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A Day With the Whale Listener

by Jane Bakewell


Paul Knapp has been coming to the BVI for 25 years in search of whales. Each year this former landscape architect from the East Coast of the US arrives mid-winter, sets up his tent at Brewers Bay Campground, anchors his sailboat Compass in the bay, and heads out on his 13-foot inflatable dinghy in search of the elusive humpback whale. What makes Paul's quest so interesting is that seeing the whales is only a secondary interest of his; what this member of the Cetacean Society International is longing for is to hear the "song of the whale."

A humpback whale and her calf.

Above: A humpback whale and her calf.

I was fascinated to join him on one of his expeditions and very curious about how we were going to "hear" the whale songs. Like many people, I can recall listening to a recording at one time or another of these beautiful giant mammals of the sea but to actually hear one live? This was going to be exciting.

Paul's own circuitous journey in search of whales began thirty odd years ago when he worked on various sport fishing boats in St Thomas. A captain he worked for had the rare opportunity of running a boat for Jacques Cousteau and crew who were filming the video, The Singing Whale in 1971.This piqued Paul's interest and as he followed the various recordings that were released in the 70s, he became fascinated by the fact that the whale song constantly evolves and changes. Even one male whale during the mating season will 'recompose" his song several times – true Leonard Bernsteins of the sea.

"I guess you could say I was hooked on hearing the newest song," Paul smiled as he waded waist deep out to the dinghy in Brewer's Bay with the whale listening equipment safely sealed in black waterproof valises. I followed, feeling very happy that the north swells we had been experiencing on Tortola had finally subsided and this was a picture perfect day to be out on the high seas. We motored slowly out of the bay until we were about 200 feet off the rocky promontory, somewhere in a radial arc that encompassed Jost Van Dyke, Guana Island and the north shore of Tortola. This is a known migration channel for the humpback whales that make their way to these warm waters from the Dominican Republic and Turks and Caicos, generally from mid-January through March. Males, mothers and calves, all swim in groups waiting for the new born calves to mature before heading north to the more challenging Atlantic waters.

While Paul began to set up the whale listening equipment, I perused some information about whales and the humpback specifically. These incredible sea creatures, recorded as early as Biblical times, grow as large as 50 feet, weigh 35 to 45 tons and have distinctive knobs on their head and chin. The dorsal fin located more than halfway down the back is frequently scarred and the throat has from 15 to 35 grooves. The humpback was named by whalers for the hump or arched back that appears when diving. They are known for their acrobatic behavior, and those who have been fortunate enough to spot them in British Virgin Islands waters have often been treated to watching them "breach" (jump out of the water), lobtail (smack their flukes on the water) or "spray-hop" (bob up and down vertically).

I decided I would be very pleased to just hear one note of their song, or maybe a series of repetitive sounds with varying tones and rhythms. Males often sing in a floating stationary position facing head first towards the bottom at a 45-degree angle. Scientists have not yet determined how these sounds art produced. Paul's improvised equipment for open boat listening included a hydrophone (water-proof microphone) on a 50 foot cable, a battery box with a preamplifier going into a tape recorder, and a set of speakers under the shelter of a makeshift hard plastic box. Before lowering the hydrophone with cable into the water, he threw out a "sea anchor" – a yellow rubberized parachute with a hole on the top that acted as a stabilizer for the boat and kept us from drifting too rapidly.

Paul Knapp adjusts the levels on his hydrophone equipment.

Above: Paul Knapp adjusts the levels on his hydrophone equipment.

Once the hydrophone went overboard, held out gingerly at arms length so as not to touch the sides of the boat, we immediately heard a loud chorus of crackling sounds. This is sound of "pistol shrimp" in vast numbers (of the genera Alpheus & Synalpheus) that emit a loud snapping noise. Between those sounds, we did hear the whirring props of a far off motorboat or two, but with both our ears straining towards the speakers, we finally savoured our prize. How can I describe the thrill of hearing this low base call that resonated through the deep, beginning with ooohuuuuumph that rose and fell sounding like a far off foghorn in the hands of an accomplished jazz percussionist? "Wow." Paul smiled. He is used to this reaction by now. "I have yet to take out anyone whale listening in all my years, who was disappointed," he says. "I guess that is why I keep doing it."

Who does Paul take out? Anyone with an interest. He does not charge for this service but often people will leave him money for fuel. Everyone seems to know the "whale guy of Brewer's Bay" and Carl Parsons, local owner of the campgrounds since 1976, considers him family.

Paul has heard so many variations of the humpback whale song over his years of coming to the BVI, that he has now recorded two CDs. Rapture of the Deep is his most recent and features the Caribbean humpback whale songs in many soothing and beautiful complex songs. In fact Paul donated some of his whale song CDs to a local hospital near to where he lives in the United States. He got a letter back from one of the staff stating that a young boy who was very agitated before a critical surgical procedure, listened to the tape and was immediately soothed and calmed by the whale's song. That, confesses Paul, is his favorite letter.

As the rubber dinghy bobbed quietly in the exquisite bright blue waters, with the warm sun bathing my body, I leaned my head back and closed my eyes. I am not sure how far away that whale was (the hydrophone picks up sounds up to ten miles away) but I heard the plaintive lure of his "improv routine" intended for a desirable female – and I was hooked. His song was beautiful and unique and there was no need for the liner notes to appreciate it.