Calls from the deep: do we need to Save the Whales all over again?

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In June 1975, a small group of activists set off from the coast of California in an 85ft boat. They were headed for the Dalniy Vostok factory ship, which was at sea conducting business as usual: harpooning sperm whales.

The activists were members of Greenpeace, an organisation that had only recently been founded, in Vancouver in 1971, and they were setting out to meet the Russian whaling ship under the banner of what would become one of the most famous slogans of the environmental movement, Save the Whales.

They thought they knew what to expect. Inspired by the Canadian ecologist and writer Farley Mowat, who had explained that commercial whaling was taking some species close to extinction, Greenpeace had decided to make saving whales a key part of its mission – specifically to photograph the reality of commercial whaling at sea, which few people had ever witnessed.

But what they saw when the Dalniy Vostok came into view was a shock nonetheless.

Dead whales being dragged along behind factory ship Dalniy Vostok.

“There was blood all over the water, there were dead whales in the water, and there was a large pipe that came out from the hull of the factory ship that was running constantly with blood,” says Rex Weyler, co-founder of Greenpeace.

“We could see the giant slabs of whale being ripped off the bone. There was the stench of dead whales and blood, and there were sharks in the water. It was a horror show.”

Amid the carnage, Wexler and activists including Paul Watson, who went on to found the campaign group Sea Shepherd, attempted to slow the whale hunt by placing themselves between the live animals and the harpooners, and took photos.

But they also tried something unexpected of their own. Using an onboard sound system, they began to blast an eerie noise: whale song, taken from the 1970 album, Songs of the Humpback Whale.

The Greenpeace crew playing music to the crew of the Soviet ships.

Produced by marine biologist Dr Roger Payne from audio of male humpbacks singing off the coast of Bermuda, Songs of the Humpback Whale had been a surprise hit with the public, and remains the only multiplatinum-selling album of animal sounds. It also announced a scientific breakthrough: Payne and his team had found that whales don’t just call but actually sing to each other, in slowly repeating patterns.

The success of the album had been one of the reasons Greenpeace chose whaling as an early focus in the first place. By the early 1970s, public understanding had advanced to the point that whales became animals that “people internationally could all relate to”, says Weyler. “Whales are intelligent. They have families. And they even, we learned at that time, make music and vocalise. The whale was the perfect species in danger that could stand for all of wild nature.”

As the activists turned on the loudspeakers to blast it at the Dalniy Vostok, they also hoped whale song could be a language that could cross boundaries.

“We came right up beside the giant ship. The crew lined the rails of three decks, towering above us,” recalls Weyler of the moment when they played the music. “It was quite dramatic. They waved and shouted and hooted. They seemed, to tell you the truth, quite friendly and interested in us.

“And they were fascinated by the whale sound. Very few of the crew on the boat were actually whalers and harpooners. There were people working in the kitchens, boathands, people who were cutting up and processing the whales dragged on board.”

The effect was profound. Although the harpooners did not stop whaling that day, Greenpeace had scored a success. The anti-whaling movement would go on to transform world opinion, paving the way for the International Whaling Commission’s (IWC) 1982 decision to ban commercial whaling starting in 1986 – of which Russia, along with Japan, was one of the biggest proponents. The Dalniy Vostok would eventually cease whaling and became a fishing trawler. (In 2015, it sank off the coast of Russia, killing most of the crew.)

Russian Whaling Fleet in North Pacific

Whale populations began to rise, and have done so – with some exceptions – ever since. As of May 2020, humpback whale populations had returned to 93% of their pre-whaling size.

But in 2020, 50 years on from the release of the album, whales are once again in the global headlines for all the wrong reasons. A new series of threats to whales have appeared. Commercial whaling has started to return, with Norway and Japan among the countries that have abandoned the IWC ban. And whaling is the least of it. Collisions with ships, bycatch from fishing, habitat loss due to the climate emergency and a global plastic pollution crisis are hitting whales from all directions on a scale unknown in the 1970s.

Most pernicious of all, however, is the noise.

“Shipping has increased by 300% in the past two decades and noise is a massive issue,” says Helen McLachlan, fisheries programme manager for the Worldwide Fund for Nature. “Sound in the water is really important for the toothed whales like sperm whales, which use sound to identify prey and to navigate. If you upset those functions then you are undermining that animal’s ability to survive.”

A picture taken by anti-whaling group Sea Shepherd shows the bloodied deck of a Japanese ship, the Nisshin Maru, near Antarctica.

The deadly threat posed to whale song by shipping noise was underlined during the pandemic, when whales got a brief respite from the din. In lockdown-quietened waters, researchers were able to record whales singing with increased frequency, and at lower volumes. But with new vaccines emerging and the global economy adjusting to the pandemic restrictions, the “lockdown effect” looks set to be a blip. Fifty years since an album of whale songs brought to public attention one of the great wonders of the ocean, do we need to save the whales all over again?

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“When I discovered that humpbacks were singing, one of my biggest worries was, ‘well, nobody knows what a humpback whale is’,” says Payne, now 85, speaking from his home in Vermont. “The attitude that people had to whales then is very hard to conjure up in our age. It was sort of, ‘uh-huh’. People knew whales were very big, and that was about it.”

A humpback whale with calf.

He first heard whales singing in the late 1960s, on tapes made by a US navy engineer, Frank Watlington. Watlington had been listening out for explosions off the coast of Bermuda, but was surprised to find the noises obscured by the sound of whales calling to each other. Using military hydrophones, he recorded the whale vocalisations at rare length.

A whale enthusiast himself, Watlington recognised the recordings’ potential significance, and passed them to two visiting marine biologists: Payne and his then wife, Katy.

We still don’t know all the reasons that baleen whales sing, but it is thought to be how male humpbacks advertise their location and credentials to potential mates. Katy Payne, a researcher in acoustic biology at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, used the recordings to prove that male humpbacks sing the same songs together in groups, and gradually compose new ones, changing their songs each year. Females are thought to be attracted to males singing the most “current” songs.

If it was a breakthrough to realise that the whales could sing, perhaps as remarkable was discovering how emotionally involving the songs of these vast marine mammals are to human ears.

“Something about their sounds knocked me out, inspired a sense of wonder, just a ‘wow’ reaction,” recalls Roger Payne of hearing the recordings for the first time, and realising they could help draw public attention to whales. “It felt obvious to me that this is the way that we can capture people’s imagination.”

Payne produced the album from Watlington’s audio and released it commercially as Songs of the Humpback Whale. The album was a hit. National Geographic magazine gave it a further boost by distributing 10.5m promotional copies. Payne says he has seen crowds of 200 people burst into tears on hearing it. “The definition of a song is simply a repeated rhythmic pattern,” he says, but whale song transmits “a message that gets to other levels of your brain than the songs of most animals.

“Some of the laws of musical composition of humpbacks’ songs are the same as in human music,” he notes. “Whales, for example, use sonata form: the establishment of a theme and then a variation, then a return. Well, how the hell do you explain that? My suspicion is that music probably vastly predates our species.”

Roger Payne pets whale, Peninsula Valdez, Argentina

What’s more, Katy Payne and her colleague Linda Guinee would go on to prove that humpback songs also use the equivalent of “rhyme”: consistent end-note sounds to the most complex sections, thought to be a mnemonic device to help the whales memorise the longest songs.

Songs of the Humpback Whale heralded a cultural shift, as awareness of whales’ intriguingly human-like qualities became widespread. The “great whales” – including humpbacks and blue whales – became awe-inspiring wildlife icons, a status that is now self-evident.

They were also in unparalleled danger. Commercial whaling had existed since the 1800s, but by the mid-1960s it was happening on a mass scale around the world. It was largely through the efforts of Greenpeace that the public began to realise the threats posed to whales, after the activists returned from their shocking encounter with the Dalniy Vostok.

“It was a really traumatising experience for all of us on the Greenpeace ship,” says Weyler, speaking from his home on Cortes Island, British Columbia. “We had never seen anything like that.”

Still, he credits that trip and the resulting photographs for beginning to change public opinion.

“We were aware that just explaining that the whales were being hunted would not be enough to get the attention of global policymakers and media. By confronting the whalers and bringing the pictures of the horror of the slaughter, that’s what shocked the world – and brought ecology into the modern era.”

In 1974, a 14-year-old girl named Maris Sidenstecker was one of those shocked. The teenager, from Los Angeles, had come across an article in an inflight magazine explaining the new existential threat to blue whales. “I just could not get it out of my mind,” says Sidenstecker, now a marine biologist.

Inspired, she designed and printed a T-shirt with her drawing of a blue whale and the words, “Save the whales”.

People began to ask her where they could buy one and soon, through a small ad in Rolling Stone magazine, Sidenstecker was shipping T-shirts nationwide. “That’s when we really started selling a lot more,” she says, “boxes and boxes of them.” At the age of 16, Sidenstecker founded a charity, Save The Whales, which she still runs today. It was official: saving whales was mainstream, and the anti-whaling campaign went worldwide.

Save the Whales initial design by Maris Sidenstecker

“Later, we confronted the whalers in the mid-Pacific around Hawaii and then, even later Greenpeace, Sea Shepherd and other organisations confronted whaling fleets in the South Pacific and South Atlantic,” recalls Weyler. “It became a global movement.”

By the 1980s, as the IWC ban came into effect and populations began slowly to recover, crowding on to the deck of a boat to catch a glimpse of a whale’s back became a life-affirming way to spend leisure time. “Whale-watching was something I pushed right from the start,” says Payne, “because if you see a whale up close you’re not going to forget it.” The 1986 film Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home captured the zeitgeist with its story of saving humpback whales in San Francisco Bay. Save the Whales had become – along with the effort to reduce the hole in the ozone layer – perhaps the greatest environmental success story of the 20th century.

Incidentally, Sidenstecker never claimed to have invented the phrase “save the whales”. Greenpeace chose it independently for its campaign, and in a 2015 interview with NPR, Katy Payne remembered Watlington telling them, “Go and save the whales”. At one point Sidenstecker attempted to register the name for her charity. “We did try to trademark the name about 20 years ago,” she says from her home in whale-rich Monterey Bay, California. “We were told to forget it. It’s a phrase in the public domain now that everyone uses.”

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Just as the world thought whales were saved, however, new threats began to emerge. In 1993, just seven years after the IWC whaling ban, Norway broke from the agreement and resumed commercial whaling; it is still the world’s biggest killer of whales. Japan abandoned the agreement in 2018. Iceland, too, is also still whaling, though there are signs that the practice might be coming to an end as whale-watching tourism makes better economic sense.

Still, commercial whaling pales in comparison to the death toll in what is known as “bycatch”. Whales are frequently entangled in fishing gear, such as lines joining equipment on the seabed to surface buoys, or killed while fishers are hunting other species. Worldwide, bycatch kills as many as 300,000 whales, dolphins and porpoises every year, making it by far the biggest killer of cetaceans. According to the WWF, bycatch led to the recent extinction of the Yangtze river dolphin in China, and is a critical threat to endangered North Atlantic right whales and Arabian Sea humpback whales, among many other cetacean species.

Another threat is from commercial shipping, particularly collisions. “Vessels are getting bigger and travelling more quickly, which makes them a key threat to whales,” says McLachlan. Whales struck by ships often die, and a recent study suggested that speed limits don’t always help: even slow-moving boats are likely to kill endangered right whales in a collision.

A 46-foot juvenile fin whale that was struck by a cargo ship and carried into the Long Beach harbor in Long Beach, Calif.

But the most poignant new threat of all, given the profound impact of Songs of the Humpback Whale, must be the disruption of their song caused by the noise from commercial shipping, which has had a direct effect on whale populations. “It’s about communication, including for breeding and between mothers and calves,” says McLachlan of whale song. “You know yourself that if you’re in a crowded pub. You have to shout to be heard, and it’s exhausting after a while.”

Some scientists also speculate that commercial shipping noise may be altering the content of the whale songs. Michelle Fournet of Cornell University hypothesises that whale song may be richer and more complex when human-generated noise abates, as it did during the pandemic, when reduced shipping activity briefly allowed humpbacks to benefit from the clearer singing conditions. That effect is not likely to last, however.

Some solutions are being sought, such as responsive shipping routes plotted to avoid areas where whales are likely to be breeding, feeding or migrating. In Canada’s Bay of Fundy, “shipping lanes were moved for right whales, and they returned to areas they had vacated”, says McLachlan. “There is even whale-avoidance software that vessels can operate.”

A humpback whale mother with her calf off the coast of Tonga. Whales use song to breed, navigate and communicate with their offspring.

In October 2020, blue whale song was also found to change during migratory journeys, with a Stanford University study showing that whales’ switch from night-time to daytime singing as they start to migrate – potentially another way to better predict whales’ migration routes, and thus help reduce collisions. Similarly, with bycatch, technological innovation could help lower casualties from fishing equipment with, for example, remote collection of lobster traps rather than lines attached to a buoy on the surface.

Many of the threats cannot be solved with technology, however. Critical habitat loss and the plastic pollution crisis are threats for which taking action after the fact is often too little, or too late, or simply impossible. For example, once toxic PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) had entered the food chain, banning them did not change that fact. They are still found in orcas off Scotland.

“It is key for overall ocean health that we have a healthy, dynamic population of these top predators,” says McLachlan. She adds that, because whales store tonnes of carbon dioxide in their bodies, they are also key to mitigating the climate crisis. If whales are threatened, it’s bad news for all of us.

Roger Payne’s obsession with what he calls “whale speak” continues to inform his research. As well as discovering that some whales sing, another breakthrough was calculating just how far some great whales can hear. In deep ocean (and, he adds, in a pre-human-noise-pollution world), “I was shocked to calculate that blue whales and fin whales could hear each other as far as 13,000 miles away.”

But it’s the languid musicality of whale song itself that connected with so many people. Otherworldly in the truest sense, it predates humans by tens of millions of years. There is something else that plays on Payne’s mind, something he has never been able to prove, and probably never will.

“My suspicion is that the difference between whale communication and human communication may be that they are transmitting emotions directly,” he says. “We can’t do that. We need words.”

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