sing sweetly to me above the noise

photo by Jodi Swiney Photography via flickr

I read on the Wired Science blog today something that—pun intended, albeit after the fact—resonated with me. Its title? “Underwater Noise Disturbs Whales 120 Miles Away.” The article explains how new research shows not only that the frequency of whale songs is affected by low-level sounds produced by acoustic signals, but that this occurs even at great distances.

Noise is a common topic lately, but usually in the abstract sense. In this case, the purely man-made noises created by our “tools” cause hearing damage, changes in feeding, mating and communication and other atrocities in marine animals. The whales reacted to the low-level sounds by silencing their songs.

Surely anyone who has ever heard their songs (article includes some in case you haven’t), or had any even surface appreciation for their importance as a method of communication between these noble creatures must feel that pang as I do.


It reminded me of an article I read years ago in The New Yorker by Diane Ackerman (whose writing is a gem), also on whales. I remember it because as a joke I copied it and passed it along to all my bff’s, not so much because I found it truly fascinating but because it had a detailed description of the whale’s male sexual organ which was nine feet long and “controllable.” At the time I found that quite amusing.

One of the beautiful things of our techie world is that we can find and revisit such things (and I refer to the whole piece, not just that passage…<insert blush>), and with a few clicks and I was able to not only skim, but pdf to savor later, the very long piece in which she wrote—some twenty or so years ago, and with her characteristic sensual eloquence and magical voice—about whales, their singing, their habits…

“…whale sound can travel as much as five hundred miles before blending into background noise. These days, the oceans are polluted by human sounds, but in the tens of millions of years before the advent of ships […] whale sounds might have travelled out to distances of several thousand miles, so that any two whales could have sat on opposite sides of the same ocean and been in contact with each other.”

Her piece reminded me of how the noise, the sound bites, or better said bytes (and I mean no disrespect to the Wired writers or their piece which, after all, prompted this exploration), often keep us from the in depth reading of yore, and even if they spark our interest we’re quickly pulled aside to yet another interesting tidbit, a link, a call from our inbox.

And here I am distracting you as I go off on my own tangent… anyway, in her piece she quotes Roger Payne, the biologist and environmentalist, founder and head of Ocean Alliance, in a passage of great relevance:

“The lesson whales teach us is that it’s possible to have a brain of great complexity which doesn’t result in the death of the planet. And also that we shouldn’t necessarily admire intelligence for its own sake, because what our intelligence has resulted in is either unmitigated disaster or potential disaster that will be correctable only by steps so radical that at the moment no one sees any political wisdom in them. For a while, whales came close to extinction, and they became an endangered mystery—an extremely important endangered mystery, because they may have the answer to how you can enjoy the fruits of this wonderful, magnificent calculator-computer-imaginer in your skull without threatening everything you hold dear.”


Noise. Silence.

On a similar riff, I heard a snippet of an interview with Clay Johnson on NPR, who has come out with a book whose buzz phrase is “clicks have consequences.” I’d expected another person telling me I needed to get a handle on my media consumption, to control my clicks, which seemed a rather stale new year’s resolution because I already know that, just like I know I need to read more and exercise more and…yadda yadda ad nauseaum. I’m working on it, dude, and I’m not so bad….

Truly though he made me think about this when he spoke about how as consumers every click has consequences not only for us, but for everyone, how what we read drives editorial decisions, advertising decisions, all sorts of decisions which change our world. The link he makes between eating food and eating media morsels was quite thought provoking:

“Our bodies are wired to love salt, fat and sugar. … Our minds are really wired to be affirmed and be told that we’re right. … Who wants to hear the truth when they can hear that they’re right? Who wants to be informed when they can be affirmed? What we do is we tell our media that that’s what we want to hear, and our media responds to that by telling us what it is that we want, and sometimes that isn’t what’s best for us.”


“That’s what made me start thinking: There’s something going on here with our rhetoric, and there’s something going on here with our media diets, where even the most highly informed of us can be ignorant.”

Ignorance indeed. I’m actually doing quite well with the new year’s resolutions I never made … eating well (except for that all-you-can-eat Brazilian fake bbq where we took the college boy, which nearly killed us all), hitting the treadmill, spending my time doing the things where I can hopefully receive or give something of value, savoring the moments and keeping my blinders in my back pocket for when I need ’em. As well as, of course, taming the beast, simplifying always, a task I always loved but which now has become vital.

It’s kind of symbolic that I’ve reduced my rss reader from a miasma of folders to three: “definitely yes, worthwhile, and if there is time.” Period. And my intent is to reduce that even further.

Everything, you see, is about balance, and when the noise gets so loud that, like the whales, your song is silenced, you must swim away a bit to find your stroke and the songs you love, or, even better—perhaps together we can help turn down the volume just a bit so we can all hear the one who sings to us.


4 thoughts on “sing sweetly to me above the noise

  1. Thank you once again for writing a beautiful thing from just an article on the internet. I hate that the whales silence their songs from the noise. What are we doing here with this planet? Hm.

    1. The place I visit yearly in Mexico takes people out in boats to swim with the whale sharks. It’s a beautiful idea, but like most beautiful ideas you multiply your doing it by hundreds and it’s just not so beautiful anymore…the whale sharks are learning to come to the noise of the boats, “addicted” to the attention. Kind of like the man who brings groups of tourists to the reef where for years we have swum around the rocks, exploring. He tosses bags of crumbled bimbo bread, drawing the fish to the feet of the fat, lazy “snorklers” who just stand there and dip their masks in the water to watch.

      This using nature as our personal entertainment system is deeply disturbing to me.

  2. I loved this post! Thank you for writing it. I can say, it bothered me to read this. May the whale’s sound never cease! Your SheWrites blogger friend.

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