The Whales

Up to 1846, the best lighting fuel was sperm whale oil. And the best lamp was a whale oil lamp, then kerosene lamps became the last word in lighting and were widely used, particularly in Canada. In 1854, Gesner patented his process and formed the North American kerosene gas light Co. and the whole world moved into a kerosene age.

The primary danger to the whales is a newcomer, an upstart animal, only recently, through technology, become competent in the oceans, a creature that calls itself human. For 99,99 percent of the history of the whales, there were no humans in or on the deep oceans. During this period the whales evolved their extraordinary audio communication system. The finbacks, for example, emit extremely loud sounds at a frequency of twenty Hertz, down near the lowest octave on the piano keyboard (a Hertz is a unit of sound frequency that represents one sound wave, one crest and one trough, entering your ear every second).

Such low-frequency sounds are scarcely absorbed in the ocean. The American biologist Roger Payne has calculated that using the deep ocean sound channel, two whales could communicate with each other at twenty Hertz essentially anywhere in the world. One may be off the Ross Ice Shelf in Antarctica and communicate with another in the Aleutians. For most of their history, the whales may have established a global communications network. Perhaps, when separated by 15,000 kilometers, their vocalisations are love songs, cast hopefully into the vastness of the deep.

For tens of millions of years these enormous, intelligent, communicative creatures evolved with essentially no natural enemies. Then the development of the steamship in the nineteenth century introduced an ominous source of noise pollution. As commercial and military vessels became more abundant, the noise background in the oceans, especially at a frequency of twenty Hertz, became noticeable. Whales communicating across the oceans must have experienced increasingly greater difficulties. The distance over which they could communicate must have decreased steadily. Two hundred years ago, a typical distance across which finbacks could communicate was perhaps 10,000 kilometers. Do whales know each other’s name? Can they recognize each other as individuals by sound alone? We have cut the whales off from themselves. Creatures that communicated for tens of millions of years have now effectively been silenced.

And we have done worse than that, because there persists to this day a traffic in the dead bodies of whales. There are humans who hunt and slaughter whales and market the products for lipstick or industrial lubricant. Many nations understand that the systematic murder of such intelligent creatures is monstrous, but the traffic continues, promoted in the 20th century chiefly by Japan, Norway and the Soviet Union. We humans, as a species, are interested in communication with extraterrestrial intelligence. Would not a good beginning be improved communication with terrestrial intelligence, with other human beings of different cultures and languages, with the great apes, with the dolphins, but particularly with those intelligent masters of the deep, the great whales?

For a whale to live there are many things it must know how to do. This knowledge is stored in its genes and in its brains. The genetic information includes how to convert plankton into blubber; or how to hold your breath on a dive one kilometer below the surface. The information in the brains, the learned information, includes such things as who your mother is’ or the meaning of the son you are hearing just now. The whale, like all the other animals on the Earth, has a gene library and a brain library.

There is a curious counterpoint in this story. The preferred radio channel for interstellar communication with other technical civilisations in near a frequency of 1.42 billion Hertz, marked by a radio spectral line of hydrogen, the most abundant atom in the Universe. We are just beginning to listen here for signals of intelligent origin. But the frequency band is being increasingly encroached upon by civilian and military communications traffic on Earth, and not only by the manor powers. We are jamming the interstellar channel. Uncontrolled growth of terrestrial radio technology may prevent us from ready communication with intelligent beings on distant worlds. Their songs may go unanswered because we have not the will to control our radio-frequency pollution and listen.

A whale that was big news: When a whale was towed alive into Vancouver harbor in 1964, she captured the hearts of all Vancouverites. They named her Moby Doll, and donated $100,000 for her care, but for some reason she died. Her fame had spread far. The staid Times of London, England, gave her obituary a 2-column heading – the same size it had given to the outbreak of World War II.

(Courtesy of Carl Sagan)


A whale near Tadoussac in Quebec. Photo: ©

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