Humpback serenade

Dr Lou Luddington is a marine biologist, nature photographer and writer living aboard a sailboat, the Noctiluca, on the move and travelling the ocean in search of stories and adventure. In this column, she writes about the significance of whale songs in Guadeloupe near the Cousteau Marine Reserve.

Words and photograph by Lou Luddington

I rush up the dive ladder, pulling off my mask and snorkel, eager to share with Tom: “I think I just heard a humpback singing! Dive down a few metres and listen!”

It’s late February and we’re anchored off the west coast of Guadeloupe near the Cousteau Marine Reserve. We’d been drawn here by the promise of good snorkelling and freediving but I hadn’t heard that humpback whales plied these waters. In the days following that first swim, our freedives are accompanied by a soundtrack of whale song, sometimes faint, barely perceptible but unmistakably there. On other days we are surrounded, and bathed in their melodies, the vibrations soaking into my very being, stirring my heart. The squeaks, groans and howls of these unseen ocean giants permeate from the deep. Their unfathomable sentiment moves me so deeply that when I leave the water my mind does not. Back on the boat my thoughts drift among the whales, preoccupied with their life and culture. Compelled to explore this rich acoustic glimpse of whalehood, I’m not surprised to learn that humpback whale vocalisation has been captivating scientists for decades. 

During the 1960s bioacoustic scientists Roger and Katy Payne and colleagues realised that humpback whales off Bermuda were making sounds in rhythmic patterns of repeated notes. Just like the melodic vocalisations of male songbirds, they were creating songs. This discovery moved Roger Payne profoundly and he knew that if he shared his recordings with the world, others would be captivated too. At that time commercial whaling was at its peak and decimating whale populations worldwide. If he could create empathy for these sentient, culturally rich underwater songsters, maybe his work would have the environmental impact he longed for. He produced an album of whale songs which became a global sensation selling hundreds of thousands of copies.

So, what were the whales I heard doing in Guadeloupe waters? Although female humpback whales make other vocalisation sounds, like female songbirds, they do not sing. The males on the other hand compose and perform the longest and most complex songs in the animal kingdom. Their songs are repeated over and over and can last for hours featuring various themes sung in a sequence that is common to all males in the same breeding area. During the winter mating season, the songs gradually change as each male adds their own improvisations. The result is an ever-evolving medley and a new song each year. Although there are various theories as to why they sing, it is widely thought to be associated with breeding. 

These south-eastern Caribbean whales are part of the North Atlantic population that undergo seasonal migrations between summer feeding and winter breeding grounds. From tagging, sightings and records of fluke patterns, scientists have recently surmised that these whales head to the eastern North Atlantic. Whales wintering in Guadeloupe migrate more than 4,000 nautical miles to reach the waters of Norway and Iceland where they spend the northern hemisphere summer gorging and replenishing fat reserves. Come autumn, they set off again for the return journey to spend the months of February to May breeding and calving in the shallow warm waters of the Lesser Antilles. It’s quite a routine to maintain, clocking up tens of thousands of miles in their long lifetimes; in fact, humpbacks undergo the longest recorded migration of any mammal. 

It’s sobering to think that historically this chain of islands, from Guadeloupe to the north coast of Venezuela, formed the heart of humpback whaling. Roger Payne is widely credited with sparking the global campaign to save the whales that ultimately led to the International Whaling Commission (IWC) placing a ban on commercial whaling in 1982. Although humpback numbers are now low in the area and most spend winter in the western Caribbean, it’s reassuring to know that they are now safe from the harpoons of whalers. That’s what I thought anyway. 

Seven months later, we are sailing in St Vincent and the Grenadines (SVGs), a small archipelago nation just 200 nautical miles to the south of Guadeloupe. I discover whale bay on the north coast of St Vincent. A quick Google search reveals a story I was not expecting. As well as being a hotspot for whale watching, the SVGs are among four countries that currently have permission from the IWC to practise artisanal or aboriginal subsistence whaling (the others are Denmark, Russia, and the USA). It turns out there are two operations in the SVGs, one focusing on small cetaceans based at Barrouille St Vincent, the other targets migratory humpback whales and is based on the island of Bequia to the south of St Vincent. The IWC currently allows a maximum of four humpback whales per year to be taken by Bequia-based whalers, in small sail-powered craft and harpooned by hand. It’s a perilous pursuit surrounded by contention over its sustainability and legitimacy as an aboriginal activity. Prior to European colonisations and American commercial whaling, the Caribbean islanders did not hunt whales. Even from a purely financial viewpoint, surely a humpback whale is worth much more alive, enthralling visitors on whale tour boats? My faith lies with the next generation of Bequians to finally put an end to whaling in the Grenadines

Issue 27
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This column appears in ISSUE 27: Mission Deep of Oceanographic Magazine

Issue 27
Supported by WEBSITE_sponsorlogos_blancpain
Supported by WEBSITE_sponsorlogos_blancpain

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