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Bull Hill
by David Rothenberg : Editor, Terra Nova

White Whale Music in the White Sea


David Rothenberg plays to beluga whales.
  David Rothenberg plays to beluga whales. Click to see additional images.
Photo courtesy David Rothenberg.

You might wonder why I traveled all the way to the Republic of Karelia to try to make music with whales. For one, it’s illegal to jam with a whale in the United States. According to the Marine Mammal Protection Act, it would constitute a form of harrassment. True, a scientist could get a permit to shoot a diagnostic dart into a whale’s back, but music, no, that would be too frivolous. I would never make the grade.

But I really wasn’t worried about breaking the law. The sheer alliteration of the journey also beckoned me: See the white whales of the White Sea.

There are seven specific spots on the shore of this little-known sea, in a country you’ve probably never heard of. We were going to Cape Beluga on the island of Myagostrov, a spot from which no one had ever tried to observe the whales in any rigorous way. True, they used to kill them by the dozens and feed them to the fox farms, but all that is buried in the sort of Soviet history that no one wants to remember. After all, the other place famous for beluga whales in the White Sea is the Solovetsky Islands, made famous by Solzhenytzin as the Gulag Archipelago. That is only one hundred kilometers north of the uninhabited island where we would listen to the whales and hope they might listen to us.

The Republic of Karelia, directly east of and once part of Finland, is one of the least known members of the Russian Federation. Less than a million people, quite a lot of moose, miles of forests and questionable roads. It’s illegal to kill beluga whales there but no one is worried about playing music to a few whales. Not even Aleksandr Agafonov and his delegation of assistants from Moscow’s Shirshov Institute of Oceanology, who were spending the summer observing the behavior of these belugas over a month of continuous observation. They were situated on top of the open, rocky hill overlooking Cape Beluga, and we musical interlopers, three Finns, one Russian, and one American, were right next to the shore.

Twice every day when the tide was high the whales would appear, their white backs glistening in the gray-green sea. Belugas have been known as canaries of the sea for centuries because they make all manner of sounds, some within the range of human hearing, others far beyond the limits of the ears of people or even dogs, almost higher than any recording device could register.

Sometimes they leap above the water and squeal, as they are often trained to do in aquariums, but the most interesting sounds can only be heard underwater.

Concert in front of Vienna's City Hall.
Beluga whale in the White Sea.
Click to see additional images.
Photo courtesy David Rothenberg.

How to make music with a whale? I didn’t need to play a saxophone underwater. Sit on the shore, play into a microphone, broadcast the horn under the sea, and listen. Leave space for the curious, white beasts. They echolocate with clicks, identify themselves and gather with ranges of whistles. An underwater microphone, called a hydrophone, picks up those sounds along with the underwater sax or clarinet, which has a more resonant, bell-like tone because of the way overtones carry underwater. The sounds of whales and humans can carry much further beneath the surface, in this range as far as a mile. With deep blue whale booms as far as a thousand miles, a distance of communication almost impossible to believe.

I heard the whales much more clearly than I could see them. White rounded dots, moving alone, in groups of two, often mother and calf, the young ones more gray than white. Agafanov showed me a remarkable video clip of two groups of four white whales approaching from opposite directions, meeting each other, and heading off together all in a line. We didn’t see anything quite like that.

But we heard glimpses into an amazing world of sound. First the background, thumping, burbling waves splashing on rocks. Keep headphones on for hours and hours over several days and you will soon find yourself in a trance, hearing new senses of rhythm and order, new beauties in tone and kick. It’s a wash of underwater noise. Rauno Lauhakangas, the Finnish physicist who invited me on this journey, says it’s a bit like trying to find new particles in the printouts from linear accelerators. “Although in physics,” he smiles, “there is a lot more noise than this.”

In the midst of all the white sea noise there are glimmers of intention—the noises of whales. Is there really anything musical about them at all? Easy to say no: they’re clicking to make sense of the things they encounter in a dark, invisible environment. Belugas can hardly see, but they can clearly detect the outlines of an object behind an underwater wall. The military knows these whales have amazing detection abilities, perhaps more advanced than dolphins’, but they have yet to figure them out. Or if they have figured it out, they don’t want to tell us. Clicks to find their way, and whistles to signal. Some are signature whistles, identifying each individual whale. Others are social signs, gathering the pod.

What’s musical about that? I really don’t know. Having just spent several years trying to make music with birds for my book and CD Why Birds Sing, I was eager to move on to other musical creatures. Humpback whales sing long, musical inventions whose purpose is not well understood. But belugas? Is not their sound much more like a kind of language?

Foreign languages are inscrutable, objects to decode and figure out. But foreign music? Simply new rhythms and patterns to meet in the field, to find a sensitive way in.

A whale sings, a clarinet rings. The sounds overlap and connect. I smile, listen, and play again. I imagine the whale is responding to me, yet another human conceit. What care could the white whales really have for us? They hardly know we are there, near the arctic circle, where the temperature in summer is nearly 95 degrees.

Agafonov comes running down from the hilltop. “Yes, we have been listening. The belugas are definitely responding.”

Excited muttering all around. The tapes will be sent to Moscow. The great whale scientist Belkovich will listen to them, and analyze. We will find out what’s going on, we will get to the bottom of this. The music has just begun.

View more images of from "White Whales in the White Sea," or listen to the whales sing and the clarinet ring.


David Rothenberg's latest book, Survival of the Beautiful: Art, Science, and Evolution, was published by Bloomsbury in 2011. His latest CDs are Expulsion of the Triumphant Beast and You Can't Get There From Here. His next book, Bug Music, will appear in 2013. Catch up with him at www.DavidRothenberg.net.
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Images of White Whales in the White See

Clarinet and Beluga Music (MP3)


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