David Rothenberg plays music to a humpback whale
David Rothenberg plays music to a humpback whale

Before 1970, most of us didn’t know that they sang. The military knew it—while listening, ever vigilant, for the approach of Russian submarines during the Cold War, soldiers heard and recorded whale songs for several decades— but in the world above, we heard nothing, knew nothing. When the recordings finally emerged into the nonmilitary world, the power of the surprise and the beauty of the songs, more than any other factor, gave birth to the modern environmental movement. Rivers in the homeland were aflame with toxic solvents, corporations were honing the ability to lie, the government was as corrupted as a washed-up seal carcass seething with maggots, and yet here was this beautiful, haunting sound that pierced the heart—an ancient song from the blue shimmering world in which all life began.

No scientist in the world will tell you that he or she knows why humpback whales sing. David Rothenberg, a friend of mine, wrote a fascinating book, Thousand Mile Song, which analyzes whales’ music, and he has found it to be the most complicated music in the world. David and others believe that whale songs can transmit vast distances underwater, and he is enthralled with the discovery that each year—after much jazzlike riffing, different whales listening to one another, then answering back with subtle variations—every male humpback whale in the northern hemisphere simultaneously decides on the perfect musical arrangement. This collaboration becomes the composition they all sing for the rest of the year, a complicated underwater orchestra that fills the seas and, perhaps, drives lonely sailors mad with longing and other emotions they—we—cannot even name.

The prevailing belief appears to be that whale song—coming almost exclusively from males—is all about sexual selection: that the “best” singers—which might sometimes be a measure of creativity or intelligence—get the “best” or most females. The only trouble with this neat and simple theory is that no one has ever observed a female whale paying the least bit of attention to a singing male. (Often when they sing, the males gather in a group and hang upside down, vertically suspended in the blue, with their enormous heads tipped down.) The fact that no one has ever observed females responding doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. Perhaps they go away for a while and think about what they have heard. Perhaps they’re making up their enormous and complicated minds.

There is at least one musician in the world—David—who thinks that the humpback whales do not sing for purposes of sexual selection—or that this is not the primary reason. Instead, he believes that there is something else in the world: that just as there can be a thrumming desire to procreate—a summons to carry life forward—so too is there a twin and somewhat parallel desire to create beauty, to create art. He believes that beauty is created in nature for beauty’s sake; that it, and art, are as important as water, air, food, shelter.

As you might imagine, this would be a pretty hard thing to prove.

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