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Dispatch from in Hawaii, making music live with whales

By David Rothenberg, Safina Center Fellow

The underwater sonic world of humpback whales remains a mystery to human ears. In the fifty years since we discovered that this one species of cetacean sings long, structured, melodic and organized songs, we still do not know how the whales produce such booming music, or why. Though all humpbacks make sound, only the males sing these long, structured arias, so science has assumed it has evolved to attract the attention of female whales. Yet in these many decades that we have been listening and watching, no human has ever seen a female whale show any interest in this phenomenon. And yet the male whales sometimes sing their precise, repeating songs for up to twenty-four hours at a time.

Photo: David Rothenberg

I think of these puzzling facts as I am back out in Hawaii once more to play my clarinet live with these great singers of the sea. This is probably the seventh time I’ve gone out to do this, and it is always interesting, and I never stay long enough. One should really spend about one month going out every day to practice with these musical whales, with enough woodshedding, we might start to understand each other.

Photo: Olivia Wyatt

Listening through an underwater microphone, called a hydrophone, the great Pacific Ocean is anything but a silent world. Waves lap against the boat, shrimp crackle, dolphins creak, and December through April the chorus of humpback whales is everywhere. You can easily hear them from up to twenty miles away, and the phrases of one whale upon the others clearly overlap, like the parts of a canon in five to ten voices, scattered under the surface, none singing too close to any other.

One clarinet is just a small extra voice in the mix, trying to find its place.

Photo: Olivia Wyatt

I am often asked, ‘how does it feel to play along with a whale?’ and I suspect that I never give this question a good enough answer. I don’t even want to put this sensation into words. The music itself is the answer, or—the feeling comes through our group all listening, a group of people, groups of whales. This time I have five good friends along with me, each with their own hydrophones and headphones, dedicated to just this task of making music with whales. Not swimming with whales, not studying whales, not chasing whales. Just inventing a music no one species could make alone.

You listen to this year’s duet, tell me what you feel. The music is invented out of a feeling between us. We now know humpback whale brains contain spindle neurons, a type of cell found only in animals capable of higher emotional states. Their music may depict their deep feelings as much as ours. They also may have difficulty answering the question, “what does it feel like to make such majestic music that resounds far under the sea?” The female whales don’t visibly respond to this male display but people, male and female alike, are often moved to tears when they first hear a great whale sing.

If you do dive underwater close to a singing whale, you may hear the song, fainter than through the microphone, but vibrating in the water all the same. Makes me wonder another strange fact: if all you have to do is dive in the water among whales to hear them sing, how come no one ever heard this song before the technological time that revealed it to the world?

That is another deep-sea mystery. It is as if we never thought to listen for something before we knew it was there. We must believe before nature reveals itself to us. There is no music in nature until you imagine it.

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