Whale song: A grandfather's legacy

The remarkable story of how the grandfather of a 60 Minutes producer recorded a lone whale's song in the 1950s -- and made the world care about whales

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Last summer, when 60 Minutes producer Dan Ruetenik first started reporting on whales for the broadcast, he cold-called and emailed whale researchers around the world. One of them was Nan Hauser, who got Ruetenik's call in the remote island of Rarotonga in the South Pacific.

In that first phone call, Ruetenik explained to Hauser what 60 Minutes hoped to accomplish. He also happened to mention that his idea for the story was inspired by his grandfather, the first person to record whale songs in the 1950s.

"What? Wait a minute, are you talking about Frank Watlington?" responded Nan. "Frank Watlington is the reason I do what I do."

Watlington hadn't been an expert on whales. He was an engineer who developed underwater microphones for the U.S. Navy in the 1950s. It was the height of the Cold War, and Watlington worked at a top-secret listening station in Bermuda, where the U.S. was listening for the sounds of Russian submarines.

One day, Watlington dropped his microphone about 1,500 feet into the ocean and heard strange, eerie sounds coming from the deep.

"The story that I've heard is that he played it for some fishermen, and they said, 'Oh, those are whales,'" says Ruetenik. Fascinated, Watlington played his recording of a lone whale's song for anyone who would listen-- including a young girl named Nan who spent summer vacations on the island with her family.

"I used to close my eyes and listen to it, and just think, "Oh my gosh, I just wanna study underwater behavior of whales and record whale song," remembers Nan Hauser.

Today, Hauser is a whale researcher, working to crack the code of whale songs from the South Pacific, where she makes her own recordings of whale songs. She appeared in this week's 60 Minutes story about whales.

Watch this week's Overtime feature above to hear Frank Watlington's famous recording "Solo Whale," and hear more about the the remarkable story of how the grandfather of a 60 Minutes producer changed the way the world thinks about whales.

Photos and video courtesy Nan Hauser
Photos courtesy Daniel Ruetenik & the Bermuda Archives Collection
Video courtesy Air Rarotonga Limited

Editor's Note: This segment was originally published Oct. 20, 2013