Last week, I traveled in a small motorboat off the coast of Bahia alongside a group of marine biologists and whale aficionados, all of us eagerly scanning the horizon for telltale plumes of steam. My one previous trip had been an exercise in futile searching, and those hours of empty horizon had left me hungry for any movement of life amid fantastically turbulent waves. When the grey-blue skin of a humpback finally emerged from the water, and an enormous dorsal flipped above the surface, I experienced the jolt in my stomach familiar to anyone who has seen something incredibly huge that also happens to be very alive. It was, as many before me have described, a stunning moment of proximity and awe, and I have since been reflecting on the lessons in health, humility, and spirituality that humpback whales have to offer.
Judging from the countless articles and podcast episodes that recount similar moments of communion, it seems common knowledge that whales are extremely empathetic, intelligent, and communicative animals. Although I had read many astonishing stories, by the time that I glimpsed a whale in person, the vast majority of them had escaped me. So I decided this week to return to the internet, to my journal, and to the soothing voice of David Attenborough to collect and reflect on some factual tidbits that could help me better understand the communication of humpback whales and the strong interest they inspire in me.
Humpbacks have no shortage of mindblowing characteristics. They are physically huge—measuring up to 60 feet—and every year of their human-length lifespans, they travel immense distances, sometimes as far as 16,000 miles. Despite these remarkable traits, it is their breathtaking songs that continue to astound me the most.
In general, whale vocalization is incredibly emotionally complex. Because other senses are less useful in an watery environment that scatters light and suppresses smell, the ability to emit and decipher sound—which travels an average of four times faster underwater—is critically important for whale survival. To communicate with each other, whales emit a series of regular and repeating sounds. Researchers have found the songs of humpback whales, in particular, to be “strikingly similar” to human musical composition, and a single session of humpback singing can last longer than 24 hours.
In a remarkable example of cultural exchange, male humpback whales will begin their mating season by singing the same tune but, over time, the musical structure of that tune will occasionally change—always moving west to east across the ocean—until the catchiest versions prevail. The songs of humpbacks are distinct for mating rituals and feeding periods, and different still from those sung to mourn the loss of a loved one or to express feelings of loneliness.
Whales, throughout material and literary history, have been perhaps as easily harvested for their symbolic meaning, and I, here, will provide no exception. After watching the humpback flip above the water, a quick internal scan identified some of my own symbolic attachments to the whale now slipping below the surface. Because deep water has always preoccupied and, occasionally, terrified me, I find myself drawn to creatures at ease within the deep. Watching another being live and play within a seemingly infinite expanse of space feels something like good psychic practice. These creatures, for me, represent freedom from anxiety, the ability to move within one’s consciousness and, increasingly, a healthy and unquantifiable world. Their songs offer us countless poetic lessons for a healthier spiritual life: the importance of listening to each other, of honoring the creativity in our communication, of respecting the remarkable existence of creatures quite different from ourselves and, more simply, of frequent singing.
While these teachings are readily apparent, the lessons offered by a humpback whale became more obvious to me after learning that some economists, over the last few years, have attempted to quantify a whale’s monetary value. One great whale, according to economists at the IMF, is worth $2 million, due to its value for ecotourism and its ability to store atmospheric carbon in its body. While this number was ostensibly offered as a way to promote whale conservation, it seems to me, and to others, that quantifying whales simply makes their bodies more easily traded on the stock market and their territory more easily privatized.
Perhaps one of the most important spiritual lessons that can be learned from humpback singing is simply that we should not attempt to understand our most important things, including our remarkable natural world, as commodities with numeric value. Instead, the more we can listen to the intrinsic, highly musical value of our surroundings, the more easily we will, perhaps, be able to find that quality within ourselves.
Written by Sara Margaret for the Ayahuasca Awareness Program
Sara Margaret is a writer, teacher, and amateur whalewatcher from New York City.