INTRO: A trip to the Canadian far north to make music with whales has instead ended in silence and suspicion. Doug Schneider has more in this week's Arctic Science Journeys Radio.
STORY: Jim Nollman and two fellow musicians were eager to get to northwest Canada's McKenzie River Delta. Their plan was to play their instruments for beluga whales to see how the animals would react.
NOLLMAN: "The beluga whale has a larger brain than humans, and most of the studies have shown that they produce more different kinds of sound than any other animal. There's a good chance they even have a language."
Nollman has made a 25-year career out of playing music for marine mammals, including dolphins, orcas, and even humpback whales. For the Canadian gig, he and his group lugged electric guitars, speakers, microphones and other gear through mosquito-infested bogs to a place where female belugas congregate with their newborns every summer. Unwittingly, they found themselves at the center of a controversy over the region's small white whales, because for the first time in local memory, the whales failed to show up.
NOLLMAN: "I had read many accounts by biologists up there, one of whom told me personally that I'd have to bring earplugs because the belugas make so much noise at night. We never saw a whale, and in my subsequent reading I found that the whales are the most sensitive animals, perhaps on the planet, to anomalous sounds in their environment. We knew that some oil companies were doing seismic testing, basically setting off explosives out on the estuary of the McKenzie River Delta."
Nollman doesn't know if that's what drove the whales away. But he's written a book about his adventure called "The Beluga Cafe." And it was an adventure, but not for the reasons he'd hoped. Besides the disappointment of not actually seeing beluga whales, Nollman aroused suspicion among some of the local Inuit people, who hunt whales as part of their native tradition. They blamed the musicians for scaring away the belugas.
If you'd like to learn more about musical interactions with beluga whales and other animals, just come to our website at www.asjnews.org. Help this week comes from Earthwatch Radio at the University of Wisconsin Sea Grant Program. This is Arctic Science Journeys Radio, a production of the Alaska Sea Grant Program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences. I'm Doug Schneider.
Audio version and related websites (above right)
Thanks to Earthwatch Radio for help preparing this script.
Arctic Science Journeys is a radio service highlighting science, culture, and the environment of the circumpolar north. Produced by the Alaska Sea Grant College Program and the University of Alaska Fairbanks. The shortcut to our ASJ news home page is www.asjnews.org.
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