Whale Songs on the Open Seas

The whale watchers are back. They are predictable, like the swallows returning on schedule to Capistrano. Every summer, they arrive in droves to see what they can of the last great leviathans on Earth. If you stand on some rocky promontory looking out to sea, you can spy them on their whale-watching boats, searching for a tail fluke to break the surface.

And sometimes the whales are right on cue, feeding and breaching in breathtaking leaps out of the water to excite the watchers. And once in a while, the watchers will witness a lunge-feeding, when the whales go into a feeding frenzy. Then they will see the white water and fish flying in an action-packed, high-speed waterwheel.

The humpback whale, which ranges from 30 to 50 feet in length, is the most commonly sighted whale in the Gulf of Maine waters. This dark-gray or black whale blows a spout about 10 feet high and is squatter and hairier than other whales.

Its wide repertoire of acrobatics includes breaching, tail-slapping, rolling, spyhopping with its head poking out of the water, and snapping and waving its long flippers to attract attention. It even does headstands for an encore.

The humpback whale is found in every ocean in the world, but the first specimen ever described scientifically was found along the Maine coast, which is how it got the name novaeangliae. That's Latin for ''big wing of New England'' and refers to its long flippers.

The humpbacks are frequently sighted in Gulf of Maine waters from April though November. In late fall, they swim back to the Caribbean for the winter, where they breed before making the return trip north in the spring.

We know a lot about the migration patterns of humpback whales, because they travel in groups and they're fairly easy to track by boat and airplane. There are between 2,000 and 4,000 of them in the north Atlantic Ocean and approximately 200 or more in Maine waters from late spring through the fall.

Most whale watchers don't know, however, that humpback whales are also poets. More than just random grunts and whistles, the songs of the humpback are organized compositions consisting of discrete beginnings, middles, and ends, and they even follow regular repeating patterns. The only difference between human poets and whale poets is that all the whales in a single geographic population sing the same songs.

In fact, whales can remember, repeat, and share complex compositions that can last up to half an hour. They do it the way we humans used to - by relying on the technique of rhyme. And the whales also place their rhymes at regular intervals in their songs - just as we do.

The only thing we don't know is why whales sing. Some scientists say they do it to communicate. Others say the whale songs are mating songs, since their crooning is usually done in breeding areas. Or they might just do it for pleasure, which isn't much different than why humans write poetry - for beauty, for joy, for community. To find order and structure in a confusing universe. To remind us of tradition and change, from year to year and ocean to ocean.

Now and then, it is good for us to remember that all art begins in rhythm, in song, in the cry and whistle and moan of one individual voice calling out to another.

I think the whale watchers secretly know this, too. They lean out over the sides of the boat to see those remarkable mammals leaping and playing. From here, you can just make out their legs and arms kicking and waving, as if at any moment they would slip into the water, backside up, breaching and rolling in a frenzy they have never known until now.

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