Whale Songs

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After a long serenade, a male humpback whale has found its mate near the island of Eukafa, Tonga. Now, the nearly 4,000-mile migration south to the Antarctic begins. Photograph: © Jeffrey Cardenas

For an interactive series images from my close encounter with a humpback whale, click here: Humpback whale surfaces under Flying Fish

The first time I heard the song of a humpback whale I was at anchor on a moonless night in the shelter of Eukafa Island in Tonga. I had been sleeping and the sound seemed to emanate from a dream. Then, with open eyes, I realized that the long, sonorous aria was coming from the ocean and resonating through the fiberglass hull of Flying Fish. The sound was longing and lonely and seductive. The life force in this whale song called out: I am here, where are you?

Both male and female humpback whales vocalize, but only males produce the complex song of wails, moans, and shrieks that is so identifiable of this species. Humpback songs are repeated in cycles lasting up to 30 minutes and individual whales may sing continuously for more than 24 hours. Each population of humpbacks collectively sings a unique song, one they have learned from other whales.

“The traditional explanation for why whales do this is that male whales are singing to seduce female whales, and that females get really turned on by songs that are currently in style,” said cognitive neuroscientist Eduardo Mercado III in a recent edition of LiveScience.

To the casual human listener, the love song of a humpback whale sounds magnificently free-flowing and improvised. But fresh mathematical analysis by some bioacousticians has found that there are complex grammatical rules used in whale songs. Using syntax, the whales combine sounds into phrases, which they further weave into hours-long melodies packed with information. Whales have even been found to sing in dialect, according to a study in the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America. Although researchers say that while these songs don’t meet the linguistic rigor necessary for a true language, there is evidence that whales use a hierarchical structure of communication similar to human beings.

Most animals use sight and smell to communicate, but these senses are limited in the ocean. Whales rely on sound, which travels four times faster in water than in air. Whale songs are thought to have an important role in mate selection as males sing for attention and to establish dominance.

Courtship rituals take place in the warm waters of Tonga and competition for a mate can be fierce. Males sometimes gather into competitive groups around a female and fight for the right to mate with her. Male humpbacks can be seen breaching, tail slapping, and charging during courtship. Ultimately, however, the female calls the shots. Polyandry has been observed in humpback whales, with females known to have multiple male partners throughout their lifespan.

Once hunted to the brink of extinction, the humpback whale population fell by an estimated 90% before a 1966 moratorium on killing them went into effect. The population has since rebounded to about 80,000 worldwide. Cultural attention to whale vocalization intensified after a 1970s paper published in Science magazine by biologists Roger Payne and Scott McVay describing “surprisingly beautiful sounds” made by humpback whales. Analyzing underwater recordings they found that these whale sounds were intricately repetitive. “We call the fixed patterns of humpback sounds ‘songs,’” they wrote. Soon thereafter, the hit album Songs of the Humpback Whale was released and the recording went multi-platinum.

After hearing my first whale song through the hull of Flying Fish, it was impossible to return to sleep. I went on deck squinting into the darkness hoping to see the whale. I saw nothing move in the calm water. Strangely, I could no longer hear the song, either. It was only when I went below that the song echoed again through the cabin. The area of the hull below the surface of the water functioned as a hydrophone. Somewhere out there a whale was looking for love.

 

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Gone Troppo

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Gone troppo in the Tongan bush, around the kava bowl.    Photography: ©Jeffrey Cardenas

A pretty English girl is sipping a fruit drink at a beach resort when I wade up out of the ocean like the lizard man in the Creature from the Black Lagoon.

“Hi!” I say, as I pull up a barstool next to her, certain that she will be delighted to spend some time with a fascinating person like me.

She jumps off her barstool, tipping it over in alarm, and says, “Have you gone troppo?”

This is the first time I have heard the expression–gone troppo–which means, according the Outback Dictionary, that the person it refers to has “succumbed to a state of tropical madness; to have lost the veneer of civilization after spending too much time in the tropics.”

How could the English girl have thought this about me? After more than a week of sitting out a low pressure system at anchor aboard Flying Fish, I was eager to get off the boat and interact with other living human beings. That I hadn’t washed, shaved, brushed my teeth, or changed my clothes in longer than I could remember didn’t seem to me like it should have been a problem. Had I really “lost the veneer of civilization?” I never even knew I had it.

Bad weather on a boat is a perfect petri dish for ennui. It’s not that the weather was dangerous, although there was continuous rain and the wind was blowing a steady 30 knots with gusts to 35. I had two good anchors down on the leeward side of Lifuka in the Ha’apai Islands of Tonga. Hatches and portholes were leaking from the rain. It felt like water torture as drops of rain dripped onto my forehead. I could almost see the mold growing on the inside of the cabin. I love my boat but the walls were closing in.

Sensing my unwelcome at the resort bar, I set off on foot through the bush across the island of Lifuka. Rain or no, it feels good to move my legs. I imagine myself as the character Pig-Pen in the comic strip Peanuts by Charles Schulz, leaving a trail of dirt in my wake. Walking is liberating.

The Kingdom of Tonga is known as The Friendly Islands, given the name by explorer Capt. James Cook in 1773, who was apparently unaware of a well-developed plot by a Tongan chief named Finau intended to kill Cook and seize his ships. Upon his arrival, the Tongans had welcomed Cook with gifts of fruit, pigs, turtles, and extravagant hospitality.

I think about this as the road I walk turns into a track and then ultimately into a footpath. Despite my appearance, the Tongans I encounter on my walkabout receive me with enthusiasm, and in english.

“Where are you going?” asks a man feeding his pigs, without the preamble of a greeting.

I am walking to see your island, I answer, and to get some exercise.

“Why?” is his reply.

An elderly woman tending an open fire rendering coconut oil in a charred iron caldron asks, “Where is your wife?”

The question catches me off guard. She is where she wants to be, I say.

This does not translate so I answer more directly. She is working, I say. And this response further complicates the conversation.

“Why is she working and you are walking in the bush on Lifuka?”

What might seem like random banter with the coconut oil woman is insightful to me on many levels. I have always appreciated direct communication and in Tonga directness is a conversational precept. Tongans see into a person and discard their evasiveness. The woman pulls three bananas off a stalk and hands me a green drinking coconut. She says, “You are hungry and thirsty.”

Further along the footpath, two boys emerge from a trash heap of junk food wrappers and empty beer cans that litter a grove of banana trees and taro plants.

Hello, I say. Mālō e lelei.

“Give me money,” the larger of the two boys says in english. He is maybe 10 years old. He is menacing and holds a homemade slingshot.

Why? I ask. Why should I give you money? I can see that the boy understands my question but he cannot not answer it.

“I want money,” he repeats. And then his younger companion chimes in, “‘Io, gimme money, too.”

I turn away and continue walking. Then I see the boy’s hand raise with the slingshot. He has a piece of coral rock wedged between the rubber bands. I whirl around and take a step toward him. The boys flee down the trail. As they disappear into the trees I hear one call out, “Pālangi!” 

The encounter with the boys is disturbing but the word Pālangi is not necessarily an invective. Cook speculated that the word translated to “cloth men” or foreigners who arrived in boats with sails. Earlier etymologies link Pālangi to the expression, “People from the Sky.” But, the boys wanting money delivered this word with venom. In their usage, Pālangi described a foreigner as a “white pig.”

As a stranger in a strange land, I must constantly remind myself to walk softly in these beautiful and unfamiliar places. I straddle a world where on one side of an island there is a beach resort and on the other side of the island hard-scrabble families struggle for their daily bread. This, too, is part of my voyage of self discovery.

It is time for me to return to Flying Fish for a shower, a shave, and a clean change of clothing–and to remember who I am.

 

There he, sitting in the moonlight
Not found, livin no city
He smile, mucho in a sunshine
High life, counting de fruit bat

Troppo, gone troppo, troppo
It’s time you know I gone troppo

Troppo by George Harrison 1982

 

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