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New World Symphony

Thousand Mile Song: Whale Music in a Sea of Sound

by David Rothenberg
Basic Books, 2008

In 1978, some 20 miles off the coast of the big island of Hawai’i, I plunged into the warm waters of the Pacific Ocean – plunged ungainly, inaquaphile, into an unending world of temperate turquoise so unlike the dark, freezing-cold and shark-haunted waters off Nantucket that at first I scarcely knew I was swimming at all.

By slow stages I grew accustomed to the vast blueness of it all, the comfort of moving through clear water that was not cold on the skin. I was just starting to feel kaimana, the calm sureness of the sea, when that feeling was disturbed by something I at first couldn’t identify at all. A feeling, only one so distant from every other feeling I’d ever had that I couldn’t right away tell if I’d felt it at all. But it kept increasing, and eventually I realized I wasn’t feeling something, I was hearing something – a vast, sprawling, spectrum-spilling something, a great sweeping call sounding through the clear water all around me. ‘Hearing’ doesn’t do the experience justice, though, because it felt like I was inside the sound; I could feel it pulsing through my body, making my sternum quiver like a banjo string every time a wave of sound swept through me. It was a very unsettling experience but not an uncomfortable one, and gradually I came to know that the sound filling the water all around me was not only surpassingly strange – it was also surpassingly beautiful. I wasn’t just inside a sound – I was inside a song.

I never saw the maker of the sound, although I realized after the initial stupor wore off (a little – it never completely goes away) that it must have been a humpback whale swimming somewhere out of sight, sharing that patch of water with me for just a few minutes (it felt longer), until the whale’s great, lazy fluke-strokes carried it dozens of miles away.

It wasn’t an extensive knowledge of marine life that allowed me to identify the sound I heard – it was Casey Kasem. A few years earlier, I and everyone else who listened religiously to Kasem’s radio show counting down the hit songs of the day had been treated to a best-selling recording of whalesongs, and like everybody else who heard them, I never forgot them.

They gave a whole new dimension to the animal rights activism of the ‘60s, by suggesting that this gorgeous, orchestrated music had been ringing through the oceans for a million years before somebody decided to listen for it.

David Rothenberg, in his new book Thousand Mile Song: Whale Music in a Sea of Sound, writes about every aspect of that music – its biology, its variation among the various species of cetaceans alive on Earth today (83, all of which sing in some way or other, and all of which are direly threatened, directly or indirectly, by the actions of mankind), and the stories of the various men and women who’ve been recording it, studying it, searching for it, and giving it to the world since the 1960s. Rothenberg aims to tell the whole story, and he succeeds better than any of the other writers who’ve told the tale, but he aims to do something more as well, to flesh out the human dimension of this essentially inhuman story. As a result, his book convincingly doubles as a chronicle of a lost era. To the present day reader, it can be a little saddening to hear one expert after another dolefully assert that not only are the best whalesong researchers no longer active, but that the best whale singers are either no longer alive or no longer interested in singing where mankind can hear.

Rothenberg’s own tone is defiantly hopeful – and openly conservationist – right from the start of his charming, self-effacing book:

Once you hear the music, it is hard to think of killing any animal that can sing so beautifully. True, most other species [than humpback whales] make less musical noises, but they are far from silent. Sperm whales have elaborate clicking patterns that some have likened to West African polyrhythms. Killer whales, also called orcas, have a wide range of whistles and slaps that vary tremendously from pod to pod. Smaller, white beluga whales have the widest variety of pitches from low to high, and textures from shriek to creak to ratchet to noise. That species has been admired long enough by sailors to earn the nickname of “sea canary.” But humpbacks have the most extended and resonant tones and phrases, and it is they who have moved humans with the greatest music in the natural world.

When you read Rothenberg’s descriptions of some of the luminaries in the study of whalesong, you’ll be hard-pressed not to think the word ‘hippie,’ and this won’t be entirely wrong. In the ripe young year of 2008, the with it’s, dig it’s, and far out’s stand out in a lonely, denuded solitude that will tempt even the most conservative of readers to say peace, man. But there are more than enough contemporary voices to counterbalance this unexpected side effect, and besides, the tone of wonder is the same whether you’re talking about 1863 or 1963. Rothenberg writes about the 1970s documentarian Erich Hoyt’s first field encounter with orcas singing in the wild and is happy to quote his awestruck subject:

When he first got out in the field to hear the actual whales, he felt he was in a hall of nature listening to a grand new piece: “I’ve just walked into the opera house, I have no program. Strange new players are premiering a piece by a flamboyant new composer.” Swelling, discordant strings morphing into rusty saxophones. Pizzicato trumpets? Impossible echoes? The reverberations carried for miles.

Rothenberg tracks down virtually every human who was ever involved in this first euphoric study of cetacean music, and he preserves their stories (often, charmingly, in the midst of their disagreeing with him about pretty much everything, from his optimism about the present-day state of the discipline to the way he himself plays music to whales) right alongside the more scientific stories he tells of dolphins, orcas, sperm whales, blue whales, right whales, and of course the star of the cetacean choir, the humpback whale. Somewhat amazingly, for a book as comprehensive as Thousand Mile Song, Rothenberg makes no mention of the commercially successful movie Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, in which the songs of humpback whales turn out to be the salvation of all mankind, but virtually every cultural permutation is explored in detail (although The Partridge Family, which who recorded a minor hit about the songs of humpback whales, is equally slighted here). This emphasis is easy and Rothenberg makes it even easier by including in his book a CD of whalesong the highlight of which is certainly the great glissando curls and plunges of the humpback whale over, say, the (one suspects) more workaday pops and squeaks of the narwhal or the beluga whale.

Thousand Mile Song is full of charts and diagrams, sonic transcriptions and website links. Despite his evident affinity with the hippies who first popularized the study of his subject, Rothenberg isn’t writing a New Age prayer book but rather a work as scientifically grounded as he can make it. His readers learn, for instance, that spindle cells, a type of neuron associated with feelings of pain, pleasure, and empathy, have recently been found to exist in the brains of large whales, where previously they’d been found only in human and great ape brains. Through an entirely different evolutionary pathway than that of primates, whales developed these highly specialized cells in roughly the same areas of their brains; neither Rothenberg nor anybody else knows precisely what this means, but the author lays it out there for our speculation.

Rothenberg speculates too, all the time, and occasionally he can be a little clumsy doing so:

It is unlikely that humpback song contains as much information as a honeybee’s dance. Whale song, for all its complexity, is probably much more like birdsong, whose beautiful patterns of sound elude explanation by simple function. After decades of listening and diagramming, we still have more questions about the song’s structure and function than we have answers.

Obviously, paragraphs like that one contain large amounts of the cultural and species assumptions Rothenberg elsewhere is always warning us about. Whales’ brains are many times larger than those of humans, and many times more complex, and they’ve been both those things for millions of years longer than mankind has been around. So we have no idea how much ‘information’ – factual, aesthetic, or otherwise – they contain.

Likewise the characterization of birdsong here is a little irritating, since we don’t really know all that’s going on in avian communication either. But spots like that are rare; most of the time, Rothenberg is an exciting raconteur of scientific fact about his charges:

The whales in each ocean have distinctly different dialects of song, but the dialects are not local; in any one ocean in any one hemisphere, humpbacks thousands of miles apart sing similar songs that change over a season in a similar way. No other animal develops its music so rapidly and regularly, and we have no idea how they manage it.

We do not know what, if anything, the song is saying. We do not know why it is so complicated and methodical. We do not know who is listening. We do not know why such changes from year to year are necessary. Whale songs may be changing for the same reason there are always new hits on the charts, because fashion doesn’t like to sit still.

But it’s when Rothenberg is writing with unabashed impressionism that he’s at his best in Thousand Mile Song. Unlike many of the scientists he interviews and accompanies, he isn’t afraid to share his sense of wonder with his readers, as when he goes snorkeling among whales for the first time:

Snorkeling under, I hear the songs of all the males around us, and then suddenly see three whales emerge into view in the deep blue: a mother, a several-weeks-old baby, and below us, a large male escort. It’s the first time I’ve seen humpbacks from under the water. I’m in the midst of these alien beings, enveloped in a sense of whaleness. It is an amazing moment to be suspended under water as giant cetaceans silently slip by, three by three, on their own determined path.

I don’t feel close enough to look them in the eye, but I hear many singers, other invisible whales, some up to five miles away, sounding as if they are swirling inside my head. There’s a whole chorus of whales deep down there, swaying and chanting all around.

The world whaling moratorium of 1986 has, despite the persistence of such holdouts as Japan and Norway, been what Rothenberg calls a “conservation success story” – there are more humpback whales swimming and breeding and singing off the coast of Hawai’i than at any time in the last fifty years. Populations of many other species are slowly rebounding as well, but nevertheless Rothenberg is right to devote a consistent thread of his book to sounding notes of caution and concern. As a skyrocketing human population on Earth craves more and more seafood, methods of trawling the oceans have become both more technologically sophisticated (using satellites and heat-sensors) and more savage (hugely bigger nets, dragging for miles). This puts every living thing in the oceans at risk, and the bigger you are, the bigger the risk. North Atlantic right whales, the most endangered species of whale on the planet (perhaps 300 still exist), are increasingly spotted trailing netting, or else sporting back-wounds from collisions with speedboats. Rothenberg’s book is a song of praise to these great players, and he urges that we show them – and their world – more respect.

He concludes his book with a generous list of sources (books and websites) for further reading – and with one last note, which those of us who’ve spent our lives on the water can only appreciate and second:

Yet nothing you read will be as good as listening for yourself, out on the open sea.

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Tucker “Tuc” MacFarland is an avid whale enthusiast and retired tour boat captain in the Florida Keys. He admits to having been once something of a hippie himself, and hence this is his first published work.