Sylvia Earle gets lyrical about whales: "They're flying down there-dancing in their three-dimensional world; what they are, really, is big birds."
Roger Payne is no less enthusiastic but slightly more analytical: "They sing; there's no other word that fits what they do more closely. Speed up a recording of whale song to 14 times its normal speed, and it sounds just like bird song."
Earle and Payne, colleagues in the still-infant study of the 40-ton underwater birds, both have articles on whales in the January issue of National Geographic, and they talked about whale for hourswhen they touched base recently at National Geographic headquarters.
Payne's specialty is whale music; he produced the recording. "Songs of the Humpback Whale." which made a small sensation some years ago and still draws a steady income for the New York Zoological Society's whale fund. Earle's specific interest as a marine biologist is not strictly whales but the colonies of barnacles that live on whales - tons of them which accumulate each year during the cold-water feeding season and them fall off during the warm-water mating season. But if you're studying whales, the whole vast field is open and there are still so many unknowns that tight specialization is unnecessary, perhaps impossible.
Speeking with these scientists, you soon get the feeling that is must be a very joyfil thing to be a whale. "They are masters of their environment." says Payne. "They have no fears, and they had no enemies until man came along, which is a mere eyeblink in the 50-million-year history of whales.
"They are so big that things which seem cataclysmic to humans hardly attract their attention. I have seen a pair of whales near Antarctica mating in the middle of a full 70-knot storm, not even moticing what the weather was doing. Those were Right Whales, which are highly promiscuous: we never see Humpbacks mating, but we presume their mating season is from November through April, which is also their singing season."
Humpbacks were the whale species' that broght Payne and Earle to Washington. They are now protected species, their numbers reduced to about 7,000 around the world. Earle is feeling optimistic about the possibility of stopping the death of the oceans, with the Humpback Whale as a sample and symbol of what must be saved. Payne is less hopeful, but feel that the effort has to be made anyway.
They have been working together (or in parallel) since 1975. and both will readily concede that while whales are important, the implication of what has been happening to whales is what really matters.
"You could make an argument that humans are the most unsuccessful species in the history of the earth," says Payne. "They have threatened their own existence more often in a very brief span that any other species. Just to equal Neanderthal Man's span on earth. Homo sapiens will have to go another 750.000 years. Do you think we will make it?"
He began his carrier as a biologist studying nightflying predators and their victims: owls, bats and the moths they feed on, and the auditory systems they use in hunting and evsion. They step irom that to whale musie is enormous in terms of the size of the creatures involved, but logical enough in terms of the angle of approach
Around 1966 and 67, he began to get involved with whales, he says, because "I love whales and nobody seemed to be doing anything for their benefit. I felt that the sort of imformation known about whales at that time would not gain people's attention and concern. It was mainly information on the whale as an economic commodity.
"It occured to me that if you reduced the cat population to 3 percent of its former size, you'd have not just a complaint on your hands: you'd have a war. We had to get people to know about whales, discover things about them that are beautiful and fascinating. Maybe it would help if you could prove that they purr. But if what you want to save is the barnacles that live on whales. God help you."
Sylvia Earle, who docs want to save the barnacles, wincers at the last time, but Payne continues: "If you can save the whales, maybe you can save the oceans that we are now destroying and that we need for our own survival. What you need is a symbol so powerful and so good that you can use it to save the whole system."
The singing Humpback may be that symbol.
While he was working on insect and bat noises, Payne got a recording of whale sounds that was made by a marine biologist at Woods Hole. "The sound of a Right Whale on that record was one of the most mysterious and intriguing I have ever heard," he recalls, "but for years I didn't do anything about it; I just played that band on the record until it was worn out."
It was years later that he discovered that whales sing - and that discovery made the difference.
The only whales that are known to sing are Humpback, according to Earle and Payne. Other whales make audible sounds (including some that snere when they are asleep), but not sounds perceptibly organized in what can be called a musical way. Payne readily admits the possibility that other whales may sing when people aren't listening, or on wavelengths that we aren't monitoring: "Perhaps they are singing between four and eight cycles per second; that's a full octave, you know, even if we can't heat it."
At that level, human sense sound as pure vibration - something like a small earthquake. Earle has heard whale music that way, too, in a small wooden boat, when the whales were singing underwater and the hull picked up and transmitted the vibrations. She thinks there may have been Humpbacks in the Mediterranean (now almost dead ecologically) in Fomeric times, and the siren song heard by Ulysses may have been whale music.
More is known about whale music now that when "Songs of the Humpback Whale" was originally issued, and some of it is pressed into a small stereo record that is bound into National Geographic. "That's 10 million copies," said Payne. "Whales have gone platinum 10 1/2 times. When a record sells a million copies, they call it platinum, but the industry has no words for a number like this. Maybe if a pop record ever sells 10 million copies, you could say it has gone whale." The earlier record has sold about 125,000 copies - a hit but not platinum.
He describes whale music as "the longest, loudest, slowest music made by any creature," and notes that whales are unique among music-making animals in that they change their song within a fixed set of structural laws. The Humpback song is powerful (audible up to about 30 miles in some conditions), but hardly the most powerful sound produced by a living creature. The Finback Whale generates a 20 cycle tone that used to be audible for thousands of miles underwater before propellers and other human devices brought noice pollution to the ocean's depths.
Scientists tend to think that the Humpback whale's song may have something to do with mating, but they don't really know. What is known is that only adoult Humpbacks sing, only at night and only when they are alone. Usually, after the song has been going on for a while, another Humpback will swim up and the two whales will go off together for purposes which they do not divulge to nosy scientists.
Nobody can say whether there is informational content in the music or it means simply, "I am here," and human listeners have not yet become sophisticated enough to tell one whale from another by the way he (or she) sings.
"One thing we know is that all whale songs follow the same structural principles, but the content of the songs around Hawaii is different from the songs around Bermuda," Payne says. "All the whales in a given area sing the same song, but some sing it better than others. At the begining of a season, some don't know all the parts, but by the end of the season everyone is able to sing it all the way through. Whale songs usually last from 15 to 30 minutes, but exceptionally you can sometimes hear one as short as six minutes."
Presumably the sound is made by vibrating air masses within the whale, and Payne said that "there are no vocal cords but lots of fancy plumbing inside a whale's head that could produce sound."
"One thing we wonder is whether one whale-Beethoven does all the composing for a particular group or it is a community effort. But the component units within a song change during the season according to an absolutely predictable law and everyone follows the changes. Perhaps one of the functions of that huge 20-pound brain is to keep track of changes in the song."
Sylvia Earle, who has been within 20 feet of a whale while it was singing, describes the experience as "overpowering - you can feel the sound, it's so intense, like a jet engine running at full power."
Whale songs in the Bermuda region have been recorded for the last 20 years, and by analyzing them Payne has determined that the songs change constantly during the sining season but remain petrified during the six months when whales do not sing. Then, at the begining of the next season, the song starts up again in exactly the same form as it had at the end of the last season.
"We can't be sure on the basis of only 2 years' evidence, but it looks quite possible that what we have is really the same song, slowly growing and changing, that may have been sung for the last 50 million years."
Earle adds a rather sad concluding note: "For whatever it's worth, the songs of the '60s are much more beautiful to human ears than the songs of the '70s."
Some people feel that way about human songs, too. CAPTION: Picture 1, no caption; Picture 2, Roger Payne and Sylvia Earle, and top, a Humpback Whale performing a back flip; all photos Copyright (c) National Geographic Society; Picture 3, Painting, Preparing a net of bubbles to catch its next meal, a Humpback Whale begins about 50 feet deep and forces bursts of air through its blowhole while swimming in an upward spiral. The cylinder of rising bubbles traps small fish and krill in the center and the whale then surfaces fordinner. At left. Sylvia Earle and Roger Payne. Painting and photo Copyright (c) National Geographic Society