National Geographic : 1999 Jul
from year to year and vary from one popula tion to the next. Yet no one really understands what these intricate arias are about. We do know that humpbacks are found in every ocean. Together with blue, fin, sei, Bryde's, and minke whales, they belong to the rorqual family of baleen whales. Fully grown females, which are bulkier than the males, can weigh 40 tons and reach lengths of 50 feet. Humpbacks tend to favor shallow areas, often quite close to shore, and they are among the most sociable of the great whales and the most active at the surface, all of which makes them among the easiest to observe. As a result, we know more about them than about any other large whale. But we still don't know a lot. One thing that experts are certain of is that this species, depleted by whaling and not protected throughout its range until 1966, is showing signs of a comeback. Early population estimates are unreliable, and recent ones are hard to get, but numbers in the North Atlantic seem to have rebounded from a few thousand to between 10,000 and 12,000. The North Pacific population was thought to have tum bled from 15,000 to fewer than 2,000. That group stands at 5,000 to 8,000 today. Knowing I was eager to absorb what biolo gists have been discovering about humpbacks and their ongoing recovery, Darling, director of the West Coast Whale Research Foundation in Vancouver, British Columbia, brought me along to Hawaii. Since the singer beneath the boat didn't seem bothered by our company, Darling asked his longtime research partner, photographer Flip Nicklin, who often serves as Darling's eyes underwater, to slip overboard. I followed. Bubbling scuba gear sometimes agitates humpbacks, so Flip and I took only masks, fins, and deep breaths. Suddenly, I no longer heard the whale's voice in my ears. I felt it inside my head and bones. The farther down I dived, the deeper the song seemed to penetrate and the more singers I became aware of in the distance, as the sounds carry for miles at depth. At 30 feet I was totally immersed-dunked, drenched-in humpback music. The sea quiv ered with it and with javelins of light that seemed to converge upon the singer's dark immensity. Surfacing to breathe, I noticed the leviathan roll slightly to peer up at me. Next I was treading water in helpless wonder while it came swimming my way. I dived again, and 40 feet of solid whale passed so close that I could have reached out and touched its eye. Then the creature turned. And then it came directly at me. At the last instant it braked with its flippers. We were left hovering nose to nose. The moment probably called for profound thoughts, but I couldn't have told you my name. Slowly the animal tilted upward, bringing its head above water. I did the same and found myself staring up at a wall of quivering white throat with clusters of barnacles on the chin. The whale spiraled down toward the hydrophone and looked that over as if considering crooning into it, circled to take in the boat propeller, sank tail first to rest vertically just under the craft, which appeared dinky by comparison, and finally continued down, spread its arms, and resumed singing.