Serenading The Whales

Scientists Find Sea Mammals Exchange Songs

Music speaks to just about every human being on Earth. But what if its power is even greater than we've thought? What if it could be used to communicate with another species?

Some musicians are exploring that question, focusing on whales, which are known for their intelligence and highly developed acoustic skills. Could sound - and music - be a kind of universal language that humans and the whales share? Correspondent Vicki Mabrey reports.

On San Juan Island, off the shores of Washington state, a choir prepared a concert last summer for an audience that's somewhere out there. They came to sing for the orcas - killer whales who summer in these waters.

"People come out here and just feel like they really have this connection, you know, this magnificent species of being," says Fred West, director of Seattle's City Cantabile Choir. "I feel like these are the pandas of the Northwest."

West has been planning this concert for years. They're not just singing over the sea. They'll use a special speaker to project sound through the water.

There is scientific reason to believe that music links people to other mammals, like whales. "The first time I ever heard the sounds of humpback whales, particularly, I was stunned," recalls Roger Payne, a pioneering expert on the sounds of whales. "What humpbacks do is true art," he says. "Some people weep when they hear these sounds."

"They give the sea its voice basically," says Payne. He believes that these mammals of the ocean actually make music themselves. His studies of their vocalizations reveal rhythmic patterns of sound just like the verses of a human song.

"They compose all the time; they constantly dicker with their sounds," says Payne. "We's He singing for She basically."

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"They are songs," he says. "The laws of composition that whales use to make their songs and the laws of composition that human musicians use to make ours, these laws are practically the same," he declares.

"It's because vertebrate brains like the sae thing, whether they're located in people or whales," Payne says. "Something has to explain has to explain the fact that two animals living totally separate from each other as though on different planets developed a similar music."

An amateur musician, Payne has taken their songs and translated them into human music.

The idea that music is a bond between species is what led West to plan a concert for whales. He brought an array of equipment to San Juan Island and a technical expert, Joe Olson, who tried to make sure the whales could hear the music if they came.

Fred West asked: What if people gave a concert for whales?

A special underwater speaker was arranged to broadcast the sound of the choir. But would the orcas be in hearing range? They cover a large territory in the San Juan Islands, mating, feeding and talking.

Olson used a hydrophone, an underwater microphone immersed in the water. While the choir did a run-through before the concert, a group of orcas actually showed up.

There is at least anecdotal evidence that the sound of human music piqued the whales' curiosity, like when the choir tried singing from a boat last year. "They circled the boat. They were going in one direction, and they came back," West says.

West concedes that he's not doing exhaustive scientific research. "We're here really as artists and musicians. And we're happy to receive what we get."

Jim Nollman, another Northwest musician who also plays to whales, also thinks he's receiving their response. Nollman compares these musical moments with the whales to jazz improvizations or jam sessions.

But Payne doesn't believe that the whales move in closer because people sing to them. "I love the fact that somebody's out there trying it," Payne says. "I wish them power. But at the moment, my judgment is suspended."

Payne says he thinks they draw near because they may hear the motor of the boat or were passing that way anyway.

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"What whales get from human beings is mostly our industrial sounds,...what they know of us is our boat engines," West declares.

"If we as artists can offer some creative spark to the inquiry about our natural world, then...we should offer that up," West says. "I just don't think we have all the time in the world anymore."

Indeed the population of orcas in Puget Sound around San Juan Island is getting smaller every year and moving toward endangered species status.

West's concert last summer was dedicated to the memory of Everett, a young male orca that died in the prior winter. At first the musicians sang to the open water. But after a few songs, Everett's orca family swam into view. They stayed as the concert continued, coming close to shore and frolicking in the water. The underwater hydrophone picked up whale vocalizations.

There was no question that the family was out there. But were the whale sounds coming through the hydrophones some kind of response?

Olson's computer analysis of the underwater recording shows whale voices joining in with the human ones on several songs. "They really were, from what I can tell, responding to the rhythmic concussive sounds," Olson asserts.

Just the fact that whales showed up for a concert of human music is enough for West. "They may have been hundreds of miles from there...but they came by as if they had read the invitation, you know. They came by as if they were on cue in their own opera," West says.

"If you make an extraordinary claim, a scientist always says, you have to have extraordinary evidence," Payne maintains. "And they need wonderful evidence for this wonderful claim. And my feeling is they don't yet have it. Maybe they'll get it in the future."

Payne emphasizes the whale music itself. "To me it's very moving. And I expect it's moving to whales too," he says. "When music really speaks to you, it does so in a way that nobody really understands the why of."

"That singing actually predates both whales and people," Payne says. "It came to us from very far in the past."

So once people have heard the music, what do they do with it? "You live with it. That's what you do with it. You keep it in your heart," Payne declares.

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