Not So Silent Seas
At the surface, you hear very little: perhaps the splash of water as a humpback whale breaches the surface or a tail slaps the surface on the way down. Above the surface, the noise is often uniquely human: the roar boat motors, buzzing of airplanes, the thrum of whatever vessel has brought you to sea. There is also the sound of the water: the snapping, slapping, blurping, shooshing, whooshing of the water, depending on the sea's mood.
But underneath, there is a whole world of sound. When I jump off the boat to dive under the waves, I mostly hear the sound of my own breathing through my regulator and the sound of bubbles ticking my ears when I exhale. But sometimes, between breaths, I can hear the clicking, crunching, barking, and gentle whining of all that lives beneath the surface.
One sound I've yet to hear live is the sound of whale songs. Before the work of Dr. Roger Payne, very few people knew that the sounds beneath the surface were so hauntingly beautiful. Dr. Payne is a cetologist (a cool word for someone who studies whales!). Dr. Payne first heard whale recorded whale song when Frank Watlington gave him a recording of whale sounds he'd made accidentally while trying to capture the sounds of underwater explosions.
This started a lifelong journey for Dr. Payne to explore, study, and explain whale sounds and to understand their patterns and meaning. Before Dr. Payne, many people saw the ocean as a silent sea. People thought that the world below the surface of the water was silent. How could there possibly be noise underwater? Dr. Payne's work opened up a new understanding of whales and their communication, helping us to understand the intelligence of whales. They have their own unique and sophisticated language, just like humans, and they use that language to communicate with one another. It also helped us to understand why whales are so important in the ocean's ecology and why they are important to save. Here is one of the earliest recordings of whale songs with Dr. Payne narrating what you are hearing.
Here, you can hear sounds captured by the National Park Service in Glacier Bay, Alaska with an underwater hydrophone, a special microphone designed to capture underwater sounds. Look carefully at the title of each track as it suggests the ways in which these whale songs are a unique language with their own meaning: feeding calls and contact calls sound very different.
I love these beautiful whale songs. I find them haunting. They inspire me to wonder what the whales are saying, how far their song travels, and how many of the creatures in the ocean understand what they are saying. There's so much we don't know about our ocean world. Thanks to pioneers like Dr. Payne who are helping us to begin to understand this deep, mysterious world and its inhabitants.
What do you think they are saying? If you could talk to whales in song, what would you say?
- Dr. Payne talks about whale song structure.
- Dr. Jim Darling tells us why whales sing.
- NPR's "Recordings That Made Waves: The Songs That Saved The Whales"