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Explained: 50 years of the album that saved the humpback whale, singers of the deep

The humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) one of the 15 species of baleen whales, is considered to be one of nature’s greatest wonders.

Written by Dipanita Nath , Edited by Explained Desk | Pune | Updated: December 13, 2020 8:43:24 am
A humpback whale surfaced near the Statue of Liberty in New York City, US, December 8, 2020. (Reuters Photo/Bjoern Kils/New York Media Boat)

A large humpback whale has been spotted several times this week in the Hudson river near midtown Manhattan. The whale was photographed in front of the Statue of Liberty and other landmarks of New York City as it paid a visit to the city’s harbour.

It is not common for whales to come into New York harbour — the last sighting was in 2016 — and as the images by photojournalist Bjoern Kils went viral, people around the world were reminded of these beautiful, wondrous creatures of the deep, and the remarkable story of the human effort that started the process of their return from near extinction a half-century ago.

The humpback whale

The humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) one of the 15 species of baleen whales, is considered to be one of nature’s greatest wonders.

It is famous for travelling enormous distances through the oceans, singing complex melodies in the deep, or leaping out of the water towards the sky with dramatic flair. They have distinctive tail fins (flukes), and they make nets of bubbles to capture schools of fish.

Humans have found the humpback attractive for another reason too — as raw material to manufacture soap, oil, and pet food. As such, commercial whaling of tens of thousands of humpbacks in the 19th and early 20th centuries all but killed off the species. It is estimated that around 50,000 whales were being killed each year in the 1950s.

But just as the humpback neared extinction, an unusual kind of music began to play. It was a part of an album, titled ‘Songs of the Humpback Whale’. People around the world, including leaders at the United Nations and the heads of NASA, began to listen to the sounds of the dying whales. More than 125,000 copies of the album were bought, a record for a nature recording that stands to this day.

Here’s what happened.

Listening to the musical whales

In 1970, an American bioacoustics expert named Roger Payne, and an engineer with the US Navy, Frank Watlington, released the album ‘Songs of the Humpback Whale’, based on the latter’s recordings of the singing whales.

While sound is commonly used by whales as a communication tool, humpbacks alone can sing — the females are quiet crooners, but the males are loud, bold and assertive as they either try to impress the girls or warn a rival to keep away.

Watlington had made recordings of the songs while he was in Bermuda on official assignment and, when he played these, Payne, his then wife Katherine, and an associate, Scott McVay detected the musical structure in the recordings.

The group got working and released ‘Songs of the Humpback Whale’ using three tracks by Watlington and two created by the Roger and Katy Payne. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the album. 📣 Follow Express Explained on Telegram

Song Sung True: Those Were The Days

The ‘Songs of the Humpback Whale’, which sounds unusual in the beginning before it captures the hearts of listeners, created a surge of interest and global movements to save the whales.

Musical geniuses Pete Seeger and Judy Collins wrote songs inspired by the music. “From the start, I sent copies of whale songs to all sorts of people — to the Beatles, Joan Baez, and Bob Dylan. I played them for Mary Hopkin, who had just had a big hit with Those Were The Days My Friend. She was stunned by the sounds. There were two other people with her at the time — her manager and someone else — and they couldn’t get her to take off the headphones.

Afterwards, she said to me, ‘I wish I could sing like a whale’,” Payne said in an interview given to the United States Library of Congress.

The Simpsons included a reference to the whale song, and ‘Star Trek: The Voyage Home’ (1986) used it as a part of the main plot.

Stopping the killing, reaching the stars

“Support came with the foundation of Greenpeace in 1972, and in particular its Project Ahab in the mid-70s, in which activists parked their boats in front of the whalers’ harpoons. David Attenborough and Jacques Cousteau made popular documentaries focused on the creatures,” The Guardian reported.

While the International Whaling Commission banned commercial whaling in 1986, around a half dozen countries such as Iceland and Norway still allow whaleing for scientific and commercial reasons. Today, the population of humpback whales is back to pre-whaling days, around 100,000.

“Carl Sagan and his wife Ann Druyan added one of my recordings of humpback whales to the golden record they persuaded NASA to attach to each of the Voyager satellites. Voyager I has entered interstellar space; it has passed through the heliopaus — the transition zone (Voyager II is in that zone now) where, as Carl put it so well, ‘The wind from the sun is equal to the wind from the stars’. Thus have whales captured the hearts of an age-old enemy, man, and their songs are now bound on a 2.5 billion year voyage that will carry their message across the galaxy,” Payne said.

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