The first mention of humpback whales in our pages, more than a decade ago, was a very brief reference in a post explaining the tragedy of the commons, a precursor to Seth’s environmental history honors thesis. One post mentions humpback whales in Monterey Bay but we missed the video above until now. There have been so many posts about these whales, that missing it makes the following book review all the more interesting to read to the end. Of course, since it is a review by Elizabeth Kolbert, about a book by Ed Yong, you will want to read to the end anyway:
Nonhuman creatures have senses that we’re just beginning to fathom. What would they tell us if we could only understand them?
One evening almost sixty years ago, a Tufts University researcher named Roger Payne was working in his lab when he heard a radio report about a whale that had washed up on a beach nearby. Although it was a cold, wet March night, he decided to drive to the shore. When he arrived, he discovered that the animal had been mutilated. Two passersby had carved their initials in its flanks. Someone had hacked off its flukes, and another person, or perhaps the same one, had stuck a cigar butt in its blowhole. Payne stood in the rain for a long time, gazing at the corpse. He had been studying moths; now he decided to switch his attention to cetaceans.
Aside from the dead one, Payne had never actually seen a whale, nor did he know where whales could be observed. At the suggestion of an acquaintance, he made his way to Bermuda. There he met an engineer who had worked for the United States Navy, monitoring Soviet submarines via microphones installed off the coast. While listening for enemy subs, the engineer had chanced upon other undersea sounds. He played a tape of some of them to Payne, who later recalled, “What I heard blew my mind.”
Payne took a copy of the tape home with him. The sounds—made, the engineer had determined, by humpback whales—ranged from mournful wails that evoked the call of a shofar to high-pitched cries that resembled the squeals of piglets. Payne found the tape mesmerizing and listened to it hundreds of times. Finally, it dawned on him that what he was listening to had a structure.
With the help of a machine called a sound spectrograph, Payne converted the voices on the tape into a series of squiggle-like notations. The exercise took years, but eventually it confirmed what he had suspected. The humpbacks always made their wails, squeals, and grunts in a particular order—A, B, C, D, E and never A, B, D, C, E, in Payne’s formulation. The paper in which he announced his discovery appeared in Science in the summer of 1971. “Humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) produce a series of beautiful and varied sounds for a period of 7 to 30 minutes and then repeat the same series with considerable precision,” Payne wrote. Each series, he argued, qualified as a “song.”
While the paper was in the works, Payne arranged to have the humpbacks’ songs released as an LP. The album spent several weeks on the Billboard 200 and sold more than a hundred thousand copies. This was a particularly impressive feat, as one commentator noted, for a “work with no musicians, no lyrics, no danceable beats and actually no singers either. (Humpback whales do not possess vocal cords; they make sound by their pushing air out through their nasal cavities.)” The humpbacks inspired many terrestrial performers; Judy Collins incorporated some of their calls into her album “Whales and Nightingales”; Pete Seeger wrote “Song of the World’s Last Whale”; and the New York Philharmonic played “And God Created Great Whales,” a piece composed by Alan Hovhaness…
Read the whole review here.