How We Saved the Whales (With Pop Music)
Just 50 years ago, whales were on the verge of extinction. And nobody really cared. Then the music industry came to the rescue.
Everybody loves whales. These majestic marine mammals adorn our trapper keepers as much as they adorn our hearts. Whales are not only the largest vertebrates on the planet, they are some of the smartest, most socially complex organisms in the animal kingdom. And I don’t know about you but I’d definitely think twice about using them to fuel my lamps or feeding them to my cats.
But it wasn’t always that way.
For a long time, whales were thought of as — at best — diabolical sea monsters capable of sinking ships and biting the legs off of their fanatical captains, and — at worst — they were just big floating sacks of lamp oil or cat food.
But at some point, our opinion of these animals changed and everybody wanted to save the whales.
I mean, there’re plenty of endangered animals on this planet but sea turtles and white rhinos don’t have slogans as popular and ubiquitous as “Save the Whales”.
And we can thank the music industry for that.
But first let’s sing the praises of all the wonderful commodities a mighty whale can be turned into.
Even though the practice is as old as the pyramids, our modern commercial whaling industry only emerged in the 17th century. Back then, whales were mostly harvested for their blubber which was processed into lamp oil. Once we figured out that it was easier to get fuel out of the ground than the sea, the whale oil industry all but disappeared.
But just because we didn’t need them for lamp oil any more, didn’t mean we couldn’t use the whale for a whole variety of products. Their meat was an excellent source of vitamin C. Their bones could be ground up into fertilizer. A fresh whale carcass could be rendered into pet food or soap or industrial lubricant. Whale byproducts greased the innards of automatic transmissions and preserved firearms from rust and corrosion. But more than anything else, their blubber made a first-rate margarine.
Whales were seen as nothing more than big sea-going reservoirs of potential commercial products.
Over the course of the 20th century, commercial whaling killed off nearly 80% of the general whale population on Earth — and that’s a lower bound estimate. A whale was harpooned and slaughtered on average every 18 minutes. Many species were on the verge of extinction. 99% of all blue whales — the largest animals ever known to exist — were exterminated.
But the discovery of whale song changed all of that.
The first known account of whales singing goes back to 1882 when a whaling ship captain used it to track down his quarry in the Bering Strait.
But the significance and complexity of whale song wasn’t understood until much later.
During the beginning of the Cold War, the US military installed secret hydrophones — specialized underwater microphones — all over the ocean. They were hoping to be able to detect and track soviet submarines but they also compiled hours of the eerie, mysterious sounds made by whales.
To the military, it wasn’t anything more than noise.
But to Roger Payne, it was a revelation.
Payne was a bioacoustician. Up until this point, he had mostly studied echolocation in bats and owls but when the US military declassified their hydrophone recordings in the 60s, Payne was one of the first to obtain a copy. He quickly realized that whale song was much more complex than previously thought. These vocalizations — especially those of male humpback whales — showed repetition of phrases and themes — even rhyming. Just like a typical song — although a single whale’s song could last as long as 30 minutes or more and be sung repeatedly for 24 hours. And these songs could be heard across entire oceans. Using a spectrogram, Payne — along with his wife and colleague, Katy Payne — printed out these recordings and studied the shape of the waveform. They compared its complexity against that of other animal vocalizations and discovered almost nothing else in the animal kingdom even came close to whale song — except human music.
And in the Payne’s expert opinion, any animal capable of communicating at the level of a person should probably be treated like more than just a floating sack of potential margarine.
They only needed to get this idea out to the general public. And these whale songs seemed to be the perfect avenue. After all, if whales can make music like humans, maybe humans would like whale song — if they only heard it. So Roger Payne did what any savvy record producer would do in this situation — he released an album.
In 1970 Songs of the Humpback Whale debuted. It was a 34 minute compilation of recordings captured by the US military’s hydrophone network and by the Paynes themselves. This was at a time when a burgeoning environmentalist movement was just gaining momentum. Elements of psychedelic music had filtered up from the depths of the counterculture and begun to surface in the mainstream. Songs of the Humpback Whale managed to capitalize on the zeitgeist of both and it quickly became one of the top 200 bestselling albums. For the first time in history, a record composed and performed entirely by non-human artists had broken into the Billboard charts.
But then whale song began showing up in human music.
Singer-songwriter Judy Collins and pop artist Kate Bush both produced hit albums with samples of whale song in them. A pre-recorded choir of humpbacks performed alongside the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. As the plight of whales permeated the music industry, musicians as widely divergent as folk singer Pete Seeger and New York art rocker Lou Reed penned songs lamenting the extinction of these majestic beasts.
With the rise of New-age music, whale song became more than a novelty. It was practically its own music genre.
This might’ve been the greatest success of Songs of the Humpback Whale greatest success — its influence on the music industry as whole.
Whether it was through the album itself or via one of the artists that sampled it, for the vast majority, Songs of the Humpback Whale was their first exposure to whale song. The melancholy moans of humpback whales were so affecting, first-time listeners were moved to tears. Like the Paynes had hoped, almost everybody who listened to it could not deny that these were the cries of intelligent, thinking beings — not just a convenient source of cat food.
Whale song alone was enough to make the case that whales deserved to be protected. People just needed to hear it. But Payne hedged his bets. Each album came with 48 pages of liner notes expounding on their intelligence and cataloging the dangers these animals faced at the hands of humans. And it ensured that the wider public would never look at a whale and see a big stick of butter again.
In 1972, just two years after the album’s release, the US banned all whaling and whale derived products.
Soon “Save the Whales” became a rallying cry heard across the world.
A newly formed environmental activism group called Greenpeace used these recordings to recruit new members and raise funds. Eventually this culminated in a stand off between members of Greenpeace and a Soviet whaling fleet in 1975. Greenpeace maneuvered their own tiny vessels between the whales that were being hunted and the harpoons of the whalers. And all the while, from loudspeakers, they played Songs of the Humpback Whale.
In 1979, National Geographic included the album in one of their issues, printing ten million copies in 25 different languages. To this day, Songs of the Humpback Whale is the bestselling nature record in history, going platinum multiple times.
If you’ve ever heard whale song, chances are what you heard was from Songs of the Humpback Whale.
In 1977, selections from the album were included on NASA’s Golden Record. In August of 2012, the sounds of those whales left the solar system aboard the Voyager spacecraft.
There are very few human artists that can say their music has had as much of a reach and made as much of an impact as Songs of the Humpback Whale.
(Of course, it was more than just that album that saved the whales. But this is the internet and nuance is dead.)
The image of whales as intelligent, sympathetic creatures had been on the rise for a while. Flipper, the 60s TV series, portrayed dolphins as just as resourceful and lovable as Lassie — even though we now know they’re way smarter than a Border Collie.
These particular whale recordings have shown up in all kinds of media, from an episode of The Partridge Family to the movie Star Trek 4: The Voyage Home. The rise of aquariums and sea parks like Sea World gave the public first hand contact with these animals. Although SeaWorld and their ilk have their own problems, they made whales and dolphins more than just commodities to be harvested and consumed. They could be valuable alive. They could be entertainment.
A moratorium on the global commercial whaling industry went into effect in 1986. Not all countries adhered to the moratorium and whaling still exists but not to the extent it did before. A limited number of whales can still be hunted for scientific research but the market for whale butter is largely gone.
Today, towns where whaling used to be the number one employer have largely filled the economic gap left by the disappearance of the industry with whale watching tourism.
And whales lived happily ever after.
Even though they aren’t being hunted to extinction any longer, whales aren’t in the clear. Today, their populations are slowly being poisoned by chemical runoff and choking on increasing amounts of plastic and trash in the ocean.
Even the whale’s song is threatened.
Sound travels four times faster underwater than through the air. This is why whales rely on it so much. It’s the fastest, most reliable means of communication in their environment.
But this also means noise pollution can be a very real problem.
The exploratory blasting of oil and gas companies, military sonar, and the incessant drone of pistons and propellers pushing cargo ships back and forth across the ocean have all shoved whale song into the background.
And this is more than just an aesthetic nuisance — noise pollution can kill.
Active sonar causes whales to panic, making them surface too quickly. This can result in decompression sickness. Or sonar pulses can drive pods of whales into the shore where they beach themselves and die.
In an environment where visibility is often at a premium, whales use sound to navigate, find food, and keep in contact with each other. Although we’re not exactly sure why whales sing, attracting mates may be one purpose. Now their songs are being drowned out by a sea of human-made noise. And if whales can’t hear each other, they can’t find each other. And whales that can’t find each other, can’t reproduce.
Many whale populations have simplified their whale songs in order to cut through the noise. Some have gone quiet — unable to compete with the increasing levels of human racket.
So now we might be losing the very songs that saved these animals in the first place.
Everybody loves a good love song. That’s what most of the songs on the radio are about. Although we can’t know for sure, at least some of the tracks on Songs of the Humpback Whale are probably love songs. They were produced by male humpbacks during the breeding season after all. Maybe that’s why we liked them so much. But in the end, it didn’t really matter. We didn’t need to understand what they were about to understand their significance. All we had to do was listen.
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