An interesting drama unfolds once every year in Magdalena Bay, off the warm coast of Baja, California, in the United States. Here, grey (also known as Gray) whales end their annual migration from the Arctic waters. This is one of the three prime breeding and calving lagoons for grey whales. Here, a local musical group whose mission is the blending of human harmonies with the call of the wild celebrates the event. The huge mammals are serenaded by a jazz musician who raises his saxophone for the benefit of his animal audience.
The musician first came to the Bay about 20 years ago to help film a documentary about grey whales, after his interest had been stimulated by the recordings of the eerie songs of the humpback whales. He once had the unique experience of watching a sea lion pup actually come ashore and quietly listening to his music. That incident moved him deeply, making him decide to learn all he could about sea mammals and their strange music.
The clicks, whistles, chirps, grunts, moans and other strange sounds of’ cetaceans’ the order of mammals that includes whales, dolphins and porpoises, have long fascinated animal lovers and scientists. Perhaps, the most complex are the humpbacks’ songs, 6- to 30-minute ballads that range from deep rumblings to ghostly high- pitched squeaks. These regular repeated calls consist of minute themes always sung in the same order, a theme being composed of several shorter phrases. Each population of whales sings its own song which changes continuously throughout the spring singing season as revealed by researches based on recordings. Another strange fact is that each new season picks up the song left unfinished the previous season. Some authorities on whales like to compare whales to jazz musicians who improvise within the rules!
The question naturally arises as to why whales sing. Although opinions differ, some recent studies seem to indicate that whale cries are ’contact calls’ allowing the animals to keep track of one another in their vast world underneath the ocean.
Some researchers believe that finback whales emit loud, low- pitched calls that carry as far as 80 km and seem to keep widely dispersed group members in touch. One whale watcher played, over an underwater loud speaker, recorded calls of ‘right whales’ and was astonished to notice that swimming ’right whales’ were attracted to the sound, although earlier they had fled from other recorded sounds. It has been observed that grey whales utter clicks in a rhythmic pattern called a ’coda’ which apparently keeps them in contact and enables them to come to the surface as a group. Apart from clicks, rumbles, and grunts, grey whales utter another sound that resembles the bong of a huge Chinese gong. Its calls are barely discernible to human ears and equipment.
The Humpback’s songs seem to be too complex to be mere contact calls; besides most humpback singers are soloists. It has recently been discovered by scientists that, as with song birds, most humpback singers are male. It is felt by them that the vocalising may be a courtship ritual. Male humpback whales sing during the mating season, advertising their species, sex, skill and possibly even their individual identity. Singers move to join whales near them. After they join a group and stop singing they may even fight other males for access to a particular female. Thus, according to these scientists, the elaborate songs may have evolved in whales through sexual selection as a natural process of evolution. If female whales showed a preference for males who sing elaborate songs—in the same manner that some female birds choose males with elaborate feather displays— then that trend becomes stronger in succeeding generation. (It has also been noticed that, in birds, their vocal development is directly related to the secretion of sex hormones which begins at puberty.) Many evolutionary biologists feel that the same principle is at work even in the human species where the aggressive dominant male shows off his skill, valour or outstanding ability in some sport, martial art or any particular branch of knowledge to gain the favour of a lady of his choice by impressing her. Thus in the middle-ages when a knight on horseback aimed his lance at his opponent, and dislodged him from his horse with one thrust, he was indicating to the crowd, in general, and to the princess in particular, who had to give away the trophy, that he was the best man in the tournament, ideally qualified to be her protector, lover and husband. Similar considerations prevail in modern times in the boxing ring or on the tennis court, or on the cricket ground where the male of the species, tries his best to display his skill and ability to command the applause of not only the entire gathering but also chosen one among the fair sex who happens to be watching the match or game, as the case may be.
Inspired by his encounters with whales, the jazz musician who went on to serenade the whales in Magdalena Bay also explored the seas in different parts of the world with top marine biologists for three years. He studied Minke whales in Newfoundland and spent an eventful week in British Columbia paddling among killer whales called Orcas. He was able to hear their high-pitched cries through a hydrophone placed inside the water. When the Orcas were within a few hundred metres, he began to imitate their calls; many of their sounds were found to be within the top range of his saxophone. He observed that there were only a few times when it seemed like their phrases were imitating or answering his. But, all the same, he was thrilled just to be there in the water playing along with the chorus of those magnificent beings.
An audio journal of his travel became the record album Callings, a mixture of jazz, African, Brazilian, and renaissance music, interwoven with the taped callings of wild animals. Naturally, the prime ingredients of this strange musical cacophony were saxophones, an oboe, an English horn, guitars, a cello and percussion instruments (drums). The animal guests included dolphins, sea lions, seal, walruses bears, and blue, killer, beluga, humpback and bowhead whales. One biologist remarked that listening to this jazz musician’s song was similar to the experience he once had while swimming with humpback whales; he had realised that he could hear sounds in the water and feel the same in his bones. While the jazz musician can never claim that his recordings represent an attempt to establish interspecies communications, his work does indicate such a possibility. Scientists do realise that trying to extrapolate to cetacean language from available evidence can be compared to walking into a crowded room, where everyone is talking, recording the conversation, taking one phoneme from a word and then claiming rather prematurely that one has described human communication. All the same, the successes already achieved are quite impressive. Off Isla Magdalena, the 64 km of pristine sand dunes where the jazz musician’s supportive followers pitch their tents for their annual pilgrimage, an oboist and a soloist on a skiff play, while a sound engineer drags a hydrophone in the hope of taping whale sounds. They observed that in 15 minutes the lively music attracts five whales that form a 35-metre circle.
Scientists have had also some success in analysing bird songs which have proved to be surprisingly varied and complex. Each species has a characteristic melody but it is sung in various dialects.The song of a single swamp sparrow recorded 460 times by an ornithologist was found to have 13 distinct patterns of 187 minor variations.Yet, each tune was easily recognisable as that of a song sparrow. One would be tempted to ask how birds do learn such intricate musical patterns. The answer seems to be a combination of imitation, inheritance and group reinforcement. It is known, for example, that a bird reared in isolation or in captivity develops only rudimentary singing ability. If, however, it is raised with other young birds in a laboratory or even in a zoo, it will develop a broader range and learn ’group melodies’. But only when exposed to the songs of its elders will a bird really develop its full musical abilities.
Birds also appear to have good musical memories. Certain species, for example, learn a song at a very early age but like a child just learning to speak, cannot repeat it properly until months later. In an experiment nestling male swamp sparrows were taught in a laboratory a variety of songs for 40 days and then isolated. When about 290 days old, they suddenly began to sing, properly, temporarily recalling their lessons of 8 months earlier. The swamp sparrows then practised their memorised terms syllable by syllable and even embellished them. Once learnt, the songs became embedded in the birds’ minds and remained their repertoire for life.
Singing, usually by males, is used for courtship and communication. Males sing to proclaim their power or territory and lovers of certain species sing duets alternating the musical words between them (in the human species such duets are depicted on the silver screen as fantasies with a sexual slant reflecting the desires and dreams of young lovers).
We human beings have been around on this planet for less than a million years and have not yet learnt to live in peace with each other. We could, and perhaps should, take a lesson in this regard from our cousins of the deep, for it is really awe-inspiring and mind- boggling to realise that whales have existed in harmony with their environment for 30 to 50 million years.