|C. Coimbra photo|
The whales begin to arrive in the early spring, skinny from their months of fasting through the breeding season and their long migration. “June and July, we’re listening to feeding calls from sunrise to sunset,” says Wray. Through the summer, the feeding frenzy relaxes and the lab notebooks show scribbled attempts to capture the nuances of social calls. Gruuup? Bloop. Grumbly rawkkk. In October, the jotted lists of dates and recording times gain new embellishments: stars, exclamation marks, and occasionally a cluster of hearts. Song practice! Beautiful … Singing—amazing echoes!!! Into full song. Clear, resonant. Wow!!
“It’s pretty amazing to listen to,” Wray says. “One whale will start up, maybe with just a simple up and down: ‘dii doo, dii doo’; then ‘dii doo-DIP, dii-doo DIP, dii doo-DIP diidoo.’ He’s just playing around, changing one bit or another. Then another whale will pipe in. That whale will maybe just add a ‘woop,’ but the timing will be like ‘diiwoopDIPdiidoo.’” She waves her arms to the beat. “Two or three whales will do this together. Like musicians jamming, it’s all kind of random and then suddenly it’s a song.”
... Wray and Meuter believe that all of these features are important to the whales and hope that their research will help make the case to establish protected areas and acoustic refuges around Caamaño Sound. As humpbacks concentrate here in the fall, they mix, mingle, and sing in shifting combinations—like musicians dropping into one another’s studios. Then they split up, taking their songs on the road to different breeding grounds around the North Pacific. “It’s not one whale teaching another,” notes Wray. “It’s co-creation. Maybe they all have the same song because they have worked on it together already.”
Long after the whale song ends, Wray is still looking out to sea. “There is so much we don’t know. And that’s what makes it so exciting.” Then she smiles conspiratorially. “But really, I just still love listening to whales.”