I’ve got whales on the brain these days. Another entry about the humpbacks, from a different angle…
Sometimes we rely so much on our sight, we forget to tune into our other senses, which, especially undersea, can expand our perspective beyond what our eyes alone can do. A recent trip beneath the surface off the Kona coast of Hawai’i reminded me that sometimes, I can feel and hear life in the ocean better than I can see it.
Paddling offshore in a long canoe, just after sunrise, three of us headed north along the darkened coast, still hidden by the volcano’s mighty shadow. It was not yet hot, and the sea was flat calm, more silver than blue as the sun’s first rays slowly caught the surface.
After a few miles, we turned the bow back to the south, and began paddling for home. The sun cleared the last craggy peak of Hualali, and with its light in full force, the heat descended upon us.
We decided to cool down by slipping overboard before heading into shore. As we drew our paddles out of the water and glided to a stop, the only sound was the gentle lapping of barely-there wavelets against the canoe. I reached down to slide my paddle under my seat, and that is when I heard it: a deep rumbling, lifting into a higher-pitch finish. Whooo-eep. Whooo-eep. I called for the others to stick their heads down and listen. Sure enough, that haunting chorus echoed up once more. Like the tiles in a shower, the hull magnified and focused the sound from below into a marvelous canoe-bound symphony.
The low gutteral grunts were getting louder, and though we could see no evidence of the source at the surface, we knew it was the song of the male humpback whale— like no other aria in the world, as distinct to the humpbacks as bluegrass is to Tennessee.
Whales are protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and without special permits, you cannot approach them. After several minutes scouting the surface and still seeing no sign of whale—tail, back, or otherwise— we decided it would be safe to hop overboard and listen to the songs unfiltered by fiberglass. So there I was, suspended in pure blue sea, with only a snowfall of small gelatinous white plankton to focus on. Ducking under the surface, this is what I saw and heard (Empty Blue Music… just ignore my friend’s legs in the frame!):
If you turn up your computer volume, you might just start to get a sense for what I was feeling at this moment: a sensation more like touch than sound, as if each note reached inside and plucked my ribcage to create its enormous hum. (Check out Radio Lab’s brilliant exploration of how music works, triggering our sensation of touch and feeling as much as hearing, in their episode: Musical Language).
The steady, ethereal calls released waves of goose bumps down my arms and legs with each new overtone. It was magical and mysterious; ecstatic and eerie; intense and tranquil. I was enveloped by song.
A few months ago I guest blogged about how disturbingly quiet the reefs of Jamaica were during my last trip there. So heavily over fished, silence descends on the diver in a place that should be full of chomping parrotfish, grunting grunts, and snapping snapping shrimp. The powerful foreboding nature of Rachel Carson’s famous title, Silent Spring, applies as much to our oceans as it does our forests and prairies: sound in the sea is evidence of life being lived.
So it was with great elation that I reveled in the song of the humpback that day. I didn’t need to see them. In the absence of sight, I found I could feel their presence, a gift perhaps more lasting and healing than any visual memory.
Next time you slip beneath the waves, take a moment to feel and listen before you look. See what you can really see.
Photo credits: Alysia Curdts, Hryck