Spying on Whales by Nick Pyenson Read Online (FREE)
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At this very moment, two spacecraft move at over thirty-four thousand miles per hour, about ten billon miles away from us, each carrying a gold-plated copper record. The spacecraft, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, are meant as messengers: they carry information about our address in the solar system, the building blocks of our scientific knowledge, and a small sampling of images, music, and greetings from around the world. They also carry whalesong.
The long squeaks and moans on the record belong to humpback whales. In the 1970s, when the Voyager mission launched, our view of whales was rapidly changing, from game animals to cultural icons and symbols of a nascent environmental movement. Scientists had recently discovered that male humpbacks produce complex songs, composed of phrases collected under broader themes, nested like Russian dolls that repeat in a loop. Humpback whalesong has evolved even since we started listening as each new singer improvises on the loop, creating new structures and hierarchies that constantly change over years, and across ocean basins.
Whalesong, however, remains a riddle to anyone who isn’t a humpback whale. We can capture its variation, details, and complexity, but we don’t know what any of it truly means. We lack the requisite context to decipher and understand it—or, really, any part of cetacean culture. Even so, we send whalesong into interstellar space because the creatures that sing these songs are superlative beings that fill us with awe, terror, and affection. We have hunted them for thousands of years and scratched them into our mythologies and iconography. Their bones frame the archways of medieval castles. They’re so compelling that we imagine aliens might find them interesting—or perhaps understand their otherworldly, ethereal song.
In the meantime, whales here on Earth remain mysterious. They live 99 percent of their lives underwater, far away from continuous contact with people and beyond most of our observational tools. We tend to think about them only when we glimpse them from the safety of a boat, or when they wash up along our shores. They also have an evolutionary past that is surprising and incompletely known. For instance, they haven’t always been in the water. They descend from ancestors that lived on land, more than fifty million years ago. Since then, they transformed from four-limbed riverbank dwellers to ocean-going leviathans, in a chronicle we can read only from their fossil record, a puzzle of bone shards unevenly spread across the globe.
The little we have learned about whales leaves us unsatisfied because the scales of their lives and facts of their bodies are endlessly fascinating. They are the biggest animals on Earth, ever. Some can live more than twice as long as we do. Their migrations take them across entire oceans. Some whales pursue prey with a filter on the roof of their mouth, while others evolved the ability to navigate an abyss with sound. And then they speak to one another with impenetrable languages. All the while, in the short clip of our own history, we’ve moved from heedlessly hunting them to an awareness that they have culture, just as we do, and that our actions, both direct and indirect, put their fate in jeopardy.