Do Belugas Say Hello?

June 24, 2016 David Rothenberg

In these excerpts taken from “Thousand Mile Song” by David Rothenberg, the author stumbles across an interesting finding that could provide clues into beluga communication. Republished with permission from the author. 


The beluga whale, whose name means “the white one” in Russian, might be one of the best species to try to make music with. Their wide range of whistles, clicks, and buzzes is far more diverse than the dolphins, whose sounds and behavior have been studied the most. In 1585 the Dutch traveler Adriaen Coenen wrote that their “voice sounds like the sighing of humans… If a storm is imminent they play on the surface of the water and they are said to lament when they are caught… They like to hear music played on the lute, harp, flute, and similar instruments.” Even in the sixteenth century people played concerts to the whales! For a long time people have sense that these animals are intrigued enough by human life to enjoy listening to our songs.

There are many places where belugas are… kept in aquariums and marine parks, from Vancouver, Mystic and Atlanta, to Valencia in Spain and Kanagawa in Japan. It was the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago that offered the most encouraging response when I asked them if I might play some music to their whales. Ken Ramirez, chief animal trainer and vice president of marine mammals, wrote me back a detailed series of questions to test the nature of my interest. Why belugas? I answered immediately: because they are known for their vocal ability and interactivity. How will you be communicating with them? Play the clarinet into a microphone, plug the microphone into an amplifier, the amp into an underwater speaker, dunk the speaker down into the pool and let the whales hear it. How will you record the interaction? Stick a hydrophone into the water and feed the results into a digital recorder…

I assemble all my gear and lay it out on the wet concrete floor. The whales are already giving me curious looks. The hydrophone is dropped down inside a mesh net so they won’t try to swallow it – I’d heard some other aquaria had lost some equipment that way! The underwater speaker is only a few pounds in weight, but we’re advised to hang it off a rope rather than let its own cable hold it down there. The rest is above water. I put on a pair of full-coverage padded headphones and immediately hear a rumbling rush of scratches and waves. Who would imagine a calm aquarium could produce so much noise?

I spend three long mornings wearing these phones, listening in on the underpool world. There are sporadic beluga honks, whistles, burps, and shrieks. I try the clarinet, and the louder, more glistening soprano saxophone. Sometimes the whales seem to notice that shinier instrument. It’s louder, and a bit more impressive to look at. They come out of the water to check it out up close. I don’t play it as well as I do the clarinet, so for me trying is more of an homage to Paul Winter and Wayne Shorter than anything else.

On the first day, no response from the whales. But Ken thinks otherwise: “Look, every time you stop, here comes our pregnant whale. She always looks at you while you play, and she always comes over when you stop.”

I wanted more. “Is this as noisy as they get?”

Ken smiled, “Oh no, sometimes it’s just a cacophony of sound here. So loud you can’t hear yourself talk.”

Second day, many quizzical whale looks, hours of recording, still no audible answer. I just keep trying.

Only on the third day do I get a result. One particular note, a G just above middle C. The pregnant whale hears me play that sound, and a few seconds later, she appears to copy it almost exactly.

I play “buweeah, buweeah” and I hear back “heyaaah, heyaaah.” The sonogram shows that the overtone structure is quite close to what I am doing – not just the pitch, but the phrasing as well. To me the whale has definitely listened and learned. Why? Does something about that sound matter to her in particular?

*   *   *

A few months later I am trying the same thing thousands of miles away in the Russian Arctic at the shores of the White Sea. We spend several days in the sweltering cabin and eagerly wake up every morning to walk along the shore to Cape Beluga [in Karelia, Russia]. When the sea is rocky and rough, the waves sharp and white, whales do not appear. When the water is smooth, the distant islands seem to float on the surface. At high tide, the whales appear, right on schedule. It might be night or day, but it is nearly always light this far north. When they hear me play, some kind of aural response happens. This isn’t science, so I can’t be rigorous or conclusive about it; I have hardly any data. I listen to decide if the result of our encounter is musically interesting.

At one point I try the same middle G the whale in Chicago copied after hearing it for three days. Right away there is a response! Either that sound is easy for belugas to master, or it is already a tone that means something to them. Either way, I feel as if I’m getting through. The whale and I share a sound for a moment or two.



Photo by Jason Farrar.