May 17, 2013, by Hank Lentfer
This sound is as wet, wild, and weird as a voice can get. It was picked up by a hydrophone anchored to the bottom of Glacier Bay. Five miles of cable snakes past bathtub-sized halibut, colorful starfish, fluorescent sea pens, clacking crabs, snapping shrimp, and clam siphons the size of your wrist, and eventually plugs into a set of speakers continually spilling sound into the little corner office of my friend and neighbor Chris Gabriele—who, as a scientist for the Park Service, has devoted her life to trying to fathom what motivates humpback whales to do all the bizarre things they do. That’s a lot of cable out there, I say. For a whale, explains Chris, it’s all about sound; the acoustic habitat is like a tree to a robin, a rock to a barnacle.
Chris calls me up sometimes, says “Listen to this,” and holds her phone to those speakers while I press mine to my head as it fills with whooping hoots, bellowing groans, clicks the size of a federal building, and any manner of indescribable noises emanating from some school bus-sized winged-whale lurking in the cold depths. Sometimes Chris just leaves her phone by the speakers and goes back to her research paper due on Friday, and I let the dishwater get cold and just sit on the couch listening and grinning.
Later, while Chris is pulling the first spring weeds from her garden, I wander over and ask how they make all that racket. Do they use their lips? Nope, says Chris, a vocalizing whale makes no bubbles. They have a huge, expandable larynx. Far as we know, they’re passing air back and forth between mouth, larynx, and lungs—making all those sounds along the way. The laryngeal sac probably serves as a resonating chamber, making those deep bass notes.
“How big is that sac?” I ask. “Could you get a cat in there? A border collie?”
“When the sac’s inflated a sheep could wander around in there,” says Chris.
“Shorn or unshorn?” I ask.
“Wool and all,” says Chris.
So, here you have it: a sound first generated underwater by air trumpeting through airways a farm animal could get lost in, then getting picked up by the hydrophone with the five-mile cable, then Chris setting down her coffee cup to reach over and hit the record button—and now someone in Pittsburgh can listen in. Makes you wonder what that whale might say if he knew we’re all listening.
(P.S. Don’t listen through those little speakers built into your laptop. Plug into better speakers or untangle a set of ear buds. It’s worth the effort. The sound is that wet, wild, and weird.)
Hank Lentfer is the author of Faith of Cranes. He lives on a creek bank in Gustavus, Alaska.