By Lily Melendez
Hidden Voices of the Deep Sea
Consider the word “apricot.” In the eastern region of the United States, apricot is commonly pronounced “ap-ri-kot.” However, in the rest of the U.S., most will refer to the sweet, fuzzy fruit with a longer emphasis on the first syllable: “ay-pri-kot.”
These variations are dialects, and their prevalence in speech is not unique to human communities. Rather, mammals, such as those of several whale species, engage in these impressive regional distinctions of communication to establish kinship ties and develop their own individual identities. Unfortunately, in terms of current issues associated with overfishing, pollution, and commercial whaling, we may lose the chance to truly acknowledge this deep sea voice.
In recent studies, scientists have found several whale species communicate with various dialects. Each of these dialects incorporate separate material and tonal qualities with high or low frequency clicks and whistles spaced out in purposeful ways. Changes in speed and rate of whale sounds has much to do with the need for longer or shorter distance calls based on water salinity and migration periods. Much like human speech, the whales apply different rhythms, intonations, and pitches to convey particular wants, needs, and emotions to others.
Listening to unique vocal songs and patterns of distinct whales, I was made aware of the false assumptions I had pertaining to this non-human voice. It is common for humans to overlook forces of nature as capable of having a sense of agency in applying their voices. And yet, hearing the deep, melodic sounds of the baleen and blue whales, it is easy to perceive the animals as clear, expressive individuals: individuals who speak with warm tones and low frequencies to convey to their families over long distances that they are safe; musicians who use rapid clicks of high pitched whistles to sense familiar kin and social ties even when they are far from home; and geographers who exercise their body language and vocal prowess to locate all the rocks, reefs, and dolphin that surround them.
Their voices, like the waves of the ocean, carry an intention, a target, and an aspiration to share something of value and necessity. As whales continue to communicate, it is our responsibility to open our ears to their sounds and work to preserve the future of their species.