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.

© Flip Nick/Getty Images
© Flip Nick/Getty Images

Forty-nine years old, David has the energy and passion of a man half that age, particularly when arguing for beauty. He is a world-class clarinetist who was educated at Harvard and now teaches philosophy at New Jersey Institute of Technology. He recently recorded an album on the famous jazz label ECM, and is known by many for his avante garde music. He’s studied Tibetan music in Nepal and was featured in the BBC documentary Why Birds Sing. He’s traveled around the world, playing his clarinet to different social animals—the lyre bird in Australia and beluga whales in the Russian Arctic—seeking to insinuate, gently, his own notes into their music, participating in creative jazz fashion with whatever sounds they are creating.

His is not quite the pursuit of interspecies communication, but instead the qualitative exploration of his theory, his belief, that if music is about art, beauty, and emotions, then there might be a place for him to participate with other species, as if tightroping the invisible high-wire pathways that extend from one species to the next, crossing chasms previously thought to be impassable. It is extremely important to him to believe that art exists for its own sake in the world: that it does not need justification or explanation by science.

I’ve come to Hawaii to listen to David play his clarinet to the whales. He’s been here once previously, and has a recording of what he believes was a whale picking up on the clarinet’s blue note—repeating it, improvising and adjusting, then appearing to lose interest and moving on. But now that one note is embedded in the skein of that whale’s music, and a part of the collective song that would emerge, later that year.

The island’s beautiful, of course, as is the water; it’s Hawaii, after all. In the early spring the humpbacks gather here to give birth in the warm shallow clear waters, in February and March, before resuming their journey north, up along the Pacific Northwest. They have arrived in Hawaii from their winter feasts in the Arctic, where they fed on tons of krill—a tiny shrimplike creature that blossoms under the winter sun into swarms that can stretch a mile wide. Barnacles form along the whales’ sides, sometimes thousands of pounds’ worth; if the whales don’t find a way to shed them, the accrued weight will eventually sink them. It’s been theorized by some that the clear and relatively sterile waters around Hawaii starve the barnacles so that the plates of armor fall from the whales’ skin, the scales glittering where in places they line the ocean floor in the approximate shape of the great and sentient beings that once passed by overhead.

The whales—and the island, Maui, where they linger in March as if on vacation—attract dreamers, do-gooders, strangeness. Like iron filings drawn to a magnet, they come here, interesting people, and sometimes broken people, seeking a kind of repair, or seeking something. One of the grand dreamers is Daniel Opitz, a deep-sea diver and full-time self-financed filmmaker who made the acclaimed and award-winning film The Humpback Code—a work of luminous mystery and reverence. Opitz, who is German, first became interested in diving, and cetaceans, when, for his 15th birthday, a friend bought him a ticket to swim with dolphins. It is these seemingly small acts of generosity that end up changing lives.

A big man—hulking—Dan doesn’t do anything small. He tells me that if he were to believe in any kind of religion, it would be Buddhism. When Dan decided to get a tattoo, he had one of the Buddha inked onto his back, life-sized—the whole sitting Buddha—so that if you see him walking on the beach, it looks like the Buddha is moving away from you.

Filmmaker Dan Opitz scuba diving, courtesy of Danial Opitz
Filmmaker Dan Opitz scuba diving, courtesy of Danial Opitz

Dan’s girlfriend is in Germany, but he can’t stay away from the island, and the whales. He has a trim little boat and goes out on the water to watch and listen for the whales as often as he can. Just prior to my arrival, he and David had gone out, listening and recording— but not clarinet playing; Dan is a stickler for the law, a tidy precision that seems at odds with his otherwise largeness or boundlessness. The Marine Mammals Protection Act of 1972 prohibits the harassment of whales and other mammals. David wouldn’t necessarily agree that playing music—certainly not his music!— is a harassment to the whales, but it’s important to Dan that he not travel whatsoever into any gray areas of the law.

David and I visit Dan’s suburban home the first full day we’re on the island. He greets us at the front door and leads us upstairs. The view from the second floor is stunning, breathtaking. A wall of light welcomes us, a wall of windows, and because it’s the highest house in the burbs, you can see out over all the other rooftops, and over the village of Paia, and over the waving tops of the palms, to the soothing blue rolling waves beyond. It is bewitching— you feel everything that was previously tense within you loosen and dissolve, or realign. It’s almost impossible to look away from the vast blue ocean. It is like air—it seems that to look away would be to hold one’s breath, to cease breathing. It’s up here where Dan does his biggest and deepest dreaming. He tells us his dream is to purchase an immense ice-breaking ship and refit it to become a magnificent research vessel, capable of following the whales all around the world, with laboratories and diving and filming capabilities, and fleets of tiny submarines that can be disgorged from the mother ship’s belly to shoot film and study the life aquatic.

Dan’s plan is to take his footage to the big screen: he wants to build a vast indoor viewing theater in which the 3-D images of humpback whales are projected into the dark void just above the theatergoers’ heads, so that the whales are singing above and all around the viewers, so that the darkened theater fills with the sound of their singing. “It would change people’s lives,” he says, “if they could only see the whales, and hear them, like I have.”

He offers to take us out in his little boat later in the week, and we accept his kind offer. We leave him then, though even after we have driven away, it seems that I can still feel the dream throbbing, pulsing, from that one house, up in that lofty lookout, from which vantage a person can see so much farther.

It’s hard to take seriously—at first—what we encounter the next day. David has lined up two spots for us on what he calls “the hippie boat,” a charter outing filled with a ragtag collection of dreamers and do-gooders, among whom David, with his clarinet, and I with my questions and doubts, are no more and no less eccentric. In the early morning cool, we’re being ferried in a tiny motorboat to the main boat that sits anchored offshore like a pirate ship.

A green sea turtle treads water next to our boat, watching us, its eyes surprisingly like a human’s. The captain, Christine, is wiry and sun-weathered, maybe 60-something. We’re the first ones on the boat—she gives us a hand up and puts us straight to work storing things, as others are being ferried the short distance out to our boat, an eclectic mix of islanders who have saved for this one day of whale watching, and others who have put it on their calendars and traveled thousands of miles. David made the journey last year and says that there was a naked cellist on board. Today, we’re joined by an immense seal of a man, also a repeat customer, known simply as Fish, who, other than carrying a hundred or so extra pounds, is a dead ringer for the late Jerry Garcia, and who is in the company of two attractive young women in small bikinis.

There are musical instruments everywhere: guitars, of course, and chimes, and cymbals, and many instruments I have never seen or heard before: crystal bowls with special pestles, which when ground around the rim of the bowl will create a wailing, howling, eerie resonance. A young man climbs aboard with a giant golden multistringed instrument that looks like a crossbow, with an intricate lacing of wires; it’s a wind harp, which he will hold to the sky and tilt, as if summoning a music that already exists—that always exists—but that we cannot normally hear.

Christine gives us an exuberant pep talk, telling us that we belong to the Cetacean Nation now. As best as I can tell, the prevailing sentiment on the boat, if not full spirituality, is an earnest amalgamation of Buddhism, Christianity, druidism, paganism, animism, Zoroastrianism, and finally, the not-very nice part of me—the part that is made uncomfortable by a spirituality that appears to be wholly untempered by doubt, untested and therefore, to my possibly narrow way of thinking, suspect. They’re so desperate that they’re buying it hook, line, and sinker, grabbing—I fear—at any life raft tossed to them in an extremely turbulent sea. I want to see a whale too, but I do not view whales as creatures who have landed here—literally—from another universe, as some of my shipmates are wont to believe.

I am not here to judge them. But neither do I have to be made comfortable by the proximity of such desperation. From time to time I glance over at David as if to say, These are your people, musicians all, but David’s expression is inscrutable, hidden behind his dark glasses; if anything, he seems to be enjoying himself hugely. I’m just not comfortable with animal worship. Too often, I see in that equation the easy transfer of the hard business of being human. I love that Peter Matthiessen didn’t see the snow leopard when he went searching for it. Isn’t it wonderful, he says of that absence.

Photographs courtesy of Danial Opitz
Photographs courtesy of Danial Opitz

Here, we begin to see whales immediately. Their bull-like heads breach the surface in the distance, their broad black backs gleam and glint like obsidian under the sun, and, finally, at the end of each dive, their wide tails, the last thing to disappear, pause, wave, waggle, before sliding back down into the mysterious blue. We cheer whenever we see one, and, unabashedly, Christine steers the boat toward each one, upping the rpm.

But the whales are shy—there are other boats about, too, playing our game, surely all of these whales have been hunted by tourists before, and the whales submerge before we can draw close to them, disappearing well before we breach the 100-yard viewing limit decreed by law. (There is, of course, a loophole: you can pilot your boat at an angle that might intersect with the whales’ path, then shut your motor off and drift—essentially blocking their way—and if the whales choose to continue on with their established trajectory in such a way as to bring them within that 100-yard buffer, then a boat captain is not likely to be prosecuted.)

Slowly, the musicians have been coalescing, repositioning themselves in such a way that they can all see each other, and as if through some unspoken internal communication and consensus they begin warming up, each playing his or her various instruments; gradually they ease into what sounds like some olden folk tune. And for the musicians to possess such an odd miscellany of instruments, and to have never played together before, it doesn’t sound half bad, other than the lyrics, which are an endless refrain of “We are family…We are family… We are family.”

No, we’re not, I think churlishly. But they’re happy—rhapsodic— and again the sound, with David joining in now with his saxophone, is, I must admit, pretty good, especially out there on the water, with the wind washing over us and the boat flying across the waves.

And then something amazing happens.

A pair of whales—a mother and a big yearling—appear off to our right, just within the hundred-yard arm’s distance. They’re breaching, leaping clear of the water—a formidable launch for so enormous a creature—and though we could each and all be wrong about this, it seems that there is somehow a synchrony or match between their joy and ours: between our music and their willingness to associate with us.

Photographs courtesy of Danial Opitz
Photographs courtesy of Danial Opitz

The musicians, delighted with what they have summoned, play louder and with more verve. David, who has been laying back and letting the other musicians take the lead, is playing the heck out of his clarinet now, a wild, wailing, joyous sound, improvising and yet accompanying the guitarists and bell ringers and drummers and bowl-rubbers and mandolins wonderfully— and with each pulse, each blast, the whales edge closer, alarmingly so, until we can see the joy in their eyes with each leap, the mirth. They’re right alongside the boat, leaping again and again, spending themselves against the sky and encouraging the musicians to play louder and faster and better, which they are doing— David is playing out of his mind—and with each new ascension of his effort and his talent, the whales modulate their leaps ever higher, so that even to my skeptical mind there is no doubt whatsoever that it is an accompaniment, a duet of sorts— whales and humans, music and dance—and although our boat is traveling fast, they are staying with us, even surging ahead of us; teasing us, it seems, racing us.

Why should it amuse us so that they are spirited and capable of knowing joy, and of communicating? What brutal and perverse shell have we placed around all other forms of life, steadfastly ignoring or stubbornly denying that their cultures and spirits, their days and nights, are meaningless compared to our lofty own? Such denial, across the generations, does not inflate or build up our own importance or position of relevance. Instead, it demeans it.

To swim and soar as the whales are soaring this day—to do that even one day in our lives—would surely alter, transform, our existence—would be a life changer, a great whoosh of almost unbearable joy, the experience of a lifetime—and yet their unending days, across the decades, may well be filled with this intensity, joy, sweetness. They may be living at a level we cannot even comprehend enough to envy, and perhaps, for us, this is a mercy. All we really know how to do thus far in the relationship is to kill them.

Eventually the whales tire of us, and, rolling over on their sides, they waggle their flippers toward the boat, submerging back into their world—one of the largest creatures in the world becoming invisible again, vanishing.

But for a long time, what they cast over us lingers, and I, in turn, am a little humbled for having pooh-poohed the spiritual hunger I perceived the oceangoers were placing upon the backs of the unmet whales. Who am I to judge what is shallow or deep? Earnestness is real; isn’t this all that matters?

Later in the day, we stop and anchor for the end-of-cruise swim. Captain Christine opens a trunk filled with flippers, masks, and snorkels, and invites us all to dive in and “become one with Mother Ocean.” No small number of the travelers slip out of their swimsuits, though others of us, more chaste, remain suited.

Whales—different whales, three of them—appear again, though only briefly. Whether we have summoned them or have coincidentally stopped in one of their resting places, I don’t know; they are visible only briefly, not all of us see them, but Fish does.

With a single wild war cry of “Whale! ” he goes running half the length of the ship and launches himself as if out into the void, the world’s most enthusiastic human cannonball.

He is out there above the ocean for a long time, soaring, improbably huge and round—for just a moment, it seems that he is never going to descend, will instead only keep traveling out and up into the sky, fueled by nothing more than his own exuberance. Finally, though, the spell of his ascent dissolves and he becomes leaden, colliding with the sea like the Fish he is, in a great mushrooming plume of spray that is not unlike the blowhole exhalations of the whales each time they surface.

A few swimmers were in the water already. Some of them, with their masks, will report later that they were close to the whales—were nearly among the whales, underwater—but that when Fish hit, the whales bolted like minnows.

Again I’m split, of two minds: I do not want the whales to want to be among us, I want them to remain isolated and protected, unchanged by the relentlessness and bottomlessness of our needs, our emotional claims: the broth of our damning paradoxes and unpredictabilities. And yet if I could have gotten my mask and flippers on in time and been one of the first out of the boat, I just as surely would have wanted to be one of the swimmers out there with the whales, even if for the most fleeting of moments: to see the broad streak of black amid the blue, a flash of white belly streaking away.

We putter along in our fins and masks, singly and in groups of twos and threes. The cloudless sun bathes the ocean equally, yet radial zodiac spires of blue and green and yellow and white light spin before us at the near-surface, falling away to the deepest and most bottomless blue imaginable. I know that at the very bottom it’s black, but my eyes can’t see the bottom; for me, there is only blue, everywhere.

At first I can only hear the amplified rasps of my own irregular breathing, as I repeatedly blow out gusts and gurgles of wave-sloshed snorkel infill—each breath a struggle, yet there is no option but to keep on going, the ocean is too beautiful. But gradually I become more accustomed to the rhythm of the breathing, and in the quiet spaces between my own whale-like puffs, and when I hold my breath and stop struggling, dog-paddling, kicking and stroking, and instead just drift, I hear it, the singing.

It is all around me, beneath me and above me—I am surrounded by it, am floating in it. I do not claim to understand what it is saying, or how many whales are singing, or how far away they are, but I am in it, and it is beautiful, and—this is the most striking impression—there is very much the feeling that if I hang around just a little longer, I will come to understand it. The distance between their communication and mine is vast, but it feels that the knowledge is near.

Perhaps David is right. Perhaps if their songs are only about beauty, then indeed that is a near thing within us: a thing we may not yet have fully embraced, but which lies within our already- developed range of abilities, or on the near cusp of them. Everything is connected, but we do not have to embrace every physical thing in the world to know that this is so. If a song—inaudible to us—can travel a thousand miles underwater, then surely there can be other connections that we cannot see or hear or otherwise know, between all things.

One more image, one more song, one more kindness. We’re close, and as I drift there, listening, I don’t want to leave.

A few days later, David and Dan Opitz and I are out on the water in Dan’s clean little boat. The water is as slick as oil. How can this be the ocean? I have never seen such stillness, not even in the sky. We’ve brought recording equipment and have lowered the microphone over the edge, and we’re sitting there in the flat bright heat sunning ourselves like fishermen, each wearing huge padded earphones, and listening to the indecipherable clicks and squeals of humpbacks that are out there somewhere, singing about who knows what. Soon the whales will be leaving these crystalline waters, making their own slow and steady progress into the future—one more mile, one more season, one more song.

The headphones are uncomfortable and the songs are distant; the noisesome chatter and clatter, the maddening whine of outboard motors, dominates the soundscape, and we take the earphones off and break for lunch, lazy and sleepy and floating as if on a lake of peace.

I’m up in the bow. Dan and David are crunching potato chips, they can’t hear it at first, but I do, or think I do. I can’t tell if I’m imagining it, replaying the sounds of earlier recordings in my mind, but it seems to me that I can hear it, a whale singing.

Listen, I ask them, do you hear it? Is it a whale?

They stop chewing for a moment. “It is a whale,” Dan says, “and it’s right beneath the boat.”

I’m hard of hearing—too many chain saws, concerts, lawn mowers, and shotguns in my youth, without ear protection. I’m not used to hearing things others can’t hear. But Dan and Davis are scrambling to turn on the recorder again, the boat is acting like a receiver, the sound is striking the hull and coming up all around me, faint and muted but—even I can tell this—close.

A whale breaches, 50 yards out. No one ever tires of the miracle of it. A smaller whale breaches next to the first one, but not a baby, not a calf. Dan is very excited, says they’re two males. He doesn’t have any idea what they’re doing. Getting ready for their journey, he guesses.

The whales begin swimming toward us slowly, coming straight at our anchored broadside: not with aggression, but with a leisurely luffing. The big one is in front, and the smaller one trails him. Dan is photographing them, eager to see their tails, whose white markings are as distinct as our own fingerprints.

His camera is snapping away. Photographer, moviemaker, cruise ship naturalist, dreamer: will his theater and research vessel ever get built? There is so little time left in any one life, and here he is out on the flat water, kicking back, drifting, listening, instead of rustling back on land, trying to raise all that money.

The largest whale submerges—the elegant double-yoke white markings look like the whiteness of glaciers—but then he surfaces again, as if he had known that Dan wanted to photograph the tail, and now he keeps coming.

He’s not going fast, but he’s so much bigger than the little boat that if he even touches it, he’ll tip it over. Yet there is no aggression. I don’t know what it is, but it’s not aggression. It’s something from the other world, something from the world below.

We watch. There’s nothing else to do. It’s too beautiful to turn away, too beautiful to protest, too beautiful to be frightened.

When he is within about ten yards, he turns to the right, a perfect 90-degree maneuver, and tracks a short distance parallel to our boat, then makes a perfect 90-degree left turn, as if tracing a cookie-cutter rectangle around us—as if we were in a cartoon and might suddenly fall through a trap door he has cut in the surface of the ocean, following an imaginary or invisible dotted line—and the smaller whale behind him, as of following some chemical or electrical wake, travels precisely the same path, with what seems like mechanical replication.

Both whales are massive, and though they are warm-blooded, the thing I remember is how chilled they were: how coldness emanated from them, radiating as if from a block of ice, as the colder water from the farther deep—the singing deep—slid from their backs, and that temperature difference stirred and washed over us.

They proceeded carefully, delicately, around our boat, showed us their tails—their identities, or the only way our brute species knows to identify them—and then slid back down into their world again.

We just looked at one another. Dan was somewhere between peace and awe, but safely just this side of rapture. There wasn’t anything to say, really. We sat there a while longer in the perfect blue and listened for them to begin singing again, but if they did, we couldn’t hear it. In a few days they would all be gone, gathering and massing in some secret place—some unknowable place—and leaving on their long journey, while we sat there, anchored in the motionless blue, bathed by beauty, washed by beauty, trying, as hard as we could, to understand it.

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