Serenading Belugas in the White Sea

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Note: Gari Saarimaki created a short video of this journey…

FINALLY SOME GOOD NEWS — someone is going to help me play music with whales instead of warning me that it’s against the law. According to the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act, all “harassment” of marine mammals is illegal, including my idea of playing live music to them just to see what happens. But there are still places beyond the grip of the law.

“You should come with us to Russia, to find the white whales of the White Sea,” says my Finnish physicist friend Rauno over the phone from his Swiss laboratory. “No government will bother us there. Next summer we’re going to have divers wearing white suits. We think white is an important color for the belugas, and they might like us more if we’re wearing white.” I was intrigued. “There are exactly seven spots in the White Sea where the belugas definitely congregate in the summer months,” Rauno continued. “Next summer we’re trying out a new one, the island of Myagostrov. This is the Republic of Karelia — what, you haven’t heard of it? Be prepared for a journey back in time of at least one hundred years.”

It sounded like the perfect place to continue my musical investigation. Over the years, I’ve come to think that animal sounds share more characteristics with music than with human language. Each phrase sung by birds, wolves, cicadas, or dolphins must be performed correctly to convey its message, but we humans can never translate exactly what is said. This has led me to believe that music might be a useful way to communicate with animals, and thus extend human art into the natural world, hoping for a connection, a response. I started testing this theory by playing with birds, and now I’m ready to try it with the most intricate musicians of the wild world: whales. Because they live underwater, there are additional challenges — such as how to do it without getting my clarinet all wet.

The beluga whale, whose name means “the white one” in Russian, might be one of the best species to try to make music with. Called sea canaries by sailors who frequented the Arctic regions, their wide range of whistles, clicks, and buzzes is far more diverse than the vocalizations of dolphins, whose sounds and behavior have been studied the most. In 1585, the Dutch traveler Adriaen Coenen wrote that their “voice sounds like the sighing of humans . . . . If a storm is imminent they play on the surface of the water and they are said to lament when they are caught.” Coenen also wrote that “They like to hear music played on the lute, harp, flute, and similar instruments.” That’s probably the clearest and oldest evidence that my idea of playing to cetaceans is nothing new. In the sixteenth century people made music with whales! They must have sensed that, whether or not these animals are intelligent, they are interested enough in human life to enjoy paying attention to us while we play.

It is well known that belugas make more varied sounds than other whale species, many of them easily heard by the human ear from above the water. Because of the vast complexity of these sounds, it has proven difficult for humans to categorize them well. In 1994, Cheri Ann Recchia described the basic kinds of sounds made by the captive belugas she studied as clicks, yelps, chirps, whistles, trills, screams, and a sound she called buzzsaw. In the early 1980s, Canadian scientists Becky Sjare and Thomas Smith conducted an exhaustive survey of the vocal repertoire of white whales summering in Cunningham Inlet near Baffin Island, and they found clicks, pulses, noises, trills, and a variety of whistles, which they described in great detail. Some sounded like fragments of scales, with clear pitches, and others were whoops and cries, rising up and falling down in various clear patterns. Some warbled all over the place. They found no real correlation between particular sounds and particular behaviors. In fact, for all the statistics collected on beluga sounds, their complex music, or language, seems more inscrutable than the code of any other whale.

RAUNO’S PLANS ARE COMING TOGETHER. “I don’t think the white suits will yet be ready this summer,” he apologizes. “We are going to focus on your interests, playing sound to the whales. I am really curious as to what they will do.”

Officially, Rauno is a physicist, designing experiments for the new supercollider at CERN, the world’s largest particle physics laboratory near Geneva. But he has been interested in whales ever since he took his eight-year-old son whale-watching in Norway fifteen years ago — a time when whale populations had been decimated worldwide by extensively mechanized hunting. On the drive home to Finland the boy said, “Papa, couldn’t we do something to save those whales?” The father thought a moment and decided, “Yes, we can. It won’t even be all that difficult.” This was in 1990, the very earliest days of the Internet, at first a way for scientists from all over the world to keep in close contact with each other. The Web itself was developed at CERN, and one of the very first not-quite-academic Web pages was Rauno’s Whale-Watching Web, which he is still maintaining at www.whaleweb.org. It still looks like one of the world’s first Web pages, too — all text, no bells and whistles, just lots and lots of links.

“At first it was just a place to present information on whale-watching companies all over the world,” says Rauno. “Then it expanded to whales in literature, proverbs on whales, pictures and sounds of whales. If I look back to my own childhood, I remember a photograph in a Finnish Reader’s Digest in an article by John Lilly of the dolphin brain compared to a human brain, and they were so similar. Dolphins are, of course, just small whales.”

When not ensconced deep in the laboratory, Rauno travels around the world, often to areas frequented by whales where the local human inhabitants haven’t given much thought to the great animals as assets to tourism. Rauno then helps the locals start up whale-watching as an industry. He’s done this in the Azores, and now hopes to do the same in Karelia, one of the lesser-known Russian republics, located just east of Finland.

THE JOURNEY TO THE KARLIAN VILLAGE of Kolezhma from the Finnish border takes about two days, driving on roads of questionable quality. We pass through the capital city of Petrozavodsk, where no one has bothered to take down the statue of Lenin, and there is still an avenue called Pravda Street. The drive north from there is nearly all through deserted spruce forest, home to little more than undernourished moose and squirrels. We turn along the Stalin Canal, dug by hand in the early days of the revolution, a massive testament to human forced labor. It is a man-made river of tears, hard to conceive. “We prefer not to dwell on this history,” says our young guide, Sasha Velikoselsky, who is practicing his jaw harp to play to the whales.

We pass a museum of petroglyphs, a concrete edifice built to protect an important story-rock, now boarded up because there is no money to keep it open. Russia has many more things to worry about than its history, either ancient or modern.

At the edge of the sea, in the crumbling industrial town of Belomorsk, we turn east on a tiny dirt road for the final two-hour drive to Kolezhma. Each bridge is made entirely of wood, huge straight timbers, and we stop to check for missing slats before we cross. They all seem okay — some just barely. At the end of the fifty-mile road, the outpost of Kolezhma is more beautiful and distant than one could imagine. Everything is weathered, unpainted wood. It’s not clear what people can do out here except endure, grow their own food, and stay alive. Several hundred reside here and hardly anyone leaves.

Rauno has big ideas. “This place is going to be the whale-watching capital of the White Sea!” he gestures wildly. “Look at this, we’re back in the Russia of nineteenth-century novels. There’s nowhere in Finland like this, people will pay many Euros to see it, and that’s the only choice because,” with a sinister grin, “nothing can stop the green snake of Das Kapitalismus from rearing its ugly head.”

Green snake?

“The whales as they are can bring prosperity here. Come, I will show you! The boat is ready for our transport to the island of Myagostrov.”

We load our gear into a rusty green metal boat that resembles an above-water submarine, having to hurry because the trip can only be made when the tide is high. Sitting inside the hull, I feel as if I’ve leapt from the nineteenth century to the middle of World War II. It’s placid now, but this was a ravaged wilderness during the war. With Finland and the Soviets in constant conflict, civilization was going to pieces here. Today the surface of the sea is smooth and gray. It looks like it should be cold out, but the air is nearly ninety degrees.

It’s a slow two-hour boat ride to the northern tip of Myagostrov Island. The rocky point is marked “Cape Beluga” on the map, one of those seven spots in the White Sea where belugas congregate in summer when the tide is high. A mile to the west is a series of weather-beaten cabins, one of which looks brand new.

“That’s the sauna,” beams Rauno. “They built it all in one day last week, just for us.”

“Jesus, I hope it’s not too Russian,” says Gari, our videographer.

“What do you mean?”

“You know, the kind of place where they also keep animals or hang the salamis up to dry.”

We can’t take the boat too close to shore so we anchor a hundred yards out, take off our shoes, and start carrying in the huge amount of gear we’ve got, box by box. Boat batteries, inverters, video equipment, five cases of beer (one for each day), sleeping bags, food, hydrophones, saxophones. We’re walking through mud and over slick, smelly, algae-ridden rocks. The shore is awash with mosquitoes and flies. “Careful,” warns one of the boatmen, “the woods are full of tiny poisonous snakes.”

Green capitalist snakes?

Inside the cabin it’s even warmer than outside. Who would think you could sweat so much so close to the Arctic Circle? At night it’s so hot and the bugs buzz so ferociously around my ears that sleep is well nigh impossible. Plus, of course, it never gets dark. I’m hiding in my down bag to keep the midges at bay, perspiring profusely. Who could think of a sauna in this weather? I keep telling myself that as soon as the hour gets reasonable I’ll just get up and plunge into the sea. Finally it’s four-thirty a.m. That seems late enough. I jump out of the bag, run outside — what? The sea is a quarter mile off, the tide is so low. Forget about it.

Later that morning we take a dinghy over to the cape to install the hydrophones and the speaker. It’s a different world over there, smooth pink granite, a nice breeze, just a few deer- (or are they moose-?) flies to reckon with. The plan is to plug the microphone into an amplifier, the amp into an underwater speaker, and dunk the speaker into the water so the whales can hear me play. Then we’ll stick a hydrophone into the water and feed the underwater sounds into a set of earphones so I can hear them. The results will be captured using a digital recorder.

The hydrophones are dangled from buoys with ropes. The underwater speaker is suspended from a pole that looks like a broken fishing rod. The tide comes rapidly up.

On the hill above us we notice a small wooden lean-to. Three figures stand there, silently watching us. A ten-minute run up the lichen-covered boulders and we find Russian photographer and whale expert Aleksandr Agafonov, a bushy-bearded fellow with a wide-brimmed hat and a plaid shirt. We expected he would be there, along with two young assistants. He was sent by the Shirshov Institute of Oceanology in Moscow to spend a month watching belugas from this craggy hilltop. To watch the whales, and perhaps to watch us as well. I offer him a copy of the book Dolphin Societies, which contains several papers from the Shirshov Institute, translated into English, on the behavior of dolphins. Agafonov is one of the authors, and he’s never seen the book before.

“Da,” he smiles. “We will watch and listen to the whales. And we shall listen to you making music with the whales. It will be interesting to all.”

Back at the shore, I get out my clarinet, put on the headphones, listen to the rumble and thlack of wave against rock. This is no placid sea today. I take in the noise, wait, and wait some more. Then, I hear them before I see them . . .

“Guys, get the cameras out, they’re coming.” First just light-colored dots on the horizon, the shapes move closer and closer. The whiteness of belugas is astonishing and beautiful, though anyone steeped in whale lore will remember Ishmael’s claim that it is the very hue of Moby Dick that is his most terrible feature: “not so much a color as the visible absence of color, and at the same time the concrete of all colors . . . a dumb blankness, full of meaning — a colorless, all-color of atheism from which we shrink.” As for the White Sea, it is not white at all but a dull gray, an even deeper sense of colorlessness, which grows more hollow with thoughts of recent history.

Just seventy miles to the north lies a low trace of land: the Solovetsky Islands. Dubbed the “Gulag Archipelago” by Solzhenitsyn, they hosted the central administrative facility of the Soviet prison camp system. The main building has now been returned to its original purpose, an important monastery of the Russian Orthodox Church, and it is another good place to watch for beluga whales. Why dwell on what is hopefully just an aberration in human history? Whales do not do such terrible things to each other, which is why John Lilly thought they were far more intelligent than we.

The younger whales are gray, blending in with the sad surface of the sea. Through the headphones I catch glimpses into their amazing world of sound. Above the heavy thumping of the burbling waves bashing on the rocks, I hear splendid downward sweeps, high whistles at the upper limits of human hearing — pings and bleeps, new senses of rhythm and order, new beauties in tone and kick. But I do have to strain to pick out the whales through the wash of underwater noise. As I play, I seem to leave my body on land and travel through sound into the cold swirling waters.

In the midst of all the White Sea noise are glimmers of intention. Is there really anything musical about them? 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, but that may just be a human conceit. What care could the white whales really have for us? These animals can detect the precise outlines of complex objects entirely through the echoes rebounding from the sounds they emit. Through their own scratchy musical phrases, they may be able to send descriptions of what they sense to each other. We really don’t know.

One thing seems clear: they are audibly fascinated with sound. They scream, wail, cry, and click. It is an alien improvisation, a strange musical style that is here for us to ponder, and possibly, some day, decode. The more I listen to the belugas and find my own multiphonic shrieks that merge with theirs, the more I crave this new underwater music.

I can’t sit still, have to get up, move around, dance a bit while I reach out to the whales, remembering an old Karelian proverb, Kundele korvilla ela perziel, “Listen with your ears, not your ass.”

Before coming to Karelia, I spent three days at Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium, where I tested my equipment and played clarinet to the captive belugas there. On the first day, no response seemed to come from the whales, but by the third day, one pregnant whale was inclined to copy one of my notes exactly, a middle G. Later I analyzed a sonogram of the encounter and was able to see how closely the whale note resembled the clarinet note — not just the pitch, but the phrasing. The sonogram showed that the overtone structure, the real timbre or color of the sound, was quite close to what I was playing. The whale had definitely listened and given her response.

In the White Sea I try the same tone and right away there is a response! Either that sound is easy for belugas to master, or it is already a pitch that means something to them. This isn’t science, so I can’t be rigorous or conclusive about it, but I feel as if I am getting through.

A whale and I share a note for a moment or two.

It’s all music if I follow the lessons of John Cage and listen to the interconnected patterns of sound all around as the strands of a vast natural symphony where overlapping intention forms the music of what happens. After five days wearing headphones, trying to reach out to belugas, my whole notion of what can be music begins to change. I am listening beyond the edge of my species and trying to find my part in the vast and noisy underwater soundscape.

It reminds me of a story told about the great soprano sax player Sidney Bechet, who lived in Paris in the 1950s. He would practice scales and arpeggios for hours every day, but at the end of his sessions he would pause, and then launch into wild, shrieking animal sounds for the final minutes. A neighbor once asked him about this and Bechet responded, “Sometimes I think what we call music is not the real music.”

Rauno is lying back on the warm rocks, enjoying the sun. “I need this kind of experiment as a break from all that tinkering in the lab.” He compares my quest to trying to find new particles in the printouts from linear accelerators — “although in physics there is a lot more noise than this. A hundred times more.”

Agafonov comes running down from the hilltop. “We have been listening. The belugas are definitely responding,” he exclaims. “Perhaps music is a better way than language for humans to communicate to these whales.” Excited muttering all around. The tapes will be sent to Moscow, to be analyzed in the laboratory. We will get to the bottom of this.

MOSCOW IN WINTER IS FAMOUS for bitter cold and heavy snow, but this winter it is warm enough to be only gray and rainy. I see none of the opulent excess too often described in the Western press, just crowds of people shuffling through gray streets, crumbling buildings, heavy traffic, and sense that here is a system that no longer works.

The subways, grand and precise, are the exception: Stalin’s pride. They still seem to run on time, and the rush of bodies underground is more intense than anywhere I have been save New York. I’ve come to visit Agafonov, who lives with his mother in a tiny apartment not far from the biggest market of illegal MP3 disks in the world. “I’m fifty years old, and I’ve been married twice,” he offers, smiling. “Neither of my wives could appreciate how much work I have to do.” Agafonov studies belugas only part of the time. His main job is at the Russian Union of Art Photographers, of which he is the president. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, there is no longer much support for culture or science. “But we are free, and this is much better. We Russians always find a way to get by.”

The photographers’ union used to be located in a grand old house, but now it is in the basement of an apartment building near the Tekhnika subway stop. Nicer, says Agafonov, than the Oceanology Institute. So he has chosen it as the place to gather Russia’s best whale researchers to present their work and hear about our findings from the previous summer in the White Sea.

Vladimir Baranov shows a video he made off of Solovetsky, using a special seafloor-mounted camera, of svelte white whales nuzzling each other — beluga mating in action. “Da, look he slidez up next to her and then sticks it in, voila! Then he svims away, and back, does it von more time just to be sure!” I feel as if I am seeing something made thirty years ago. “Zhis video is especially popular with the ladies . . .” and he takes another swig of vodka.

Roman Belikov presents his doctoral thesis on beluga sounds, the most extensive analysis of its kind. He has found six basic types of beluga sounds: creak, bleat, chirp, squeak, whistle, and vowel. In social interaction between whales there is more bleating, chirping, and whistling. There is plenty of chirping during beluga sex, but absolutely no bleating. The most vowel sounds are heard during tranquil swimming. The vowels are the one kind of sound the Russians have found that was not similarly categorized by Canadian scientists. They are a kind of sound few researchers have identified in any other whale, or any other animal, for that matter. In the belugas, the Russians heard these basic vowels: ah, eh, uh, o, u, and ee. Because these sounds seem to be distinctive, not shared, Belikov believes they can be the key to identifying individual whales interacting in a group. Belugas may have signature vowels in the same way that dolphins have signature whistles.

I play my two best recordings from the summer. During the first encounter the belugas whistle and growl in the midst of the noisy thlacks of waves against rock. They are not ignoring me, but the overwhelming sense is of a clarinetist playing in a strange, sound-filled uncertainty. No sound they make can be characterized; no tone I try out has a place. We’re playing at and around each other.

The second recording has the underwater sound in the left channel and the above-surface sound in the right. In the human world there is mumbling, wind, and a tentative clarinet. There is the clarinet’s G, and faintly, in the other channel, a beluga answers, just as I remember. The same note is there, with a distant hollowness.

I ask Roman whether he thinks music has any place in the attempt to understand the world of beluga sound. “Belugas are very complicated subjects for investigation,” says Belikov. “Perhaps we will one day be able to know as much about their behavior as we do about orca sounds, but I have some doubts. If everything would be so easy, then all problems would have been already resolved. Everything is very elusive in beluga signals.”

Agafonov presents the sounds and videos he has assembled from the previous summer’s extensive observations — a catalogue of fabulous noises. It takes a little more effort to find music in it, but when we do, beauty starts to appear.

As for the clarinet and the whale? “I’m afraid there is not yet enough data. You must come back with us next summer. And maybe the summer after that.”

Baranov pours another round: “Let us vatch the film again, zhis time with musik only, very relaxing.” A strange dissonant soundtrack comes on, dark electronic chords, the whales cavorting around the camera, looking us in the eye, wondering what strange machines we will come up with next. A middle G swirls around in my head and the whales cry up and around it, occasionally copying the one simple tone that found a way into their world.

One day we may know more. One note is not enough.

David Rothenberg is the author of Why Birds Sing, The Book of Music and Nature, and also has six CDs to his name. His next book and CD, Thousand Mile Song, will be published in spring 2008. He released Whale Music, a CD, in early 2008.

Comments

  1. I really enjoyed the article, and , because I am both a musician (singer, keyboardist, composer), and poet, I decided to send you this poem I dedicated to a friend of mine, who is a mezzo-soprano, in 1988. Both she and I love animals. It was her personality shown in her behavior, which enabled me to compare her to a beluga. We are both of an age now, where we have noticed great changes in the way voice students are taught to be professional singers. Yes, there are some good strategies used, especially with the emphasis on much more sight reading, but, learning to really integrate material is often , now, not stressed. We mourn this, and I believe young singers will never achieve integrity , as the belugas do, in their ‘inner song’, unless they go on th e personally ‘spiritual’ journey of listening to every other singer’s ‘inner song’, and learn to remember it.
    So, here is my poem.
    If you decide to publish it, please let me know what format to send it in.
    Thank you for your wonderful article.
    Diane Stevenson Schmolka.

    Requiem for a Beluga

    There is before me a tundra
    which will likely remain barren

    the ocean which has become
    the cistern of time
    has known only grief since you left

    I see you now
    a figure beneath the moon
    presiding over your children

    I remember when we created language
    which biologists could only cite with
    dashes and bleeps

    your lips pressing against warm currents
    met the trough at surfaces they could never reach
    while we chased paradigms of shadow
    creating a whirlwind of new phrases
    krill and algae your applause
    in the vibrations of fresh water

    now you are ordered into the aquaria of culture
    barred and observed as each movement
    changes your dimensions
    contracts them into statues

    they see now only a specific foreshortening
    to them you are merely an emblem
    of what real dance was before

    you are my presence your swiftness
    sweeps the carcasses of bears aside
    and lion -hearted you stalk the hidden places
    of your dwelling to sustain
    the ballet of sequences

    your mind swims continually
    through bannisters and windows
    in salt and sunny air

    though you cannot now return home
    a fragment of song emerges
    continually reworking your positions
    to skip in living waters recycled
    to complete apothegms for new heirs

    around my neck I will wear you always

    Diane Stevenson Schmolka (copyright 1988)

  2. That’s beautiful Diane.

    Check out this video from the same journey,
    made by Gari Saarimaki:

    youtube.com/watch?v=ILPzkze3RHw

  3. David, we met many years ago – here in Marin County. This was before I was really involved in the Ocean Noise Pollution issue. (www.OCR.org) It is funny how my focus on the problems of noise pollution had (negatively) sensitized me to folks playing music to marine animals. This is probably a result of the US Navy’s insistence that all noises are equal, thus their incredibly nasty mid frequency sonar, or the oil industry’s pounding, pounding, pounding of seismic surveys have the same bio-acoustic value as the whale’s own vocalizations at equivalent energy levels.

    Of course this is not the case, and distinguishing the biological differences between various sounds has become the crux of my work. Nonetheless I found it fuinny – particularly my being a musician – that I needed to wrap my head around your project and come to terms with it. (I guess I hang around these Navy folks too much.)

    I also find it amusing that I am much more comfortable with a jazz improviser playing with the whales than with the idea of playing them tapes of Tony Orlando. My bias – I’m sure not shared by the whales.

  4. Hi Michael:

    Great to hear from you, glad to learn you’re not too worried that my sounds would unnecessarily disturb the whales!

    DR

  5. Having the time, money and inclination to play music to whales? Affluent white people obviously have too much time on their hands.

  6. Hi Eli:

    It really doesn’t cost too much to play music with whales.

    Hopefully the results will inspire more people to value and to care about them.

    DR

  7. very interesting. The music is pleasant and although it’s impossible to know for sure whether they are trying to communicate, it does seem like the whales are interested in your clarinet sounds.
    Question, could the whales see you? Perhaps by bobbing above the water? Also, I was thinking about some article I read about traveling in a foreign country and how not to insult people inadvertantly by using gestures that are inappropriate to that culture. Perhaps a little silly to think about in this context, perhaps not. That made me wonder, did you study or listen to beluga sounds prior to making your own sounds through the hydrophone? I understand that the scientists know very little definitively about beluga whale communication or any whale communication but do they associate any sounds with anything in particular? For example, a certain whistle for danger? Or mating calls? Do you know how close to you the whales came to you/shore while you were playing? Was it closer than they usually come to shore in that area?

    Thank you for your article. Any attempt to understand whales is wonderful. I hope you discover interesting things on your next journey.

  8. Hi Kathy:

    Thanks for your comments.

    I could see the whales, but only their white backs above the water in the distance.

    I did study the sounds in advance and practice with captive belugas in Chicago beforehand.

    No, humans don’t know much about what the many complex beluga sounds are all about,
    though the Russians think they have individual vowel-type sounds that are expressive of different emotions.

    There’s more about all this in my book THOUSAND MILE SONG, which should be out in late April.

  9. David: I have had music exhanges with both bottlenose and common dolphins. I have written about them in my books. I have written 4 books on cetecean encounters. My website describes them. I see encouraging similarities with what you describe. The common dophin encounter wen on for days and got very complex. While it started with music it went on to the dolphin trying to teach us sound sequences. A sperm whale has also had an exhange with me. I soon found I lacked te acoustic skills to match it. I use a Lubell speaker. Most of my books are about fishes and marine inverts.

  10. David, great article. When you say you played a “G,” that’s the note you played on the clarinet, right? Since it’s a B-flat instrument, the actual pitch is an “F,” so for example, a flute or piano would play that note, not a G, to replicate the effect.

    I’m guessing bloggers linking to this article are going to be repeating that whales respond to G, which isn’t quite correct, if I read correctly.

  11. What a lovely life experience to be serenading beluga whales with your clarinet – especially in such a rugged climate! Whether they responded (scientifically)or not, I’m sure they enjoyed the music. I know I did. Do you have plans to continue? From someone that is holed up in an ashphalt jungle, I thoroughly enjoyed the (Orion)article and am looking forward to your book.

  12. I have to say that i enjoyed your requiem quite a bit. it was really fascinating more as a poem than as a song itself, of course the boundary line between both is very thin and at times, even imaginary. as it is, it is one beautiful poem.

  13. Fascinating information and it makes sense. There’s no reason that communication with Belugas cannot be accomplished through interpretation of pitch.

  14. Thank you to those of you who commented on my poem, as a comment to David’s wonderful report. I have discussed this article more with other musicians and poets. I have found many who are very interested in communicating more using music, (and very specific music for different species). I must admit that I have sung everyday to my pets, for many years, both cats and dogs. They often react by exposing their entire underbellies, purring or sighing loudly, and stretching their heads back as far as they can. I’m a lyric soprano, but I pitch my songs at least a major third lower when I sing to them.

    You might also want to read the Requiem for a Beluga, and other animal poems in my new book: Fedora and Other Hats, available through ABE Books.
    I would like to be kept informed of of all research connected to David’s report, even if remotely connected.
    Thanks.
    Diane Stevenson Schmolka, musician and poet.

  15. There’s no reason that communication with Belugas cannot be accomplished through interpretation of pitch.

  16. Regarding the two comments: “There’s no reason that communication with Belugas cannot be accomplished through interpretation of pitch.” This would all depend on the interpretation. Are belugas interested in conferring serial information by way of variability in pitch (and volume)? Are there time domain cues in their vocalizations that nuance their communications? And perhaps most significantly – to paraphrase Ludwig Wittgenstein “if a beluga could speak, we probably wouldn’t understand what they were talking about.”

  17. Dear Barry and Tommy:
    Yes,I have several more poems about animals. I hope to explore the subject much more intensely, poetically and musically in the near future.
    Diane Schmolka

  18. That’s very interesting!
    Is it really illegal to play music to “mammals” there in the USA? Sorry but cant really see the “harassment” in that and it should be against the GREAT US LAWS?
    -So how does it work? they dont let you serenade whales but they allow cetaceans to be exploited in marine parks(ohh maybe because they pay taxes to harass!)???
    -I invite you to come here in italy and will do it together in the mediterranean sea!

  19. Oh yeah, Tom, what kind of whales you get around there?

    True, the harassment clause seems a bit excessive, but the government’s heart is in the right place, they do want to protect the whales!

    DR

  20. Nice article. Interesting video and songs. It was really a fascinating more as a song than as a video.

  21. Knowing how whales respond to sounds might be a helpful recovery strategy for different whale species.

    Have you done any follow up studies to see if your first results can be replicated?

  22. yes, some of the sounds I tried out at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago worked with wild belugas in the White Sea

  23. Hi David

    I’ve just finished reading your book, Thousand Mile Song. I have to say it’s the most enjoyable and informative book I’ve read in a very long time. And now I’ll be making the journey to Russia to experience this for myself.

    Brilliant work.

  24. Hi Carisse:

    That’s great to hear. If you need any contacts on belugas in Russia, let me know.

    DR

  25. what is illegal is to pipe the music underwater, where cetaceans can actually hear it.

    But all the noise from boats is not illegal!

  26. Dear David Et Al:
    I recently finished reading your book: “Thousand Mile Song”, and will share it with several of my Harmelodic Club members, many of whom are singers. Each and all of us love animals, feel close to birds, whales, frogs and any other animal which ‘sings’ in it’s own way.
    but my book is a lend and not a gift. For me, your book is a synthesis of ‘spirituality’ based on sound scientific experience. I will keep it, and re-read it, for the rest of my life.
    I hope to be able to hear the whales and belugas ‘live’ one day, within the next few years.
    Thank you.
    Diane Stevenson Schmolka

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