Eavesdropping on the ocean's gossip

The haunting underwater song of whales has become such familiar music that it is easy to forget that a generation ago no human had ever heard the voice of the leviathan, much less attempted to understand what they were saying.

Alexandra Morton listens to whales. In their songs, she hears not only the beauty and mystery of the deep, but keys to the complex lifeways of a species. Her "Listening to Whales" is the coming of age story of a scientist, a surprising story because Morton's first adult steps were taken in a decidedly unscientific direction.

Morton's accomplished parents had a French governess supervise their daughter's childhood as a prelude to sending her to one of New England's finest prep schools. But when she complained that she felt stifled, her parents permitted her to drop out in 11th grade, demanding only that she "do something with her life."

Freed from formal schooling, Morton became fascinated with a set of researchers attempting to speak with primates and marine mammals. She spent several years trying to decipher the languages of dolphins and of killer whales living in captivity. But she found her true calling only when she followed the killer whales to their native waters.

For Morton, the road to Damascus ran through Queen Charlotte Sound, New Zealand. There, at age 22, she dipped her hydrophone into cold Pacific waters and first heard the call of whales echoing wild and free. Hydrophones, invented by the British to track German U-boats, were applied to peaceful purposes after the war. In 1979, the underwater listening device began to make Morton into a scientist.

Implausible as it seems a mere two decades later, no one in that year had a clear picture of what orca (killer whales) ate in the wild. No one knew where they spent the winter, where they calved, or how the groups they travel in were composed. And no one knew what information they were conveying with their haunting songs.

Living on remote islands off the coast of British Columbia, Morton married a photographer who captured some of the first underwater footage of orca in the wild. Together they pursued the whales in a small boat, their infant son swathed in waterproof parkas and tucked into a covered hammock in the bow.

Imagine taking your baby out in a small inflatable Zodiac to a place where you might look up as "a wall of white water erupted near the head of the bay. In the froth I glimpsed patches of black and white and tawny brown. A sea lion somersaulted through the air like a rag doll.... Through the ear phones came the sound of orcas tearing the sea lions apart. The whales moved so fast, they shook the sea lions out of their skins.... Recently, a harbor seal had jumped into a Zodiac to escape orca off Victoria. I did not see how my boat would remain afloat if an 800-pound sea lion decided to come aboard."

By the time she began to study orca in the wild, Morton had outgrown her early hope of learning to talk to the animals. Instead, she had become a scientist trying to understand what they are communicating to one another. The things that she and her fellow researchers learn as they follow the orca are remarkable.

Three races of orca live off western North America. As separate as any human tribes, they are not known to interbreed, and when they meet, the "tribes" either studiously ignore one another or mount aggressive displays of territorial defense. No researcher has witnessed a "war" of the sort that Jane Goodall saw chimpanzees engage in, but the work is ongoing. What is now well understood is that when orca vocalize, the "tribes" use very different sounds with very different patterns. Orca, that is, speak distinct languages that are mutually unintelligible and must be acquired in early childhood.

Moments of quiet triumph illuminate this absorbing tale: the exaltation of getting a piece of work done right; the eureka thrill of knowing that what one has just figured out is altogether new in the world; the day Morton's parents come to hear her read a paper at a scientific conference, and breathe a sigh of relief. Their calculated gamble has paid off. The restless girl whom they allowed to follow her own path in life has launched a career that would make any parent proud – and any reader fascinated.

• Diana Muir is the author of 'Reflections in Bullough's Pond: Economy and Ecosystem in New England' (University Press of New England).

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