The Humpback’s song
Above the waves, the sea has long been a source of joy for my family – like the time my 10-year-old son ventured into Georgia Strait in a kayak and found himself in the middle of a leaping, cartwheeling pod of Pacific white-sided dolphins.
But one of my favourite things about the sea happens well beneath the surface.
Listen here to the song of the humpback whale. This is a brief clip from a highly-structured sequence of phrases and verses that could go on for up to an hour, and then be repeated precisely. Nobody knows exactly why humpback whales sing, although researchers have been studying it for years.
But here is the really remarkable thing: every year, humpbacks in the entire Pacific population, in an area extending thousands of kilometers from Alaska to Mexico to Hawaii, are singing the same song. And every year it’s a different song. Early in the year individual whales experiment with their own new phrases and verses; and by fall, when they begin to arrive at their breeding grounds, the whales have all somehow already agreed on all the details of these long and complex songs.
This is, to me, a great reminder of the beauty and mystery of the world.
Humpbacks, and their songs, are also a powerful reminder of nature’s resilience. Pacific humpbacks were hunted to the brink of extinction over the past century. In a few short decades since the moratorium on whaling, many of those populations have started to recover.
Across the entire Pacific basin, one of the most remarkable recoveries is happening on Canada’s North Pacific Coast, in the Great Bear Sea. There’s a reason for that. These are some of the most productive cold-water seas in the world, sustained by one of the planet’s richest ecosystems. It’s the integrity of this extraordinary coastline that makes recovery possible.
Possible, but not certain. Because, even here, humpbacks face an undecided future. Increased noise from ships and the potential introduction of massive oil tankers into these waters pose genuine threats to a fragile recovery. I say “undecided” because there are still decisions to make, and these decisions are ours. And perhaps that’s one way for us to understand the humpback’s song: as a call for us to choose a future that sustains the joy, beauty, and mystery of the world.