by B. N. Sullivan
Yesterday we introduced our readers to Hawaii's humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae), the huge marine mammals that frequent our waters in large numbers every year during the winter months. At this time of year, the whales' presence dominates in this part of the Pacific Ocean. Not only do we see them daily from the surface as they spout, breach, and slap the surface of the water with their fins and tail flukes, we hear them incessantly beneath the ocean's surface. And sometimes, if we are lucky, we see them underwater as well.
Mostly, we hear the whales. The term whale songs has been used for years to describe the humpbacks' vocalizations. At times they do indeed 'sing', but believe me, a lot of what we hear from the whales is not exactly melodious. They snort, they whine, they trill, they grunt and groan. They make assorted barnyard sounds.
They say "whoop, whoop, whoop" and then purr so loudly that the sounds resonate in a diver's body. When the whales are relatively close by, we can physically feel the sound waves their vocalizations generate, perceiving them as palpable vibrations in our own rib cages, in addition to hearing them.
We think of these events as vocal visitations by the whales. The term 'visitation' may suggest something akin to a spiritual experience in your mind. Without exaggeration, that is what the term is meant to evoke. It's impossible to experience these visitations without having an exquisite sense of awe, in the purest meaning of the word, and without feeling very privileged indeed.
Many, many times during our winter dives at Puako, the whale sounds have been so loud and persistent that they are completely distracting. At their loudest, the sounds are close to overpowering.
At such times there is really nothing to do but to settle on a sand patch somewhere to be still and just listen, because it's impossible to do or think of anything else. If there is nowhere safe or convenient to settle, we take up a posture that we call 'buoy mode,' which Jerry is demonstrating in the photo on this page. Buoy mode entails positioning oneself in the water column, suspended somewhere below the surface, but well above the bottom. The idea is to remain quiet and immobile. In this case we use buoy mode to listen to the whales in a kind of motionless meditation.
Sometimes we hear the calls of an individual whale. More often we are party to what clearly are conversations amongst a number of whales. But, almost without exception, every time we actually have seen whales underwater, the encounter has occurred during a period of silence on the part of the whales. Then out of the blue -- very literally in this case! -- there's a whale (or two or three), right before our eyes.
We'll tell you about some of our face-to-face encounters with humpback whales in Hawaii in our next regular post (after Wordless Wednesday!), but meanwhile we encourage everyone to visit The Whalesong Project to listen to the kinds of whale vocalizations that we hear all winter when we dive at Puako. When you get to the website, click on the phrase "We are bringing Whalesongs to the World" near the top of the page. Let the recording load in your favorite media player, and then sit back, close your eyes, and experience a humpback whale vocal visitation for yourself.