Sun, Jun 15, 2008 - Page 14 News List

[BOOK REVIEW] From the depths of the ocean, a musical treasure

The songs of whales are intricate compositions that sound over vast distances. But humans are making the seas noisier, and whales are struggling to be heard

By Susan Tomes  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

Thousand Mile Song: Whale Music in a Sea of Sound
By David Rothenberg
298 pages
Basic Books

Sailors have long known that whales make strange musical noises. Scholars believe that whales inspired the myth of the "siren songs" which lured Odysseus astray. Yet it wasn't until recording techniques were developed that anyone could listen to whale songs in their entirety. It was, in fact, military science that first collected the evidence. During the cold war, the US government conducted secret research into how sound travels underwater. The Americans were looking for ways to locate enemy submarines, and to hide their own. They knew that sound travels five times faster underwater than it does through the air, but they also found that it travels at different speeds in different layers of the ocean, fastest of all at the bottom. This may seem surprising, but as David Rothenberg explains: “The denser the medium, the faster the molecules shake as the [sound]wave goes through it."

While listening to the ocean, the scientists heard low moaning and rumbling noises that they gradually learned to identify (and dismiss) as the sound of “biologicals.” These turned out to be great whales communicating with one another in the deep sound channels, where their utterances traveled unimpeded across hundreds, even thousands of kilometers. In 1967, a navy researcher gave his humpback whale recordings to Roger Payne and Scott McVay, who in 1971 alerted the public to whale music through the journal Science. Other classified tapes became available to civilian researchers in 1991, under an inspired “dual uses initiative” pushed through by US senators Al Gore and Ted Kennedy. Only then did most cetacean scientists get their hands on 40 years’ worth of data about the movements and vocabulary of whales.

By listening to humpback whale songs through hydrophones, they discovered that whales do not keen and moan randomly. The songs — always sung by males — had long-range structures, sometimes lasting for hours. They were shaped like any good musical composition, with themes, phrases, climaxes, resolution and dying away. Moreover, the songs were repeated after a pause. They seemed to be transmitted to other whales living in the same area who sang them too. Different groups in other oceans had their own distinctive songs. The songs were too long and formal merely to be passing on simple information about females, food or the ocean floor. Strangest of all, they underwent slow but continuous evolution. Researchers who came back summer after summer noticed subtle changes in the songs each year, all the whales in the area picking up the changes. This means that whales are very different from birds, those other well-known singers of the natural world, whose songs remain stable over time. Whereas today’s nightingales may sound very similar to the ones that Shakespeare or Keats heard, a whale researcher will complain that the great whale singers of the 1970s have gone now, and that the music favored by today’s youngsters is entirely different.

Whales became big, so to speak, when endangered species caught our imagination in the 1970s. The idea that the world’s largest creatures were singing at the bottom of the ocean had great emotional power. Set against the knowledge that we were harpooning them in order to use their precious oil for soap, machine grease, lipstick and dog food, their majestic undersea laments suddenly made us feel guilty. Hippy musicians went out in boats to play to them. Did the whales respond? The musicians thought so. It was all meant to be a homage, an inter-species love-in, but it had to stop when the Marine Mammal Protection Act forbade anyone from harassing the animals and classed music as a form of harassment.

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