National Geographic : 1979 Jan
HUMPBACKS: Their Mysterious Songs By ROGER PAYNE, Ph.D. Photographs by AL GIDDINGS SEA FILMS, INC. /JW DRAWINGBY RICHARDSCHLECHT TDUSK I SAT in the stern sheets of our small sailboat, braced against a stanchion and using the last light of day to take a final sight on Ber muda's Gibbs Hill Lighthouse, 35 miles to the northeast. We were too far from land to return that evening; my wife, Katy, and I would have to spend the night at sea. Bermuda's treach erous reefs are difficult enough to navigate in broad daylight. In darkness they are impossible. As night deepened, a familiar feeling came over me, one of loneliness at sea. I felt at one with the other solitary watchers else where on earth-the shepherds, sentinels, and herdsmen who huddled alone beneath these same stars, feeling the night close in around them. To break the mood, Katy and I got down to work. We brought the boat about onto the other tack and pointed her as high into the wind as we could, so that she nodded gently with the waves. After lowering a pair of hy drophones into the sea, I switched on their amplifiers and listened in stereo through the headphones. We were no longer alone! Instead, we were surrounded by a vast and joyous chorus of sounds that poured up out of the sea and overflowed its rim. The spaces and vaults of the ocean, like a festive palace hall, reverberated and thundered with the cries of whales-sounds that boomed, echoed, swelled, and vanished as they wove together like strands in some vast and tangled web of glorious sound. I felt instantly at ease, all sense of desola tion brushed aside by the sheer ebullience of it all. All that night we were borne along by those lovely, dancing, yodeling cries, sailing on a sea of unearthly music. Often during that night off Bermuda I thought how the oceans had once heard these wild cries. How, once, the echo cham ber of the sea had reverberated to the haunt ing "songs" of whales. Then I thought of what it is like today in many of the whales' former haunts-silent, lifeless, impressing one most with a sense of what has been lost. * *The author's articles include "At Home With Right Whales" in the March 1976 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC and "Swimming With Patagonia's Right Whales" in the October 1972 issue.