES: What Sent the Whale Song Probe in ‘Star Trek IV’?

The Whale Probe from "Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home"

YouTube The Whale Probe from "Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home"

On this day in Star Trek history, filming for Star Trek IV: The Journey Home began. The first scenes of the film were shot on February 24th, 1986 in California. Filming wrapped just three months later in May of 1986, and the movie premiered before the end of that year, on November 26th.

Star Trek IV is one of the most beloved Trek movies of all time. Several entertainment publications, including NerdistCollider and SyFy, ranked The Voyage Home within the top three Trek movies of all time. Of the movies featuring The Original Series cast, The Voyage Home was second only to The Wrath of Khanwhich is widely considered the best Trek movie of all time.

Though The Voyage Home is nearly flawless, one question was left unanswered and it has remained on the minds of fans for decades. What sent the whale probe to Earth?

The Whale Probe That Started it All

Star Trek IV began with a probe heading toward Earth, transmitting an odd noise. The frequency of the transmission knocked out power on every vessel it encountered. Once the probe reached Earth’s orbit, it caused geological catastrophes all over the planet. The probe increased the strength of its transmission, causing even more disasters on Earth.

The crew of the Enterprise, which was aboard a Klingon Bird of Prey they captured, intercepted the message. Spock was able to identify the transmission as the song of a Cetacean, or aquatic mammal, specifically the humpback whale. Spock posited that some unknown species had been in contact with whales on Earth in previous centuries as they had been extinct since the 21st century. He theorized that the unknown entity might be concerned that they hadn’t heard from the species in some time, so they sent the probe to check in on them.

Since there were no whales to respond to the probe’s message and no vessel could get close enough to disable it, Kirk decided that the only option was to travel back in time to get some whales. The crew of the Enterprise, aboard the Klingon vessel dubbed The Bounty, traveled back in time to get a pair of whales to repopulate the species on Earth.

Theory: Alien Dolphins from Zadar IV Sent the Probe

Scene from the "Star Trek: The Next Generation" episode "When the Bough Breaks"


In the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “When the Bough Breaks” one of the children that lived aboard the Enterprise talked about his homeworld, Zadar IV. Like Earth, Zadar IV had large oceans which were filled with aquatic life. The kid said that he used to watch a dolphin-like species play in the oceans from the beach.

The Star Trek: The Next Generation Technical Manual, as quoted by Memory Alpha, indicated that Cetaceans were incredibly intelligent beings that often traveled on starships like the Enterprise. These aquatic mammals were considered part of the crew of the starship and they communicated with their crewmates, offering navigational assistance.

So, it’s likely that the dolphin-like creatures from Zadar IV were highly intelligent beings capable of communicating with other aquatic mammals. It’s possible that they had even developed a way to deliver messages across lightyears, which would give them the ability to communicate with the humpback whales on Earth. If the dolphin-like Cetaceans had been in communication with the whales for centuries and then stopped receiving transmissions, it would make sense for them to send a probe to check on their Cetacean friends.

How does that explain the time gap if whales went extinct in the 21st century? Perhaps the Cetaceans communication and propulsion technology wasn’t as advanced, leading to slower transmissions and slower probe travel. Or, perhaps they didn’t experience time the way humanoids do and it was actually quite quick in their timeline.

Either way, it makes sense that the Cetaceans of Zadar IV could have sent the probe.

Theory: Cetaceans Wiped Out by the Borg Sent the Probe

In the non-canon novelized sequel to Star Trek IV entitled Star Trek: Probe, the crew of the Enterprise discovered more information about the whale probe. According to the summary of the book on Memory Alpha, a year after the probe’s appearance in Earth’s orbit, it entered Romulan space. With the help of the Romulans, the Enterprise crew established contact with the probe without their vessels being disabled. This allowed Spock to perform a mind-meld with the probe.

During the meld, Spock discovered that the probe had been sent by an alien species of Cetaceans that resembled Earth’s humpback whales. They were a technologically advanced species, and they built the probe to explore the galaxy. As the probe traveled the galaxy, it encountered several species, including Earth’s humpback whales. Since they were so like the probe’s creators, the probe recorded their communication.

According to Memory Beta, the wiki for non-canon Star Trek media, the novel revealed that the probe’s encounter with Starfleet was actually its second visit to Earth. The probe was attempting to re-establish contact with the humpback whales after almost a century of silence.

The probe’s creators chose to re-establish contact with Earth’s whales because they’d had an encounter with an alien species, possibly the Borg, that destroyed their civilization. The probe’s mission may have been to find a new home for the remaining alien Cetaceans. To this end, as Memory Alpha notes, the probe was capable of terraforming planets so they would be more appropriate for aquatic life. So, the geological disturbances created by the probe may have been a misguided attempt to terraform Earth.

When Spock mind-melded with the probe, he discovered that they hadn’t intended to harm other species. Humanoids were so unlike their own species that they didn’t even register as sentient beings. Spock informed the probe of the impact of its transmissions and terraforming attempts on other planets and the probe adjusted its parameters so it wouldn’t harm humanoids in its travels.

Theory: Humpback Whales From Earth’s Past Sent the Probe

Sometimes fans come up with the most innovative theories all on their own. That’s just what YouTube creator Ryan’s Editsthe creator of the popular Star Trek: The Next Generation INtakes series, did. In the video above, Ryan explains his theory and offers some compelling evidence to back it up.

Ryan posits that millennia ago, some humpback whales left Earth to start their own journey through the galaxy. Yes, it sounds farfetched, but he’s got a good story to back it up. The series Star Trek: Voyager established that a non-human species called Voth actually originated on Earth. They evolved from hadrosaurs that survived Earth’s extinction event and became an intelligent species. They left Earth long before humans arrived.

Ryan theorizes that when the Voth’s ancestors left Earth, they took some humpback whales with them, for reasons unknown. The whales then had to evolve so they could survive space travel and adapt to living on a new planet. Adding a clever Star Trek: Discovery tie-in, Ryan speculates that perhaps the whales evolved into the Gormaganders.

Ryan suggests that the humpback whales ended up settling somewhere in the Delta Quadrant as the Voth did. Because of the distance and the slow travel of the probe, he posits that it took hundreds of thousands of years for the probe to travel back to Earth. Why did the whales formerly of Earth construct a probe and send it back to their home planet? To tell their relatives about their travels and history. And possibly about the way to ascend into the non-corporeal nirvana.

Though Ryan’s theory is certainly creative and impressive, there isn’t much canon to back it up. Though the explanation in Star Trek: Probe isn’t canon either.

Sticking to canon, fans may never get a definitive answer as to what kind of beings sent the whale probe to Earth. So far, the theories are many but the facts are few.

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Chris Rasdale
Chris Rasdale
2 years ago

Although I’m a big ‘Star Trek.’ fan and I think that ‘Star Trek 4: The Voyage Home.’ is a really entertaining film, I think it has one major weakness – the purpose of the so-called ‘Whale Probe’.

Yes, Spock theorizes that some alien race has long been in contact with whales, has lost contact with them because they are extinct in the 23rd Century, and is still trying to make contact with whales by emitting the sound of, specifically, Humpback whales.

But who is this mysterious alien race that’s trying to make contact with whales? And why exactly have they been trying to make contact with whales for so long?

In my opinion, for the entire story to be based purely on an educated guess by Spock isn’t enough for the story to really work. I think it’s too much of a vague premise to hang the movie on. To me it seems like just a lazy excuse to make a (admittedly great) time travel ‘Star Trek.’ movie.

I for one wish that the film made at least some attempt to answer the two above-mentioned questions. But then again doing that might have required a completely different kind of film that had an entirely different focus?