Classical Whale Symphony

Soft instrumental music was lilting in the background, and the sun’s watery rays were streaking in through the recently rain-washed window-panes. It was a beautiful week-end morning, and the kitchen was bursting with activity. The children were helping by putting away the dishes as noisily as possible. I was making a mess of things by changing the menu nimbly depending on what my refrigerator had. (Grocery shopping had taken a backseat the past few days and rations were thin on the ground)

The children were giggling about something when the teenage daughter said to hearty nods from her little brother. “By the way, what is this blasted toing-toing music you are listening to?”

“Melodious and uplifting for the soul, my dears. Classical Instrumental Music. Changes the way neurons interact.”

She shook her head, “Changes the way my nerves react!”and changed it to something that made my eardrums pick up the dishes and bang them viciously inside my head, while she chatted. Teenagers, I tell you!

“Whales like Classical Music.” , I said weakly.

“Well, I’m not a whale am I?” said she giving me a fish-like look- not the fishy look, the glassy gleam. I saw the piscean divergence in the gene and agreed. Though she could be, given her favorite doodles are themes under the sea

Art work by the Daughter:

Ever since I read in Carl Sagan’s Cosmos about Whale Songs, I have been enamored with the language of music, and the myths of the whales.

Quote from Cosmos by Carl Sagan on the Humpback Whale songs:
These vocalizations are complex. If the songs of the humpback whale are enunciated as a tonal language, the total information content, the number of bits of information in such songs, is some 10 to the power of 6 bits, about the same as the information content of the Iliad or the Odyssey.

I was naturally was attracted to the book, The Symphony of Whales by Steve Shuch. It is based on a true story in a village near the Arctic circle. The onset of Winter had been swift, and a pod of whales found themselves iced in near Siberia. Unable to get out in time, the whole pod faced death in the iced-in waters.


According to the book, a child, Glashka, who had always been blessed with the ability to hear Whale song heard them over the sound of the snowy storm. That night, they came to her in her dreams, and she knew they must be in trouble.

The next morning her father gathered the villagers and off they went to a sound over 30 miles away by dog sleigh looking for the pod of whales. It was true. The whales were in trouble. The pod had not anticipated the icing in of the waters so quickly, and were facing death. The villagers from all the neighboring villages started chipping at the ice to cut through the blocks of ice, so that the whales could surface and breathe.

“Look!”, said Glashka’s grandmother. “See how the whales are taking turns, how they give the younger ones extra time for air.”

The village elders had also radioed for help. A ship, an icebreaker, Moskva, was on its way to help.

The story, is based on a real incident that happened in the narrow Senyavina Straits of Siberia. Over 3000 beluga whales had been trapped by the rapidly freezing waters in 1984-1985. For seven weeks, the people of the Chukchi peninsula, and the crew of the Moskva risked their lives to save the whales.

The story does not end there. Once Moskva had cleared the way, the whales had to follow the ship out into the open seas, but they were reluctant to do so. The crew tried playing whale song to lure them. While they reacted to the music, they were not assured of human intent, and were still scared of the engine sound. They lurked in the waters.  Then they tried Classical Instrumental Music.

“The crew found some classical music. First, the sweet sounds of violin and violas, next the deeper notes of the cellos and, deepest of all, the string basses…and way up high, a solo violin…
Everyone fell silent as the music carried over the waters.”

That had done the trick. The ship’s engines started and the whales slowly followed the icebreaker out into the open ocean.

Would this heartwarming episode make it into Whale Song? That humans can be helpful too? I don’t know, but I do hope it makes it into our myths – maybe as one embracing a humane side to humans.

Dum inter homines sumus, colamus humanitatem – Seneca

As long as we are human, let us be humane

Read also:

Cosmic Nature of Living

Weaving The Sequins of Time

New York Times Archived Article on the Incident

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