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Serenading Belugas in the White Sea

Rhapsody in Beluga

by David Rothenberg

Photographs by Anna Koivisto

Published in the January/February 2008 issue of Orion magazine

Note: Gari Saarimaki created a short video of this journey…

FINALLY SOME GOOD NEWS—someone is going to help me play music with whales instead of warning me that it’s against the law. According to the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act, all “harassment” of marine mammals is illegal, including my idea of playing live music to them just to see what happens. But there are still places beyond the grip of the law.

“You should come with us to Russia, to find the white whales of the White Sea,” says my Finnish physicist friend Rauno over the phone from his Swiss laboratory. “No government will bother us there. Next summer we’re going to have divers wearing white suits. We think white is an important color for the belugas, and they might like us more if we’re wearing white.” I was intrigued. “There are exactly seven spots in the White Sea where the belugas definitely congregate in the summer months,” Rauno continued. “Next summer we’re trying out a new one, the island of Myagostrov. This is the Republic of Karelia—what, you haven’t heard of it? Be prepared for a journey back in time of at least one hundred years.”

It sounded like the perfect place to continue my musical investigation. Over the years, I’ve come to think that animal sounds share more characteristics with music than with human language. Each phrase sung by birds, wolves, cicadas, or dolphins must be performed correctly to convey its message, but we humans can never translate exactly what is said. This has led me to believe that music might be a useful way to communicate with animals, and thus extend human art into the natural world, hoping for a connection, a response. I started testing this theory by playing with birds, and now I’m ready to try it with the most intricate musicians of the wild world: whales. Because they live underwater, there are additional challenges—such as how to do it without getting my clarinet all wet.

The beluga whale, whose name means “the white one” in Russian, might be one of the best species to try to make music with. Called sea canaries by sailors who frequented the Arctic regions, their wide range of whistles, clicks, and buzzes is far more diverse than the vocalizations of 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.” Coenen also wrote that “They like to hear music played on the lute, harp, flute, and similar instruments.” That’s probably the clearest and oldest evidence that my idea of playing to cetaceans is nothing new. In the sixteenth century people made music with whales! They must have sensed that, whether or not these animals are intelligent, they are interested enough in human life to enjoy paying attention to us while we play.

It is well known that belugas make more varied sounds than other whale species, many of them easily heard by the human ear from above the water. Because of the vast complexity of these sounds, it has proven difficult for humans to categorize them well. In 1994, Cheri Ann Recchia described the basic kinds of sounds made by the captive belugas she studied as clicks, yelps, chirps, whistles, trills, screams, and a sound she called buzzsaw. In the early 1980s, Canadian scientists Becky Sjare and Thomas Smith conducted an exhaustive survey of the vocal repertoire of white whales summering in Cunningham Inlet near Baffin Island, and they found clicks, pulses, noises, trills, and a variety of whistles, which they described in great detail. Some sounded like fragments of scales, with clear pitches, and others were whoops and cries, rising up and falling down in various clear patterns. Some warbled all over the place. They found no real correlation between particular sounds and particular behaviors. In fact, for all the statistics collected on beluga sounds, their complex music, or language, seems more inscrutable than the code of any other whale.

RAUNO’S PLANS ARE COMING TOGETHER. “I don’t think the white suits will yet be ready this summer,” he apologizes. “We are going to focus on your interests, playing sound to the whales. I am really curious as to what they will do.”

Officially, Rauno is a physicist, designing experiments for the new supercollider at CERN, the world’s largest particle physics laboratory near Geneva. But he has been interested in whales ever since he took his eight-year-old son whale-watching in Norway fifteen years ago—a time when whale populations had been decimated worldwide by extensively mechanized hunting. On the drive home to Finland the boy said, “Papa, couldn’t we do something to save those whales?” The father thought a moment and decided, “Yes, we can. It won’t even be all that difficult.” This was in 1990, the very earliest days of the Internet, at first a way for scientists from all over the world to keep in close contact with each other. The Web itself was developed at CERN, and one of the very first not-quite-academic Web pages was Rauno’s Whale-Watching Web, which he is still maintaining at It still looks like one of the world’s first Web pages, too—all text, no bells and whistles, just lots and lots of links.

“At first it was just a place to present information on whale-watching companies all over the world,” says Rauno. “Then it expanded to whales in literature, proverbs on whales, pictures and sounds of whales. If I look back to my own childhood, I remember a photograph in a Finnish Reader’s Digest in an article by John Lilly of the dolphin brain compared to a human brain, and they were so similar. Dolphins are, of course, just small whales.”

When not ensconced deep in the laboratory, Rauno travels around the world, often to areas frequented by whales where the local human inhabitants haven’t given much thought to the great animals as assets to tourism. Rauno then helps the locals start up whale-watching as an industry. He’s done this in the Azores, and now hopes to do the same in Karelia, one of the lesser-known Russian republics, located just east of Finland.

THE JOURNEY TO THE KARLIAN VILLAGE of Kolezhma from the Finnish border takes about two days, driving on roads of questionable quality. We pass through the capital city of Petrozavodsk, where no one has bothered to take down the statue of Lenin, and there is still an avenue called Pravda Street. The drive north from there is nearly all through deserted spruce forest, home to little more than undernourished moose and squirrels. We turn along the Stalin Canal, dug by hand in the early days of the revolution, a massive testament to human forced labor. It is a man-made river of tears, hard to conceive. “We prefer not to dwell on this history,” says our young guide, Sasha Velikoselsky, who is practicing his jaw harp to play to the whales.

We pass a museum of petroglyphs, a concrete edifice built to protect an important story-rock, now boarded up because there is no money to keep it open. Russia has many more things to worry about than its history, either ancient or modern.

At the edge of the sea, in the crumbling industrial town of Belomorsk, we turn east on a tiny dirt road for the final two-hour drive to Kolezhma. Each bridge is made entirely of wood, huge straight timbers, and we stop to check for missing slats before we cross. They all seem okay—some just barely. At the end of the fifty-mile road, the outpost of Kolezhma is more beautiful and distant than one could imagine. Everything is weathered, unpainted wood. It’s not clear what people can do out here except endure, grow their own food, and stay alive. Several hundred reside here and hardly anyone leaves.

Rauno has big ideas. “This place is going to be the whale-watching capital of the White Sea!” he gestures wildly. “Look at this, we’re back in the Russia of nineteenth-century novels. There’s nowhere in Finland like this, people will pay many Euros to see it, and that’s the only choice because,” with a sinister grin, “nothing can stop the green snake of Das Kapitalismus from rearing its ugly head.”

Green snake?

“The whales as they are can bring prosperity here. Come, I will show you! The boat is ready for our transport to the island of Myagostrov.”

We load our gear into a rusty green metal boat that resembles an above-water submarine, having to hurry because the trip can only be made when the tide is high. Sitting inside the hull, I feel as if I’ve leapt from the nineteenth century to the middle of World War II. It’s placid now, but this was a ravaged wilderness during the war. With Finland and the Soviets in constant conflict, civilization was going to pieces here. Today the surface of the sea is smooth and gray. It looks like it should be cold out, but the air is nearly ninety degrees.

It’s a slow two-hour boat ride to the northern tip of Myagostrov Island. The rocky point is marked “Cape Beluga” on the map, one of those seven spots in the White Sea where belugas congregate in summer when the tide is high. A mile to the west is a series of weather-beaten cabins, one of which looks brand new.

“That’s the sauna,” beams Rauno. “They built it all in one day last week, just for us.”

“Jesus, I hope it’s not too Russian,” says Gari, our videographer.

“What do you mean?”

“You know, the kind of place where they also keep animals or hang the salamis up to dry.”

We can’t take the boat too close to shore so we anchor a hundred yards out, take off our shoes, and start carrying in the huge amount of gear we’ve got, box by box. Boat batteries, inverters, video equipment, five cases of beer (one for each day), sleeping bags, food, hydrophones, saxophones. We’re walking through mud and over slick, smelly, algae-ridden rocks. The shore is awash with mosquitoes and flies. “Careful,” warns one of the boatmen, “the woods are full of tiny poisonous snakes.”

Green capitalist snakes?

Inside the cabin it’s even warmer than outside. Who would think you could sweat so much so close to the Arctic Circle? At night it’s so hot and the bugs buzz so ferociously around my ears that sleep is well nigh impossible. Plus, of course, it never gets dark. I’m hiding in my down bag to keep the midges at bay, perspiring profusely. Who could think of a sauna in this weather? I keep telling myself that as soon as the hour gets reasonable I’ll just get up and plunge into the sea. Finally it’s four-thirty a.m. That seems late enough. I jump out of the bag, run outside—what? The sea is a quarter mile off, the tide is so low. Forget about it.

Later that morning we take a dinghy over to the cape to install the hydrophones and the speaker. It’s a different world over there, smooth pink granite, a nice breeze, just a few deer- (or are they moose-?) flies to reckon with. The plan is to plug the microphone into an amplifier, the amp into an underwater speaker, and dunk the speaker into the water so the whales can hear me play. Then we’ll stick a hydrophone into the water and feed the underwater sounds into a set of earphones so I can hear them. The results will be captured using a digital recorder.

The hydrophones are dangled from buoys with ropes. The underwater speaker is suspended from a pole that looks like a broken fishing rod. The tide comes rapidly up.

On the hill above us we notice a small wooden lean-to. Three figures stand there, silently watching us. A ten-minute run up the lichen-covered boulders and we find Russian photographer and whale expert Aleksandr Agafonov, a bushy-bearded fellow with a wide-brimmed hat and a plaid shirt. We expected he would be there, along with two young assistants. He was sent by the Shirshov Institute of Oceanology in Moscow to spend a month watching belugas from this craggy hilltop. To watch the whales, and perhaps to watch us as well. I offer him a copy of the book Dolphin Societies, which contains several papers from the Shirshov Institute, translated into English, on the behavior of dolphins. Agafonov is one of the authors, and he’s never seen the book before.

“Da,” he smiles. “We will watch and listen to the whales. And we shall listen to you making music with the whales. It will be interesting to all.”

Back at the shore, I get out my clarinet, put on the headphones, listen to the rumble and thlack of wave against rock. This is no placid sea today. I take in the noise, wait, and wait some more. Then, I hear them before I see them . . .

“Guys, get the cameras out, they’re coming.” First just light-colored dots on the horizon, the shapes move closer and closer. The whiteness of belugas is astonishing and beautiful, though anyone steeped in whale lore will remember Ishmael’s claim that it is the very hue of Moby Dick that is his most terrible feature: “not so much a color as the visible absence of color, and at the same time the concrete of all colors . . . a dumb blankness, full of meaning—a colorless, all-color of atheism from which we shrink.” As for the White Sea, it is not white at all but a dull gray, an even deeper sense of colorlessness, which grows more hollow with thoughts of recent history.

Just seventy miles to the north lies a low trace of land: the Solovetsky Islands. Dubbed the “Gulag Archipelago” by Solzhenitsyn, they hosted the central administrative facility of the Soviet prison camp system. The main building has now been returned to its original purpose, an important monastery of the Russian Orthodox Church, and it is another good place to watch for beluga whales. Why dwell on what is hopefully just an aberration in human history? Whales do not do such terrible things to each other, which is why John Lilly thought they were far more intelligent than we.

The younger whales are gray, blending in with the sad surface of the sea. Through the headphones I catch glimpses into their amazing world of sound. Above the heavy thumping of the burbling waves bashing on the rocks, I hear splendid downward sweeps, high whistles at the upper limits of human hearing—pings and bleeps, new senses of rhythm and order, new beauties in tone and kick. But I do have to strain to pick out the whales through the wash of underwater noise. As I play, I seem to leave my body on land and travel through sound into the cold swirling waters.

In the midst of all the White Sea noise are glimmers of intention. Is there really anything musical about them? A whale sings, a clarinet rings. The sounds overlap and connect. I smile, listen, and play again.

I imagine the whale is responding to me, but that may just be a human conceit. What care could the white whales really have for us? These animals can detect the precise outlines of complex objects entirely through the echoes rebounding from the sounds they emit. Through their own scratchy musical phrases, they may be able to send descriptions of what they sense to each other. We really don’t know.

One thing seems clear: they are audibly fascinated with sound. They scream, wail, cry, and click. It is an alien improvisation, a strange musical style that is here for us to ponder, and possibly, some day, decode. The more I listen to the belugas and find my own multiphonic shrieks that merge with theirs, the more I crave this new underwater music.

I can’t sit still, have to get up, move around, dance a bit while I reach out to the whales, remembering an old Karelian proverb, Kundele korvilla ela perziel, “Listen with your ears, not your ass.”

Before coming to Karelia, I spent three days at Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium, where I tested my equipment and played clarinet to the captive belugas there. On the first day, no response seemed to come from the whales, but by the third day, one pregnant whale was inclined to copy one of my notes exactly, a middle G. Later I analyzed a sonogram of the encounter and was able to see how closely the whale note resembled the clarinet note—not just the pitch, but the phrasing. The sonogram showed that the overtone structure, the real timbre or color of the sound, was quite close to what I was playing. The whale had definitely listened and given her response.

In the White Sea I try the same tone and right away there is a response! Either that sound is easy for belugas to master, or it is already a pitch that means something to them. This isn’t science, so I can’t be rigorous or conclusive about it, but I feel as if I am getting through.

A whale and I share a note for a moment or two.

It’s all music if I follow the lessons of John Cage and listen to the interconnected patterns of sound all around as the strands of a vast natural symphony where overlapping intention forms the music of what happens. After five days wearing headphones, trying to reach out to belugas, my whole notion of what can be music begins to change. I am listening beyond the edge of my species and trying to find my part in the vast and noisy underwater soundscape.

It reminds me of a story told about the great soprano sax player Sidney Bechet, who lived in Paris in the 1950s. He would practice scales and arpeggios for hours every day, but at the end of his sessions he would pause, and then launch into wild, shrieking animal sounds for the final minutes. A neighbor once asked him about this and Bechet responded, “Sometimes I think what we call music is not the real music.”

Rauno is lying back on the warm rocks, enjoying the sun. “I need this kind of experiment as a break from all that tinkering in the lab.” He compares my quest to trying to find new particles in the printouts from linear accelerators—“although in physics there is a lot more noise than this. A hundred times more.”

Agafonov comes running down from the hilltop. “We have been listening. The belugas are definitely responding,” he exclaims. “Perhaps music is a better way than language for humans to communicate to these whales.” Excited muttering all around. The tapes will be sent to Moscow, to be analyzed in the laboratory. We will get to the bottom of this.

MOSCOW IN WINTER IS FAMOUS for bitter cold and heavy snow, but this winter it is warm enough to be only gray and rainy. I see none of the opulent excess too often described in the Western press, just crowds of people shuffling through gray streets, crumbling buildings, heavy traffic, and sense that here is a system that no longer works.

The subways, grand and precise, are the exception: Stalin’s pride. They still seem to run on time, and the rush of bodies underground is more intense than anywhere I have been save New York. I’ve come to visit Agafonov, who lives with his mother in a tiny apartment not far from the biggest market of illegal MP3 disks in the world. “I’m fifty years old, and I’ve been married twice,” he offers, smiling. “Neither of my wives could appreciate how much work I have to do.” Agafonov studies belugas only part of the time. His main job is at the Russian Union of Art Photographers, of which he is the president. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, there is no longer much support for culture or science. “But we are free, and this is much better. We Russians always find a way to get by.”

The photographers’ union used to be located in a grand old house, but now it is in the basement of an apartment building near the Tekhnika subway stop. Nicer, says Agafonov, than the Oceanology Institute. So he has chosen it as the place to gather Russia’s best whale researchers to present their work and hear about our findings from the previous summer in the White Sea.

Vladimir Baranov shows a video he made off of Solovetsky, using a special seafloor-mounted camera, of svelte white whales nuzzling each other—beluga mating in action. “Da, look he slidez up next to her and then sticks it in, voila! Then he svims away, and back, does it von more time just to be sure!” I feel as if I am seeing something made thirty years ago. “Zhis video is especially popular with the ladies . . .” and he takes another swig of vodka.

Roman Belikov presents his doctoral thesis on beluga sounds, the most extensive analysis of its kind. He has found six basic types of beluga sounds: creak, bleat, chirp, squeak, whistle, and vowel. In social interaction between whales there is more bleating, chirping, and whistling. There is plenty of chirping during beluga sex, but absolutely no bleating. The most vowel sounds are heard during tranquil swimming. The vowels are the one kind of sound the Russians have found that was not similarly categorized by Canadian scientists. They are a kind of sound few researchers have identified in any other whale, or any other animal, for that matter. In the belugas, the Russians heard these basic vowels: ah, eh, uh, o, u, and ee. Because these sounds seem to be distinctive, not shared, Belikov believes they can be the key to identifying individual whales interacting in a group. Belugas may have signature vowels in the same way that dolphins have signature whistles.

I play my two best recordings from the summer. During the first encounter the belugas whistle and growl in the midst of the noisy thlacks of waves against rock. They are not ignoring me, but the overwhelming sense is of a clarinetist playing in a strange, sound-filled uncertainty. No sound they make can be characterized; no tone I try out has a place. We’re playing at and around each other.

The second recording has the underwater sound in the left channel and the above-surface sound in the right. In the human world there is mumbling, wind, and a tentative clarinet. There is the clarinet’s G, and faintly, in the other channel, a beluga answers, just as I remember. The same note is there, with a distant hollowness. 

I ask Roman whether he thinks music has any place in the attempt to understand the world of beluga sound. “Belugas are very complicated subjects for investigation,” says Belikov. “Perhaps we will one day be able to know as much about their behavior as we do about orca sounds, but I have some doubts. If everything would be so easy, then all problems would have been already resolved. Everything is very elusive in beluga signals.”

Agafonov presents the sounds and videos he has assembled from the previous summer’s extensive observations—a catalogue of fabulous noises. It takes a little more effort to find music in it, but when we do, beauty starts to appear.

As for the clarinet and the whale? “I’m afraid there is not yet enough data. You must come back with us next summer. And maybe the summer after that.”

Baranov pours another round: “Let us vatch the film again, zhis time with musik only, very relaxing.” A strange dissonant soundtrack comes on, dark electronic chords, the whales cavorting around the camera, looking us in the eye, wondering what strange machines we will come up with next. A middle G swirls around in my head and the whales cry up and around it, occasionally copying the one simple tone that found a way into their world.

One day we may know more. One note is not enough.


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David Rothenberg is the author of Why Birds Sing, The Book of Music and Nature, and also has six CDs to his name. His next book and CD, Thousand Mile Song, will be published in spring 2008. He released Whale Music, a CD, in early 2008.

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