|SOUND CHECK: ECHOES FROM MAGDALENA BAY|
"Magdalena Bay is probably more generally known than any other on the Lower California coast, and by many regarded not only as a spacious and safe harbor that might generally shelter the navies of the world, but the adjacent country toward the gulf is generally capable of producing abundantly, if properly cultivated, and there are other tracts valuable for grazing. The following is based upon information obtained from the most reliable sources and personal observations: The bay is 40 miles long, greatest breadth 15 miles; points making from Margarita Island and the mainland divide this grand sheet of water into two bays, named by the whalemen Weather and Lee Bays."
|from the Report of C.M. Scammon, of the U.S. Revenue Service, |
on the West Coast of Lower California, 1869.
|Charles Melville Scammon, 1874.|
The first known explorer of the Baja coast, Spain's Sebastián
Vizcaíno, sailed into Magdalena Bay in 1602. According to the eighteenth-century
historian Miguel Venegas, the explorer "gave it the name of Bahia
de Bal[l]enas or Whale Bay, on account of the multitudes of that large
fish they saw there." When Scammon first came here in 1855, as captain
of the 370-ton Leonore, the scene he observed was an exotic one.
There were "oysters that grow on the trees," hanging from the trunks
of mangroves which themselves offered an unlimited supply of wood. The
bay swarmed with fish dubbed "mangrove-groupers;" clams and mussels fanned
across the flats.
The one scarcity was fresh water. According to Scammon, you could only
find it, curiously enough, by digging in the sand. "The usual process
of obtaining water is to take both heads out of a cask, then place it
on the beach where the water is found; work the cask down through the
loose sand, and removing that on the inside of the casks, till sufficient
depth is reached for the water to ooze in, and convenient for bailing.
The water, when first brought on board ship, had a white or milky appearance,
but after settling for a few days and pumped off, seemed quite clear and
Scammon noted that a few whalers had pursued Gray Whales around the bay
between 1846-48, killing thirty-two. The discovery of Arctic Bowhead Whales
in 1848, however, had taken many vessels far to the north. Eventually
frustrated by winter storms, American whalers decided to make permanent
"between seasons" cruises to Baja. They hailed from Honololu and San Francisco,
as well as New Bedford, Martha's Vineyard, and other Eastern ports. In
the winter of 1855-56, they honed in on the Gray Whales at Magdalena Bay.
The whale-hunter, Scammon wrote, "now finds the object of pursuit
not in the fathomless blue water, but huddled together in narrow estuaries,
the banks on either hand lined with the evergreen mangrove. Frequently
the hollow sound of the spouting whale is heard through the trees, and
the vapor ascending is seen above them."
Through three passages, the gray whales passed in and out of the bay's
forty-mile-long reaches. Ships anchored everywhere about various points,
capes, and islands. The wooden whale boats were swift, but the Gray was
a considerably faster swimmer than either the Sperm Whale or Arctic Bowhead.
It also seemed to possess more intelligence. Chased through the beds of
kelp just offshore, the Grays soon learned to shun these. Driven to the
bay's outer shores, they proved a ferocious prey.
Scammon would recount a tale, quoting "the king of skippers in Devil-fish
lore," a fellow whom he referred to as Captain L: "I'll tell you
what happened to me in my own boat, up in the 'mud-hole' [Magdalena Bay],
season afore last. We was chasing a cow and calf, and I charged my boat-steerer
to be careful and not touch the young sucker, for if he did, the old whale
would knock us into chopsticks; but no sooner said than done - slam went
two irons into the critter, chock to the hitches, and that calf was 'pow-mucky'
in less than no time, and the boat-steerer sung out: 'Cap'n, I've killed
the calf, and the old cow is after us.' Well, just about this time, I
sung out to the men to pull for the shore as they loved their lives; and
when that boat struck the beach, we scattered. I'll admit I never stopped
to look round; but the boat-steerer yelled out: 'Cap'n, the old whale
is after us still,' when I told all hands to climb trees!"
Most of Captain L's crew became so discouraged that they went off on
a fruitless expedition into the mountains in search of Baja gold. But
if the tree-climbing tale was perhaps apocryphal, what Scammon witnessed
in Magdalena Bay in the winter of 1856 was very real indeed. Sixteen Gray
Whales were set upon one morning, the men rowing into harpoon range in
wooden boats no more than thirty feet long and six feet wide. The whales
destroyed two boats entirely and staved the others fifteen times. Six
of eighteen crew members were hurt: one came away with two broken legs,
another with three fractured ribs. All before a single whale was captured.
In a report for the U.S. Fish Commission, Charles H. Townsend described
cruising along this coast in search of sea elephants in 1884. "I
heard many stories told by the natives of the ferocity of the female gray
whales when attacked in their breeding places stories amply attested
by the number of graves of ill-fated whalers one meets with all along
these desolate shores....That fatalities were of frequent occurrence may
be emphasized by the statement that in the vicinity of the now deserted
lagoons a leading feature in the landscape is the solitary grave with
its conspicuous fence of weather-worn whale-ribs."
Long afterwards, a trading vessel docked at one of the bay's two large
islands in 1914. The Mary Dodge was primarily looking to buy guano
for use as fertilizer, but the captain told the local people he'd also
pay ten pesos a ton for whale bones. They went to work collecting. The
Mary Dodge left with 125 tons, promising to return for more in
a few months. A massive additional pile, 200 tons of Gray Whale bones,
was gathered on the beach. The ship never came back. The bones remained,
a kind of monument to the carnage that had occurred there.
Between 1845 and 1874, American and European whalers had killed an estimated
3,290 gray whales in the lagoons and bays of Baja. More than half of these
some 2,100 were taken in Magdalena Bay. Scammon reported that the
five-year period between 1856 and 1861 was the most lucrative for whalers
in the bay, with 34,425 barrels of oil at fifteen dollars a barrel bringing
in $516,375. Fifty whaling ships anchored there in the winter of 1858.
Nine years later, when Scammon's friend J. Ross Browne traveled to Magdalena,
there were only two. Gray whales, Browne wrote, were "becoming scarce,
so much, indeed, as to render their pursuit no longer profitable."
Scammon added, "where thousands of barrels of oil were taken annually,
now only a few hundred are obtained."
It took a full day for me to drive from San Ignacio Lagoon south to the
deep-water fishing port of San Carlos on Magdalena Bay. Along the last
stretch through the Santo Domingo Valley, irrigated fields of corn and
alfalfa blend with orange trees, amid jumping choya and cardón
cactuses where Mexican eagles perch. On the outskirts of the town, I found
myself passing alongside a sprawling industrial complex. This is Termoelectrica
C.F.E., a new power plant designed to balance more than half the electrical
grid of the Baja peninsula, from Guerrero Negro down to Cabo San Lucas.
It was built, in a joint venture with the Mexican government, by none
other than Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. While the plant is advertised
as thermoelectric, it's really diesel-fueled. A restaurant in San Carlos
was built out of the heavy-duty timbers used as crating material for shipping
it here. The engine is three stories high. It's a 45,000-horsepower, 12-cylinder
in-line motor, and it churns a generator that's 30 feet in diameter.
The Japanese are rumored to be biding time on erecting a resort complex
south of Magdalena Bay a couple of hotels, a golf course, a marina,
aquaculture farms for shrimp and oysters. They're said to have bought
the land, but run into that basic problem Scammon wrote about: a dearth
of water. Today, water for the 4,000-some residents of San Carlos is pumped
from a large well about twenty miles inland on the Magdalena Plain.
At the edge of town, where pavement turns abruptly to sand, vendors at
little roadside stands waved their arms and did their best to flag me
down. They were peddling whale watch tours. Each February since 1994,
San Carlos and Puerto Adolfo López Mateos another bayside town
eighty miles to the north - have held festivals celebrating the birth
of their ballenas complete with concerts, fireworks, and Miss
Gray Whale beauty pageants. With an estimated 12,000 foreign tourists
showing up each winter season, whale watching has become big business
on Magdalena Bay.
Instinctively, I was uncomfortable. My first encounter with a local guide
came in a restaurant, where the fellow was hustling several Americans
at the next table, bragging about how he'd twice actually hopped on a
whale's back and been taken for a short ride. Later, I'd hear that this
same boat driver had recently rammed into a whale. A local whalewatchers'
union of between forty and fifty skiffs had been formed. On weekends,
twenty-four whale-watching pangas at a time were allowed out on
the waters here. An American hotel owner told me he'd seen as many as
fifteen people crowded into a single boat. Oftentimes, whales got chased
and he said it was amazing there weren't more accidents.
It was suggested I seek out Francisco Ollervides, whom everyone calls
Paco. He was Mexican, and working on a doctoral thesis for Texas A&M
University. For the last three years, he'd been coming to San Carlos trying
to get a better handle on how whale watching affects the Gray Whales.
Specifically, Paco was analyzing how the whales move and behave around
boats. Also, did they respond differently to the engine noise emanating
from tourist-laden pangas than they would to a shrimp trawler or
one of the oil tankers bringing fuel for the power plant?
I found Paco Ollervides at his wintertime base, the School for Field
Studies, a complex of palm-tree-shaded buildings right on the bay. Headquartered
in Beverly, Massachusetts, the School for Field Studies can be found in
half-a-dozen locations around the globe, including Kenya, Australia, Costa
Rica, and here in San Carlos. The students, primarily Americans, spend
six months in small communities working on environmental problem-solving.
In San Carlos, they were involved in helping the fish cannery do something
about its effluent discharge, and in studying the impacts of ecotourism
on the gray whale population.
"This bay is different than Guerrero Negro and San Ignacio,"
Paco explained, "because it's the only area the whales come to which
is not part of the Biosphere Reserve. That was why I was interested to
observe in Magdalena Bay, since it does not have the same protected status.
It has the same whale watching regulations, but different pressures. There's
a bigger surface area and less enforcement. Boat captains do a lot of
violations of the regulations, and this goes unchecked. With the Mexican
authorities, we're trying to design some core areas where whale watching
should not occur."
At nine the next morning, I met Paco and his assistant, a graduate student
from the University of Kansas named Jennifer Pettis, at the gated entry
to the port of San Carlos. This is Baja's only deepwater port besides
Ensenada, and vessels of all shapes and sizes are moored at the pier.
A fishing trawler has just tossed a huge shark onto the dock. Paco, who's
in his early twenties, is dressed in shorts and wearing an Australian
bush hat. He beckons me to follow them up about a hundred feet of metal
stairs to an observation tower. 1999 is an unusual year, in that not only
are more whales occupying this southernmost sector of the bay some three
hundred compared to a maximum count of sixty-six in '98 but many are
also opting to stay in the vicinity of the port. "Generally they
prefer to be at the mouth," Paco says, "which is about an hour
away from here. So this year has been incredible for the whale watching
companies and for us." As we reach the enclosed tower, Paco points
out several large vessels winding down the bay's shipping channel through
dunes and mangroves, past one of the longest islands in Mexico. "The
whales have been seen to avoid areas like San Francisco or L.A., which
could be a result of ship traffic," he adds. "It could happen
here, too if it goes unregulated and the number of boats just increases
The view from up here is spectacular. I gaze into the near distance at
a complex of inland tidal channels protected from the Pacific's rollers
by misty volcanic peaks and the dunes of Magdalena and Margarita islands.
The spouting of gray whales just below me looks like smoke signals wafting
up. "Right now it's good sea conditions because the wind is not blowing,"
Paco says. "Otherwise the blows get taken away really fast."
He commences adjusting the angles on a surveyor's theodolite. This method
of monitoring whale movements was pioneered by Roger Payne. A theodolite
is basically a transit the same kind you see obtaining level measurements
along a road which measures the azimuth and downward angle. The bubbles
inside it, Paco says, tell you how balanced the theodolite is. Jennifer
records all the data onto a computer for later analysis.
Paco zeroes in on something, and motions me to take a look. It's a jarring
close-up: a dead Gray Whale, floating belly-up, its body adorned with
seagulls. "We think it's the same one we've been seeing for a couple
of days," Paco says, "it just moves up and down with the tide.
We've even see one right down here in front of the pier." Six of
the seven dead Gray Whales documented here this year have been females.
Paco has been plotting the exact locations on a map. On the one that washed
up by the dock, he conducted a necropsy to try to determine the cause
of death. The inner earbones were extracted and sent to an expert with
Massachusetts' Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and the Harvard Medical
School laboratory where, Paco continues, "they will do CT scans and
MRI's to see if there's been sound damage that might have caused the whale
We would do well at this point to consider the remarkable auditory sensibilities
of the Gray Whale and its brethren. Scammon observed: "The ear,
which appears externally like a mere slit in the skin, two and one-half
inches in length, is about eighteen inches behind the eye, and a little
above it." In the human brain, the centers for sight and hearing
are approximately the same size. In the brains of whales, however, the
sensory nerves responsible for hearing are much larger than those for
seeing. It's a matter of environment. Beneath the ocean's surface, darkness
and turbidity impose extreme limitations upon sight. Sound, however, not
only travels farther underwater than in air, sometimes for thousands of
miles; sound also travels four-and-one-half times faster than in
air, at speeds of up to 5,000 feet per second. Within the inner ear of
the Gray Whale as well as other cetaceans, features have evolved that
are capable of picking up a spectrum of sounds which are inaudible to
people. At the same time, as Aristotle put it long ago, "Even a small
noise...sounds very heavy and enormous to anything which can hear underwater."
In what may be the earliest consideration of the Gray Whale's sensitivity
to noise in its environment, the Monterey Sentinel had this to
say in the spring of 1856 about the whalers' latest advance in weaponry,
the bomb lance gun, whose load of powder exploded on impact: "....the
whales are every year getting more shy from the use of the bomb lance.
It is said that they hear the bomb explode in the water, even though ten
or twenty miles off."
In his description of whaling on Magdalena Bay, Scammon offers additional
insights: "Every ship's cooper and his gang were busily at work
with their heavy hammers, driving the hoops on the casks, and the whole
combined produced a deafening noise upon the water, which echoed from
cliff to crag along the mountain island of Margarita. This, with the chase
and capture of the animals, the staving of boats, and the smoke and blaze
from try-works by night, soon drove the whales to the outside shores."
The ship's captains talked over the situation, and many decided to go
look for whales elsewhere. "After suspending whaling for a few
days, and a number of ships leaving meanwhile, the [gray] whales again
returned to their favorite haunt."
There is evidence that ship traffic may have directed the gray whales
away from another nursery area, the warm waters of San Diego Bay. A 1922
History of California Shore Whaling records: "Smythe's History
of San Diego states that in the early forties [1840s] San Diego Bay
was a favorite place for the female whales in the calving season, and
at such times on any bright day, scores of them could be seen spouting."
Dr. Marilyn Dahlheim, who today works out of the National Marine Mammal
Laboratory in Seattle, was one of the first to scientifically point out
that sounds both natural and man-made could have a dramatic impact
upon Gray Whales. She spent five winter seasons at San Ignacio Lagoon,
1981-85, researching a dissertation for the University of British Columbia
titled "Bio-Acoustics of the Gray Whale." Off the narrowest
sector of the lagoon at Rocky Point, she submerged a cage that housed
a little transducer which could broadcast different types of sounds underwater
in the direction of the whales. When outboard engine noise was played,
Dahlheim was fascinated to find the whales attracted to the transducer.
When she went up to the middle lagoon area, where sound transmission was
reduced because of the extensive sandbars, she discovered something equally
intriguing. "I'd heard about whales hiding behind islands or icebergs
to avoid increased levels of sound in their environment, but I never knew
whether to believe it," Dahlheim says. "But when I played oil-drilling
sounds, not even at a very high decibel level, I found clusters of whales
in the middle lagoon behind those sandbars, where there are what I call
'sound shadows' and the noise wasn't as intense."
After spending her first two years profiling the whales' acoustical habitat
and characterizing their types of calls, in 1983 Dahlheim started conducting
short-term playbacks. The next year, she increased the duration of the
playbacks. Her goal was to determine how Gray Whales might alter their
own sound structure when faced with longer-term and increased levels of
man-made noise. She played 120 hours of pre-recorded sounds ranging from
industrial noise to the vocalizations of the Gray Whale's primary predator,
the Killer Whale. What happened was very telling. When faced with increased
levels of noise, the mothers and calves took their leave early. By the
beginning of March, their count in the lagoon was 81% lower than the mean
count of 223 whales for the five-year period between 1977 and 1982.
Looking back on her reaction, Dahlheim says: "At first I didn't
quite believe what was happening, that my little transducer was causing
this. I remember some of my team members sitting around the camp at night
discussing it, saying 'oh my God, what's going on?' As a group we thought,
well, we've got to continue, because if what we're seeing is a
response to these types and levels of noise, we need to know and we
don't want to do it again."
Because of this striking effect upon the whales, the Marine Mammal Commission
funded a follow-up study in 1985. This time, no artificial sound projection
took place. Dahlheim was strictly looking at the numbers and distribution
of whales in the lagoon. The Grays' numbers were back up, though not as
high as they'd been during the previous several years.
Now Paco Ollervides has been able to establish some very "significant
correlations" between numbers of boats and behavioral reactions of
whales in a given area. In the presence of larger vessels in Magdalena
Bay, Gray Whales were seen to change their swimming speed and direction,
as well as their breathing intervals. In general, groups of half-a-dozen
would congregate in the mornings when there was no ship traffic. With
the arrival of boats, the whales would disperse into pairs or singles,
coming together again after the boats departed.
What Paco is observing is, of course, taking place within a relatively
confined space. In a broader ocean context, Dr. Christopher Clark, of
Cornell University's Bioacoustics Research Program, has described what
marine mammals face today as an "acoustics traffic jam." The
noisiest offenders are supertankers and cargo ships, whose propellers
emit a pervasive low-frequency hiss which penetrates more deeply in warmer
water. The shipping lanes pretty much parallel the Gray Whale's migratory
route. Along the central California coast alone, more than 4,000 large
vessels transit annually. Baleen whales such as the Gray are presumed
to hear and to vocalize in the same ranges occupied by ship noise.
Might the din be causing potential hearing loss? Or drowning out vital
communication, say for a Humpback Whale calling to a prospective mate
several hundred miles away?
"In terms of behavioral disruption, shipping is what I'm most concerned
about," says Dr. Peter Tyack, a senior scientist with the Woods Hole
Oceanographic Institution and an expert in whale acoustics. "In terms
of potential for ear injury, it's the most intense sound sources, such
as explosions, sonars, and the air guns used for seismic surveys by the
oil companies. I don't know whether there's been an explicit cozy agreement
between the oil and commercial shipping industries with the regulators,
but it's certainly been a policy of 'don't tell us, we won't look or ask
questions.' It's very important there be a strong push to recognize the
real risks to marine mammals and come up with a reasonable policy that
covers and regulates all these sources of noise."
During the 1990s, several new sources of oceanic "noise pollution"
came on-line and under fire. One was the deployment of acoustic deterrence
devices by commercial fishermen looking to drive away seals from their
catch, with only minimal guidance from wildlife agencies. Another was
an experiment in acoustic thermometry, where the Scripps Institution of
Oceanography embarked on a $40-million effort using underwater loudspeakers
to boom high-intensity (195-decibels), low-frequency sound waves across
expanses of ocean. The aim was getting a better handle on long-term climate
change, by measuring the speed of sound to "take the temperature"
of the sea (the warmer the water, the faster sound travels). Several studies
of potential impacts to whales and other sea denizens were carried out,
to inconclusive results, and the project has foundered.
Gray Whales became the centerpiece of research focusing around the third
and most controversial recent deployment: the Navy's Low Frequency
Active (LFA) acoustic sonar system. The Navy would like to deploy this
across 80% of the world's oceans. Designed to detect enemy submarines
by scanning the seas with soundwaves, LFA would flood thousands of square
miles of ocean at a time with intense sound. After a dozen Cuvier beaked
whales beached themselves in 1996 during NATO anti-submarine exercises
in the Ionian Sea, and faced with a potential lawsuit from the NRDC, the
Navy set about undertaking an environmental review of how LFA sonar might
affect marine mammals.
That's where Peter Tyack came into the picture. As part of a three-phase
study commissioned by the Navy, in January 1998 he and a colleague conducted
playback experiments in low frequency sound to probe the behavioral responses
of Gray Whales migrating off the central California coast. I'd met with
him some months later to discuss his findings. Tyack is a slightly rotund,
blond-haired, white-bearded fellow with soft blue eyes and a pleasant
demeanor. He did his thesis on the songs of humpback whales, and has been
studying how whales and dolphins "use communication signals in the
context of their social behavior" since coming to Woods Hole in 1982.
He'd been part of a team in the 1980s that performed similar playbacks
of oil industry sounds at migrating Gray Whales. These included air guns
used in seismic explorations. The biologists had concluded from this study
that the whales were more sensitive to continuous noise they'd tend
to avoid exposure at levels of around 120 decibels than they were to
the short pulses of the air guns. Dissenting scientists claimed the whales
didn't really care about loudness one way or another.
So Tyack hoped that his tests for the Navy would provide some more definitive
answers. "If Gray Whales showed an avoidance response," Tyack
said, "my main concern was that this Navy sonar could impact other
animals over huge areas in the open ocean if the ship were operating in
the middle of the North Pacific or North Atlantic. That's because low
frequency sound can propagate over a very big range."
Migrating Gray Whales made an ideal case study, because hundreds
a day were sojourning close to the coastline, "and you know it's
always new animals, since nobody's circling back around north." They
could also be watched from shore, instead of from a boat or airplane that
might already be disturbing their behavior, by using a theodolite to pinpoint
their location. As they moved past, the whales' path was plotted by computer.
Meantime, a sound source was placed on a ship moored in the center of
the migration corridor. Its underwater speaker blared sound at the whales
at varying decibel levels, of forty-two seconds duration and repeating
every six minutes. The question was, would the whales noticeably change
their course and at what range of noise?
The procedure is more complex than I'm outlining, replete with scientific
controls and assorted attenuated simulations of stimuli. Suffice that
the experiments as designed were highly sensitive, and were conducted
over 150 hours during 18 days that yielded tracks on about 1,400 whales.
I sat next to Tyack at his computer as he ran through his data accompanied
by a few low-frequency imitations of the sonar sound a higher-pitched
"ooo ooooo ooooo...." and "whoooooooo...." followed by
a deeper, slower "whoooo whooo whooo."
The hypothesis, Tyack said, was "that the behavior of the whales
would be disrupted and they'd avoid exposure at received levels in the
range from 120 to 155 decibels." Whales avoided these sound levels
in previous studies, even though these levels are not very loud by the
standards of human noise in the ocean. The source level of a small outboard,
for example, is 155 decibel levels at one meter; the boat would have to
be a hundred yards away to reach the lower end of this exposure range.
In this latest test, the whales did move away from the sonar sound imitations
- but not significantly. They only skirted the sounds by about one hundred
meters. Even with a source level of 170 decibels, according to Tyack,
"they were a little less sensitive to the LFA sonar than we'd expected."
He clicked his computer mouse to another diagram. "But here,"
Tyack continued, "comes the big difference." When the sound
source level was increased by another fifteen decibels, the whales suddenly
avoided the noise by a full kilometer. They swerved upstream away from
the sound, an avoidance reaction so dramatic that "blind" onshore
observers (who didn't know whether a playback was happening or a control)
could instantly ascertain what was transpiring. "See that giant gap
on the screen?" Tyack asked excitedly. "That's a huge difference
in the scale of response. That's saying the whales sure as hell do
care about how loud the sound is, and they're choosing to move big-time
to get to a lower exposure. All the critics of our earlier work would
have claimed there won't be any discernible difference. So this was totally
satisfying. Almost never in whale science do you have a couple of days
when you can resolve a question like that."
Then the scientists decided on one more test. They kept the same 185-decibel
sound level, but they had their ship move twice as far offshore, "away
from the center of the migration corridor, but a place where there are
still some whales." What happened when the sound was turned on again,
Tyack recalled, was a complete surprise. He recalled: "Many whales
passed near the source, but they paid no attention to the transmission.
We even raised it to a 200-decibel playback, and still the whales had
no problem with it whatsoever."
Tyack took a deep sigh. "Well, every experiment that works usually
opens up some whole new can of worms. I don't know what exactly is happening
here. My hunch is, it relates to the behavioral ecology of what the animals
are doing. For certain reasons, Gray Whales stick right next to the coast
as they're migrating. So I wonder if they're listening to surf, or using
some acoustic cue in the near-shore areas for migration. And maybe putting
a loud noise right near that interferes with the process of orientation
in migration in a way that an offshore sound source doesn't do. We'll
have to learn more about the sensory basis of migrations to really get
The scientists' conclusion? The Navy's LFA Sonar should be kept away
from inshore migratory corridors and near-shore areas in general. The
Navy's response was to limit the operation of the system to more than
twelve nautical miles from shore. "That's a bit of a safety zone
from my perspective," Tyack said, but he cautions that much more
needs to be learned.
Other marine biologists are not as sanguine. Another researcher of whale
acoustics, Dr. Lindy Weilgart of Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova
Scotia, points out that Tyack's tests used only a fraction of the full
operational power level of the Navy's LFA system. "Tyack may well
be right," Weilgart says, "but it would be safer to assume that
if inshore whales are clearly shown to avoid LFAs, then the problem may
not just be with using LFA in that particular environment, but everywhere.
Perhaps the offshore migrating whales those that reacted less were
already more damaged or marginal individuals. Anything that has the potential
to change, even slightly, a whole population of migrating whales should
be viewed with great caution. If something serious befalls these migrating
animals, it means that the whole population is doomed."
For his part, Tyack is most concerned about deep-ocean, deep-diving toothed
whales such as the sperm and beaked whales, in areas where sound refracts
downwards and animals could face jeopardy when foraging in the depths
where the LFA energy concentrates. Tyack told me: "There continue
to be anecdotes of military sonar activities associated with beaked whale
strandings. The fact that they dive deep, are globally distributed, and
we know so little about their behavior makes me at least want to find
out what really happens when a sperm or beaked whale hears a sound of
140 decibels? Does it stop its normal feeding? Does it show avoidance
even if the source is a long way away?"
Later, in mid-March 2000, more answers came about Navy acoustics and
the results were tragic. Shortly after the Navy began conducting sonar
tests in the Bahamas, seventeen whales from four species beached themselves
on the islands over a four-day period. Seven died, and two had bleeding
eyes which suggested acute shock trauma. Despite the Navy's initial conclusion
that its testing and the strandings were coincidental, a study by the
National Marine Fisheries Service found the whales had suffered hemorrhages
of varying degree in or around the ears possibly caused by "a distant
explosion or an intense acoustic event." Late in May, the Navy cancelled
another test scheduled off the east coast of the U.S. and announced "a
priority need" to examine the LFA issue.
The question of what drives whales either toward us or away from us,
of what they hear as we beam or approach them with our mechanical toys,
leads to another question: the means by which whales might "talk"
to one another about the various situations they face. We know that all
whales "speak" acoustically, but how they do so is still largely
a mystery. They produce sound by squeezing air through either their larynx
or their blowholes, or by way of bursts of air from their lungs. Humpback
Whales, as Paco Ollervides puts it, "sound like violins," and
are known for inventing complicated songs that sometimes continue for
more than an hour. Killer whales, or orcas, make high-pitched sounds at
frequencies as high as 24,000 Hz. By contrast, humans generally speak
in a range between 2,000 and 4,000 Hz. Gray Whales have a wider range
of communication than people, and also span the same frequencies we talk
In the 1850s, whalers were the first to report Gray Whales making audible
sounds that could be heard above water. H.L. Aldrich wrote in 1889, "It
has been known for a long time that humpback whales, blackfish, devilfish
[gray whales] and other species of whales sing." Yet when marine
scientist Carl Hubbs tried listening through a hydrophone to Gray Whales
at the San Ignacio Lagoon in 1950, he couldn't detect any signals at all.
"All we picked up was the chatter of shrimps," Hubbs reported,
in one newspaper article headlined "Sea Sleuths, Underwater Wire
Tap Fails in Efforts to Make Whales Talk." Hubbs wondered if Gray
Whales might, like giraffes, be voiceless.
So at that point, Gray Whales were labeled "the quiet whale."
Then, in 1955, what appeared to be pulses from a Gray Whale were recorded
off Point Loma near San Diego. A small landing craft was maneuvered purposefully
into an oncoming whale's path, then its engines shut down. To avoid collision,
the whale changed course slightly and emitted a series of sounds. Two
years later, Soviet whalers in the Bering and Chukchi Seas reported hearing
"low pitched roars" coming from Gray Whales.
The 1960s saw the first breakthroughs in cracking the Gray Whales' sound
barrier. Some of the most extensive early research was conducted by the
Anti-submarine Warfare and Ocean Systems division of the Lockheed-California
Company. They wanted to gather data on Gray Whales "because of their
obvious antisubmarine warfare importance as potential 'false targets'
for passive and active sonar." An expedition was mounted to Scammon's
Lagoon. While it was established that individual Gray Whale pulses lasted
about one-tenth of a second and usually occurred in groups of four to
six, as faint whisting sounds or "croaker-like grunts" and "low-frequency
'rumbles,'" excessive ambient background noise made by snapping shrimp
in the shallow lagoon waters continued to make underwater listening difficult.
Follow-up studies detected intense sounds which scientists likened to
hammering against the hull of a wooden ship; crunching and scratching
noises; metallic "blip blips" like coffee percolating, and defined
cries from a juvenile Gray Whale in the course of capturing and transporting
the animal from Scammon's Lagoon to a research tank at Sea World.
Then, in 1967, came a report by the Office of Naval Research and the
University of Rhode Island titled "The Controversial Production of
Sound by the California Gray Whale." Hydrophones lowered into the
water off Point Loma and La Jolla in southern California discovered the
migrating whales to be continuously vocal over thirteen days and nights.
The researchers had decided to try to force a highly controversial issue.
There had been many recordings of toothed whales using echolocating sonar,
but very few reported instances of baleen whales doing so. So the scientists
met the southbound whales head-on from a 70-foot-long Navy transport vessel.
The wake of the ship's propeller, along with an adjacent kelp bed, created
underwater visual and acoustic interference around and through which the
whales had to maneuver. The closer the whales came, the louder a series
of "notes" could be heard, "like those from a comb as one
runs a thumbnail down the fine teeth." The elicited sounds were under
2,000 Hz, and thus would normally go undetected or be passed off as other
unidentified noise. But the researchers were now convinced that the Gray
Whale "does produce trains of pulse sounds similar to the echolocation
bursts of toothed cetaceans," on an as-needed basis. One Navy Electronics
Laboratory oceanographer described the whales making a deep moaning "like
the left hand sounds of a piano," and suggested these low noises
might cause echoes enabling the whales to detect large objects - not only
ships, but land masses or other whales.
By the late 1960s, scientists analyzing some 18,000 meters of recording
tape concluded that Gray Whales were not quiet at all, but in fact are
among the most vocal of all whales. Researchers at Scammon's Lagoon
noted that it wasn't uncommon for Gray Whales to make a series of clicking
noises when a plane or helicopter passed close overhead. Gigi, a young
Gray Whale held in captivity for two years during the early 1970s, was
also heard to make rapid clicks when she was released back into the wild
a sound she'd never uttered while being studied at Sea World. Were these
clicks indications of anger? Excitement? Fear? Attempts to communicate
with other migrating whales?
Marine biologist Steven Swartz later had this to say about his six-year-long
observations at San Ignacio Lagoon (1978-84): "If a female wants
to recall her calf from a group of calves, or if she's sleeping and decides
to leave, she utters some sort of sound. The calf responds immediately
and off they go. So there's definitely communication going on amongst
them. Exactly how it's carried out and what's the significance under various
circumstances I don't know. No one's done the definitive work on the gray
whale's song, if you will, or on gray whale dialects."
Swartz noticed the whales would habitually approach his boat from the
rear the first indication, he says, "that something about the engine
sound interested them or was providing a beacon for them to orient on.
Then they'd flip over upside-down and look at us. For awhile, that was
puzzling. We put on our masks and stuck our heads in the water and watched
them." Similarly to what Roger Payne conjectured about the grays'
spy-hopping in the proximity of boats, Swartz soon realized that the whales
were checking them out in a rare moment of having to look up.
Swartz and co-researcher Jones elaborated in a jointly written study:
"They appear to show an interest in the submerged portion of the
outboard engine running in neutral, such as the nonrevolving propeller
and exhaust ports from which sound emanates. Some whales repeatedly bumped
the still propeller of the engine with their rostrum and even took it
into their open mouth. The whales avoided Mexican fishing boats with 40-hp
engines running at high speed. However, they approached and even followed
20-hp engines running at moderate or low speed. Curious whales usually
left the vicinity of idling outboard engines when they were shut down,
and they also avoided nonmotorized vessels including kayaks, canoes, and
small sail boats."
In one "experiment," Swartz said, "We could actually get
them to trumpet blow, like a humpback, by revving the outboard engine.
They expel bubbles underwater and there's quite a bit of sound associated
with those big bubble bursts. They'd blast, we'd rev the engine, and they'd
blast again. We'd get this kind of rapport going back and forth."
Shari Bondy, another longtime gray whale observer who resides in Guerrero
Negro, made some related observations in a paper titled "Behavioral
Changes in Gray Whale Population in Ojo De Liebre [Scammon's Lagoon]."
Gray Whales, she wrote, "can react evasively to small changes, like
alterations in speed or direction of a boat or a switch of captains or
motors of a particular panga. For example in 1997, the Ejido Benito
Juarez replaced the old motors they had used for years with new Yamaha
engines on all three pangas. Almost all whales were very evasive
and even dove deeply, throwing their tail (which is very unusual there).
It took a full week for the whales to become accustomed to the new sounds
of the motors and gain enough confidence to allow the boats to approach
At San Ignacio Lagoon in 1999, John Spencer had also talked with me about
the whales and the boat motor. "It's amazed me for twenty years,"
he said one night around the campfire, "how can animals this big
not bump the boat more? Not that they'd be aggressive, but just their
size. You stop to think about it, they're water acrobats. When a forty-five
foot animal can rub his nose on one side and his tail on the other side
without bumping you, you've gotta figure they know where they're at in
the water. What I think the motor does, along with telling the whales
where we're at, is to give them a sense of direction about the size of
the boat. And how they can play with it. And with us."
It was researcher Marilyn Dahlheim who first found it "noteworthy
that these 'curious' whales respond to underwater engine noise that occupies
the same frequency ranges as their own signals." However, Peter Tyack
shares John Spencer's view that's not all the "friendly"
gray whales are responding to. "I wouldn't think that just an overlap
of frequency range would necessarily make something attractive,"
Tyack told me. "It certainly would make it easier for the whales
to detect the boats. But what's amazing is simply how social and interactive
these animals are. The fact that they're willing to reach out toward our
species is a remarkable thing."
Tyack also takes issue with scientists who assert that, because what
we hear of Gray Whale "communication" consists primarily of
grunts and pops and clicks, these whales are necessarily more "primitive"
than, say, the Humpbacks. "I think it's very dangerous to assume
that if you hear what sounds like a simple acoustic repertoire, that means
the communication system is primitive or very simple. Humpbacks produce
their song in an ecological setting where sexual selection has caused
there to be a strong pressure for that song to be very complex."
Then there are Sperm Whales which, Tyack notes, "basically just
make simple clicks, but in different rhythmic patterns. Some appear to
be individually distinctive, others group distinctive, and still others
are shared over a broad geographical area. These simple clicks solve very
complex problems in amazing ways, so it would be a grave error to say,
'Oh well, they just make clicks.'" Jim Nollman, an author
and founder of Interspecies Communication, Inc., told me he believes the
Sperm Whales' clicking to one another constitutes "some kind of a
symbolic language, based on echolocation. At the least it's sending holograms
to one another. I believe one Sperm Whale can turn to another and show
a 3-D movie of what it just did in a deep dive, actually display the giant
squid it just ate. This kind of communication is not based in grammar,
but in physics."
Gray Whale communication and what's been misinterpreted as their muteness
- may in part be a means of avoiding detection by their inshore enemies.
In terms of man, Charles H. Townsend described in his 1886 report for
the U.S. Fish Commission how so many Gray Whales had been wounded by inexperienced
hunters using the bomb-lance gun that the whales "became wary and
in general more quiet in their movements, leading some of the whalers
to a suspicion even of their 'blowing' more cautiously." Another
report, published by naturalist Roy Chapman Andrews in 1914, recounts
the story of a whaling captain "hunting a Gray Whale in a perfectly
smooth sea. The whale had been down for fifteen minutes when suddenly
a slight sound was heard near the ship and a thin cloud of vapor was seen
floating upward from a patch of ripples which might have been made by
a duck leaving the surface. The whale had exposed only the blowholes,
spouted, refilled the lungs and again sunk, doing it almost noiselessly.
The gunners assert that this is quite a usual occurrence when a single
Gray Whale is being hunted." (Steven Swartz would later term this
"snorkeling behavior," a phenomenon exhibited by no other species
of whale. Because the grays' twin blowholes actually nostrils that connect
directly to the lungs - are directly above the eyes and so high up on
their heads, this enables them to breathe while barely breaking the surface.)
A no less compelling example of the grays' reaction to a predator focuses
around the orca, or killer whale. Two researchers for the Naval Undersea
Research and Development Center conducted an experiment in the late 1960s,
subjecting Gray Whales migrating south to three different sound sources:
Killer Whale "screams," a pure tone of the same frequency, and
loud random noise. They didn't react to the latter two, but fully 95%
of the time, "Blowing whales, or those running at the surface, immediately
swirled around and headed directly away from the killer whale sound source."
Hiding close to inshore kelp beds, "in many instances their blows
were invisible and even blows at close range were scarcely audible."
Peter Tyack finds it striking just how reactive Gray Whales are to the
playbacks of Killer Whales. "I'd expect that, when they're migrating
and very concerned about being detected by an acoustic predator, that
may put a lot of constraints on the Gray Whales' communication signals.
That doesn't mean the signals aren't important. Within a small group,
they could very likely be making a set of faint contact calls. When we
scientists hear the sounds, these are very much like ambient noise. A
lot harder for us to study, and less flashy. But flashy doesn't always
mean inherently complex. It's not like the Gray Whales are being silent.
My hunch is, they're just being cryptic. I'd call Gray Whales exquisitely
Marilyn Dahlheim's experiment at San Ignacio Lagoon found Gray Whales
would cease vocalizing altogether and do snorkeling behavior in the presence
of Killer Whale sounds. She taped Gray Whales for more than two hundred
hours at the lagoon, using a hydrophone off a small Zodiac. Dahlheim's
overall analysis not only found the Grays "more soniferous than expected
from published accounts." One of the sounds she detected akin to
the ringing of a Chinese gong has never been heard outside the lagoon.
Altogether Dahlheim was able to define seven distinct sounds and identify
numerous situations in which Gray Whales are the most vocal. These
included when they were in a small area or interacting with bottlenose
dolphins; on a collision course with a boat or another whale; when single
whales were chasing mother-and-calf pairs, and when boat noise was prevalent.
Dahlheim noted that Gray Whale signals were consistently produced below
biological ambient noise, down beneath the constant clatter of the lagoon's
snapping shrimp and where it's relatively quiet. In the case of the whistling
calls of Bottlenose dolphins, it was just the opposite. Their signals
hit the "ceiling" of the snapping shrimp, and bounced back up.
"These data imply," Dahlheim wrote, "that these cetaceans
have different acoustical 'niches' possibly dictated by the constant high
levels of biological ambient noise in Laguna San Ignacio."
The "acoustical niche" idea represents an adaptable strategy
that would ensure an animal minimum interference with its own signals.
The peak of Gray Whale sound production occurs in the Baja lagoons. Studies
haven't shown the whales to be very vocal along the migration. In doing
acoustics work off Alaska's St. Lawrence Island, Dahlheim found the Grays
make almost no sound whatsoever on their Bering Sea feeding ground. Unlike
the dynamic acoustical habitat within the lagoons, she points out, there
aren't a lot of fish making noise in the whale's northern territory. The
natural ambient level is very low, too, consisting of little more than
sea noise and rain.
Dahlheim believes the types of calls that whales make have evolved over
time to reduce competition with the natural acoustic levels in their environments.
They can be exposed to such sounds at high levels rain, for example,
can be heard down to depths of 2,000 feet. Dahlheim compares this to terrestrial
situations, for instance where monkeys in the Madagascar forests utilize
whistle calls to cut through the dense vegetation.
All of which implies, of course, that anything that reduces a whale's
receiving-and-transmitting capabilities could adversely impact their reproductive
potential or even their survival.
In certain ways, Paco Ollervides is picking up where Marilyn Dahlheim's
work left off with Gray Whales (she's now into her second decade studying
Killer Whales in southeastern Alaska). Besides Paco's theodolite tracking
to observe the interactions between whales and boats, he's looking to
discern whether the whales change their vocalizations to suit different
situations. To do this, several days a week Paco goes out into Magdalena
Bay in a panga, with a portable hydrophone. The engine is turned
off, and the hydrophone is placed underwater at predetermined stations.
Paco records what it picks up for five minutes at each site.
Paco explains: "From Marilyn Dahlheim's work, we have the known
signals of Gray Whales and a basis for how gray whale sounds change in
the presence of increased noise. We're trying to see if, when there's
boat noise, they do any changes in the initial frequency or the duration
of the call or eliminate some calls. It's a little hard, because the sound
frequency of the boats is very similar to the sounds of the whales. There's
this phenomena called masking, where the frequencies overlap in both amplitude
and intensity. You're not really sure if the whale is actually quiet,
or if it's vocalizing but the boat noise is overriding or masking it.
So we have to do a lot of recordings with boats and without boats. Then
after our field season ends in April, we go back to Texas A&M and
I do my computer analysis to try to pick out the whale signals and filter
out other noises."
On the eight tapes made so far this season, Paco says he's been lucky
in recording certain specific "events." He's come upon a group
of Gray Whales feeding. "It used to be thought their feeding was
nonexistent in Baja, but now more and more evidence supports the fact
that they feed opportunistically," he says. There were no boats in
the area at the time, and Paco was able to pick up some "feeding
signals" through the hydrophone. He's also recorded several instances
where the whales are socializing together, or exhibiting sexual behavior.
He'd begun by successfully matching the seven different types of Gray
Whale signals that Dahlheim had detected at San Ignacio Lagoon. Since
then, Paco has been able to classify three entirely new signals in Magdalena
Bay, for a total of ten identifiable "calls" so far. "The
last one was my most interesting," Paco says, his excitement building.
"Because I could only record it when there were boats around.
I did this just three times on two different occasions, so admittedly
it's a very small sample. But I call it the 'annoyance signal,' because
it's a kind of negative response. And this is the same signal that was
recorded at Sea World a year ago, when they were taking blood samples
from the juvenile Gray Whale, J.J., in captivity there. So it was not
even the same source, but it produced the same effect!"
This was more than intriguing. On the one hand, Gray Whales that come
right up to small boats obviously aren't "annoyed." Indeed,
precisely the opposite would seem to be the case. On the other hand, here
at San Carlos, besides the industrial ship traffic the whales often found
themselves surrounded by whale watching vessels probably many
more than at the San Ignacio Lagoon. Thinking back over my time at San
Ignacio, I couldn't help but be impressed with how conscientiously those
skippers maneuvered around the whales. While the number of pangas
on the lagoon at any given time had been allowed to increase from twelve
to sixteen in 1999, overcrowding was never a factor. Guides like Pachico
and Maldo certainly took people into the proximity of the whales, but
nobody ever chased them. Here in Magdalena Bay, that same level of awareness
didn't exist. That is what Paco's studies were aiming to improve.
Paco was saying: "I get criticism from some of my fellow marine
mammalogists, who say 'Why do I spend so much time with Gray Whales? They're
so ugly, they look like giant cucumbers or slugs!'" Who says that?
I asked. "People that are jealous of our research," Paco responded
with a laugh, then continued: "Well, it's true that Gray Whales are
not streamlined like a Humpback or a Blue Whale. Or cute like a beluga.
But they are so graceful. Filled with expression."
Some of them were beginning to become "friendly" in Magdalena
Bay. Paco said he'd noticed that, early in the season, "mothers actually
put their bodies in between the boat and the calf. Then as the calf grows
older and more curious, the mother allows more contact." For Paco,
after working around Gray Whales for eight years, 1998 marked the first
time he'd touched one. "It was a calf and I could see its eye looking
into my eyes. I knew we were talking. I didn't say anything. This is an
experience a lot of people have had in different ways, but I know it's
there. They're trying to save us from our human side, I guess."
I asked what he meant by that. "Well, I firmly believe that we have
detached ourselves from nature, with automobiles and satellite TV and
microwave ovens and so on. That to me is one of the reasons why we don't
protect nature. We have to feel a part of it first. The Gray Whales serve
to connect us again."
As the sun faded over Magdalena Bay, I sat on a promontory not far from
the School for Field Studies. I watched for whale spouts and mused upon
their echoes. Roger Payne, in describing the musical commonalities between
human songs and Humpback Whale songs, has written: "This commonality
of aesthetic suggests to me that the traditions of singing may date back
so far they were already present in some ancestor common to whales and
us. If this is true it says that the selective advantage of singing and
the laws upon which we humans base our musical compositions (laws we fancy
to be of our own invention) are so ancient they predate our species by
tens of millions of years."
That was a wild and wondrous thought for a scientist, not dissimilar
from Paco's feeling that he and the baby Gray Whale were "talking."
I reflected on two of my friends having been suddenly inspired to sing
as the whales approached them. For one, it was a chant she had not thought
of in years. Jim Nollman, among the pioneers in interspecies communication,
tells a story in his latest book (The Charged Border) about donning
a wetsuit and taking a "huge, floating drum" out among the Gray
Whales off the California coast in the mid-1970s. When I met with Nollman,
he told me the same story but with a twist.
Nollman said: "I was going into the water ten miles off the coast
of Mendocino in January, in fifteen-foot swells and a boat about the size
of this table. It's also the white shark breeding ground for the West
Coast. I can't believe I was doing that, I was nuts! Anyway, there were
times when I'd be floating around out there with this big wooden drum
that had tongues cut out of the top, like you see in craft fairs today.
I'd made outriggers for it, and a seat, so I could actually sit inside
the drum." Nollman called it a "whale singer" and, he wrote,
was hoping to evoke "whale songs heard on record, in the ocean, and
especially in the human imagination." However, "if the drum
tipped too much to either side, water flowed in through the tongue slits."
He said he wasn't having a whole lot of luck and "the swells are
getting up to twenty feet. One moment you're at the crest and the next
moment in the valley, it's very disorienting. My boat is gone, I don't
know where my crew members went. For some reason, I wasn't freaked. All
of a sudden, I had this jolt of being examined. It was very strong and
I don't know how to explain it, except that I felt like my brain was a
room and somebody was walking around inside of it. A few seconds later,
this Gray Whale came right up beside me and made eye contact. Just stared
at me. I've never felt so scrutinized, almost invaded, but there wasn't
any feeling of danger. No, it was a feeling of trust. Of surrender."
I sent David Gude a transcript of the conversation I'd taped interviewing
Jim Nollman. David had been a musician and a sound engineer for a record
company, and long been fascinated by the acoustics of whales. He'd been
the one of my traveling companions who called the whales over with his
song, on my first visit to the San Ignacio Lagoon. He wrote me from Los
Angeles in response to reading the Nollman interview:
"Very mysterious. They may 'hear' or visualize by electrical stimuli.
Maybe they see auras ('Nollman: "they like to stare."')
"[In Baja] four went by as I was swimming (my last morning). Dove
under and called to them. (Always wondered what I would say). Said, 'Hello,'
which came out, 'Oh-oh.' 'Greetings from my world to yours,' which came
out: 'ah ah, ah, ah ah, oh, ur.' Very interesting. It was reduced to digital
"Maybe grays learned to project electromagnetic waves. Has anyone
tested?....Huge mystery here. They rule the waterways. Man is 95% water!
Lots to learn from them...."
As I finished reading the letter, that last phrase lingered. "Lots
to learn from them...." I realized it was time for me and getting
time for the Gray Whales to leave the Baja. Time to heed the call north.
And I knew I'd have to follow, wherever the call took me.