“The world of whale sounds reverberates deep under the sea, from hundreds of meters to hundreds of miles. It’s completely alien to the soundscape of humanity, shouting and singing up in the air, where songs and speech can’t dream of carrying so far. Under the surface lie deep booming patterns, and perhaps music can help us make sense of it where words and logic fail.” -David Rothenberg
Perhaps the reason whales sound so mournful and melancholic is because they foresaw the fate of their kind. One has to wonder if they knew how it would become so. The very long practice of whale hunting and it’s visceral cruelty may have lead them to believe this would be the cause of their disappearance from the ecosystem, if they could see their fate, could they ever have predicted it wouldn’t be hunting, but rather the slower painful death of becoming filled with human detritus, or that their language and sense of direction, fundamental to their survival, would be profoundly disrupted by naval sonar? What about the well documented testing of nuclear weapons?
The US Navy knew the songs of humpback whales before the general public did. For two decades prior they had been publishing guidebooks and training cadets on how to recognize and differentiate the sounds of other underwater signals, the noise of enemy radar for instance. Of course the observation of whale songs long predates any recordings. They may have been the inspiration for the sirens found in Odysseus’ epic journey…and it’s rather beautiful to think that men became so hypnotized by the moans and wails that they slammed into cliffs and perished.
In 1585, a dutch traveler by the name of Adriaen Coenen wrote the sound of Beluga whales, also known as ‘sea canaries’ or white whales by the Russians, sound like ‘the signing of humans…if a storm is immanent they play on the surface of the water and are said to lament when they are caught…they like to hear music played on the lute, harp, flute, and similar instruments.’ as David Rothenberg observed in his book Thousand Mile Song, for a long time people have sensed that these animals are intrigued enough by human life to enjoy listening to our songs.’
They no longer hear pleasant music, but a tortuous shrieking that no doubt drives many to suicide. This is not noise they can escape, rather it is forced upon them, much like music and sound is used in psychological warfare and torture. For the navy cadets, the songs were merely evidence of ‘biologicals’ that had to be differentiated from non-biologicals.
While the Navy may be responsible for the disruption of migrations due to sonar, all kinds of noise pollution threaten whales, and the ocean has been no less affected than the creatures on land have been by the incessant disturbance created by humans. Whales, for example, naturally gravitate towards ship motors, resulting in gruesome deep lacerations that are often fatal. And then there is the shrieking of seismic oil and gas exploration.
Whales have been observed beaching themselves for centuries, and there are no solid explanations as to why 100s would strand themselves at a time. Some speculate that red algae blooms, which in 2018 devastated the coast of Florida may have played a part. These ‘red tides’ as they are called have been recorded as early as the 1500s by Spanish explorers, and are known to follow particularly strong storms. As the ocean warms and storms become increasingly intense, these blooms will continue to become more and more toxic.
Whales are often described as ‘alien’, which is fitting. The deep sea was the last frontier for mankind here on earth. The pressure of the depths prevented humans from discovering their closely guarded secrets. Homo sapiens are very curious creatures, demanding everything from the non-human world. They must know what those sounds mean, or where they disappear to, off to frolic and mate uninterrupted by these strange creatures that follow them and stare. The lines between zoos and the wild have never been so porous, and it’s well known that zoo creatures exhibit anxious traits, pacing back and forth or never moving at all.
When the first recordings of whale songs were played to crowds of environmentalists when the international conservationist movement was just kicking off with the massive ‘earth day’, it had a hypnotizing affect. The crowd was silent while the sorrowful music played, it had the same affect that the first images of earth itself were shown to the world, that is, a momentary awareness of how much we have to lose. But those feelings quickly faded away, as people left the streets to promote individual responsibility like recycling and anti-littering measures. Greenpeace was emboldened as the whale songs pulled more and more people into ineffective nonprofits who now grace us with constant requests for donations, or a signature for a useless petition. And while people got furious over trash being dumped in their backyard, they had no care as to where all their trash ended up as long as it was out of sight.
Around Thailand alone, somewhere around 300 marine mammals die from plastic ingestion each year. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to understand what happens to these creatures who have been fed a steady diet of garbage. Their stomachs become blocked with everything that can’t be digested, bringing about a slow, no doubt agonizing death due to starvation. They simply can’t fit real food into their bellys.
Of course, plastic isn’t the only thing threatening ocean life; from whales all the way down to the krill they depend on live in seas full of poisonous run off from factories. The only thing that brings eyes to this travesty is the increasingly costly but toxic sushi. The demand for seafood, like the toxicity of the creatures flesh, has never been higher as supplies continue to become scarcer. So far, the most affected people aren’t those who gain the most press; the indigenous and poor who rely on small scale fishing to provide for their families, and the occasional whale to feed a whole village for quite some time. When it came to indigenous practices, the respect given to their sustenance allowed for a sustainable approach, but that has all been washed away by the tides of progress. Like with national parks with their bans on hunting, many native peoples cannot continue their ancient ways of eating, which in turn disrupts other aspects of culture, as hunting and communal feasts bring together a social cohesion.
Whales have provided us with everything from oil, to entertainment and prop up a massive tourism industry aimed at giving people a glimpse of their magnificence. Their images have been used to sell both products and ecological movements to the masses, orcas, humpbacks and dolphins have been particularly effective at opening wallets. And what have we re-payed them with? All that donated money has only benefited humans, those responsible for the destruction of whales to begin with.
Despite the unrelenting optimism shoved down our throats, it is becoming more and more obvious that we are out of time. There is no more time for them, and no more for us. Reforms at best may be able to slow things down a bit while homo sapien frantically tries to find another, fresh planet to destroy. Perhaps there will be another planet with oceans, and more whales to conquer. This is a bitter pill to swallow, but one that humanity must, and will eventually, take.