Kiskadee: The Challenger Humpbacks and the Grandmother Hypothesis

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By Mandy-Suzanne Wong

Welcome to Kiskadee, a yellow-breasted, black-masked, ruffling and squawking celebration of nonhuman vitalities. In this column, you’ll find true stories of nonhuman beings living extraordinary lives, defying human comprehension, and inspiring masterpieces.

In the 1950s, Bermudian Frank Watlington became the first human ever to record the songs of humpback whales. He did it by accident, using giant hydrophones which the US military had buried in Bermuda’s underwater mountains. 

Seven decades later, the US has abandoned its Bermuda outpost; and Bermudian Andrew Stevenson is listening in on Challenger, a submerged mountain off the island’s southern shore. In 2018, Andrew planted military-grade hydrophonic recorders in Challenger’s summit, forty-three meters below the surface of the Atlantic. He’s not interested in submarines. Andrew’s listening for whales. He’s doing it for whales’ sakes.

For Atlantic humpback whales, Bermuda is neither a breeding ground like the Caribbean nor a feeding ground like Labrador and Greenland. In years of round-the-clock observation from his twenty-one foot boat, Andrew discovered that Bermuda is a layover point for humpbacks on their annual migration from the Caribbean to the north. He’s cataloged about 2000 individual humpbacks who return here year after year and stay for several weeks. Challenger is one of their favorite haunts. 

Andrew films them wriggling on the seamount’s sandy ledges, treating themselves to back rubs against this giant loofah to relieve their skins of parasites. At all hours of the day and especially at night, Challenger is home to the grandest open-mic event the world has ever known.

“We hear the humpbacks singing often in this exact location, especially at night when the singing seems to be nonstop,” Andrew writes. “During the day the singing is sporadic but always there are whales milling around the singer…I have often witnessed humpbacks aggregating on the Challenger Bank with as many as fourteen whales in close formation milling around for some hours.” 

Andrew figures that, through song, the whales are calling their friends and allies together. Up north, where they mean to go, among them starving mothers with new calves in tow, orcas prowl the ocean for vulnerable prey. The majority of the humpbacks whom Andrew encounters carry the scars of close escapes. An orca attack is an unforgettable trauma. The humpbacks bear their scars their whole lives long. Their songs carry forth their memories and their plea: safety in numbers. 

The seamount, conical like a megaphone, broadcasts their song, their plea, their trauma through miles and miles of deep water, summoning other humpbacks to veer towards Bermuda as they head north. More humpbacks visit Challenger every year, driven eastward from the US coast, where noise pollution from battle cruisers, ocean liners, container ships, and offshore drilling drowns cetacean cries, and where the military uses whales for target practice.

But the song of a humpback whale is no mere battle horn. Watlington’s unedited recordings were multiplatinum chart-toppers in 1970. Since then biologists, musicians, and philosophers have drawn detailed comparisons between whale song and human music. Whether or not humpbacks’ sonic emissions resemble the sonic emissions of a John Coltrane or Morton Feldman (and it’s arguable that some do); because humpbacks learn and share their sounds with each other, these sounds are cultural behaviors. So are playing Feldman and blissing out to Coltrane. 

Humans learn to love Feldman and play like Trane primarily from other humans (including Feldman and Trane), not just because our genes are one way or another. The same goes for humpback whales. Cetologists have found that humpbacks learn their highly structured songs from ancestors, contemporaries, and passing fads. It’s not a matter of genetic transmission; individuals learn from other individuals and embellish what they learn in individual ways. This is why renowned cetologists Hal Whitehead and Luke Rendell believe strongly that “humpback song is a form of nonhuman culture.” 

Consider a whale whom Andrew nicknamed Singer. If you’ve never heard a humpback sing, when you hear Singer sing you might think of a haunted forest of ghost-elephants. A sketchy transcription of Andrew’s 2016 handheld-hydrophone recording might look like this:

Scooooop! Wroooon. Wroooon. 
Scooooop! Wroooon. Wroooon. 
Scooooop! Mmmooo. Wroooon. Wroooon. 
Scooooop! Mmmooo. Wroooon. Wroooon. Wroooon (squeaky). 
Scooooop! Mmmooo. Wroooon. Wroooon. Squeak. 
Scooooop! Mmmooo. Wroooon. 
Bzzzzzzzzz! Low grunts. Mmmooo. Wroooon. 
Bzzzzzzzzz! Low grunts. Mmmooo. Wroooon. 
Bzzzzzzzzz! Low grunts. Mmmooo. Wroooon. 
Bzzzzzzzzz! Whimper. The end.

I’m no expert. Cetologists would loathe me for not having a diagram and making too much of one whale. But see how rhythmic it is? Singer’s fondness for threes and fours? The precise repetitions—very precise, I mean within a couple of Hertz—with subtle timbral variations at transition points? And the silences. Between each Scooooop! and Wroooon, Singer pauses for almost exactly two seconds. As his phrasing evolves with the addition of Mmmooo, his silences change too, lengthening to about three seconds. With the advent of his new theme, opening with Bzzzzzzzzz!, his pauses shorten to one second. My transcription gives no sense of this at all; but my point is Singer’s rhythm. His precision not just in intonation but also breath control and timing. His is the slow rhythm of the waves, his sense of time too long for most of us. And who knows if Singer’s silences might be infrasonic bits of song?

Singer only sang for three minutes, possibly because his friend Cecile came to find him. Andrew knows this because he himself was in the water as Singer hung there, nose to mountain. When you’re in the water and someone like Singer sings, “you can feel your ribcage rattle,” Andrew says, “the sound goes right through your body.” 

Most scientists, including Whitehead and Rendall, believe the “function” of humpback song is to aggravate the ready-for-sex switch in the female mechanism. This hypothesis reeks of the myth of the “animal-machine”; the anthropocentric myth that nonhumans (and females) are instinct-driven robots with no interests except reproduction, no intellect or emotional life, and no capacity for the lofty excesses of beauty which supposedly make humans better and brighter. If all Singer wanted was to flip Cecile onto her back, wouldn’t he have done it? Andrew is at pains to emphasize that the behavior he witnesses among humpbacks at Challenger “is not the aggressive behavior seen in the breeding grounds.” 

Is it really true that everything, every moment of a long, big-brained, big-hearted life, which includes learning everything we’d expect from a trained human vocal artist, is a mere survival mechanism or a twitch of the strings by that divine puppetmaster Evolution? Is there no chance that Singer just might call these ideologies into question?

According to Whitehead and Rendall, it’s accepted as conclusive that, among humpbacks, “only males sing.” This isn’t because males are physiologically superior. It’s just that no human has ever seen a female humpback sing, so it’s assumed they don’t; a conclusion based on patriarchal behavior in other animals, especially humans, and an absence of evidence. 

Even though no one’s ever seen a humpback giving birth either, it wouldn’t occur to anyone to assume they just don’t do it. 

The assumption that only male humpbacks sing is, of course, also anthropocentric. It implies that all male whales think according to a sort of algorithm (a “creative” or “noisy” sort); all females think according to another sort (the self-replicating passivity of a computer virus); and in sum all whales are programmed by their chromosomes to sing or not to sing. This implies humpback singing isn’t creative after all, reducing them right back to “animal-machines” and implying those cetologists who credit whales with cultures (including Whitehead and Rendall!) are just wrong. 

They’re not wrong. Whales are as cultured as we are. But whales, like humans, are also individuals. As no individual is just a specimen of its culture, no individual is just a representative of its species or gender. The philosopher Adorno wrote that reducing an individual to a mere “exemplar” of her kind means considering her as good as dead. 

That’s just one reason why assuming all nonhuman sounds are reducible to survival functions just doesn’t cut it. If all the Bermuda humpbacks wanted was to call old friends together to take on the orcas, why not bellow one great Mmmooooo! through the seamount’s natural megaphone and call it a day? Why bother with rhythm and variation? 

In 2018, Andrew filmed an intricate courtship dance between two humpback males. In 2009, he recorded a complicated, rigorously executed twenty-three-minute song session by a lone humpback who displayed no interest in courtship. 

If some male whales can engage in creative, aesthetic activities with no apparent relevance to personal or species survival—singing perhaps for the sheer joy of singing—why couldn’t some female whales sing for purposes of their own?

Most Atlantic humpbacks visit Bermuda for a few weeks in springtime, between wintering in the Caribbean and summering up north. But Andrew has observed a notable few remaining in Bermuda’s waters throughout the winter. So few are they, so deep they dive that only Andrew’s endless waiting has ever brought a glimpse of them. Some are very young. Mostly females, but not all. Too young to be interested in the sexual antics that pervade the Caribbean humpback scene in winter. Others are very old. Too old to be interested in sexual antics. All the geriatrics are female.

“It seems very likely to me that the younger and older females perhaps avoid being harassed in this ‘bar scene’ down south and instead hang around these mid-ocean seamounts where they can opportunistically feed off the krill, zooplankton, and small fish that rise towards the surface in the upwelling currents,” Andrew writes. 

He means they’re not courting. They’re not convening to take on northern orcas; that won’t happen until spring. 

And yet sometimes, drifting over Challenger, Andrew hears wintertime singing.

Could it be the young males “practicing”? Andrew doesn’t think so. It’ll be some years yet before any of Bermuda’s younger overwinterers are sexually mature. So who is it? Why sing to Challenger in winter? Combined with his year-round observations, Andrew’s sunken hydrophones could suggest an answer to this question. If they do and Andrew’s theory is correct, it’ll be nothing less than a coup for cetology. It’ll strike a deadly blow to the anthropocentric notion that humpbacks’ intellects and artistic sensibilities are programmed by their chromosomes. 

Andrew’s theory is a branch of what cetologists call “the grandmother hypothesis.” Considering “the routine presence in cetacean societies of menopausal females,” it makes sense to Whitehead and Rendall that “an elderly female, by not spending effort trying to reproduce herself, has the time and energy to help raise her current children and her grandchildren.” 

No one, Andrew says, has confirmed the gender of every single Atlantic humpback singer, not even among Bermuda’s transient population. Consequently “we should not rule out the possibility that grandmother humpbacks are singing on the crown of Challenger Bank.” 

In winter, Andrew hypothesizes, diva-grannies may sing to orient the youngsters as they explore or entice them not to wander far from the seamount. In spring, “grandmothers fulfilling their role [may be] singing to bring together females with calves needing protection against the orcas up north.” 

They may sing just because they feel like it.

If Andrew can corroborate the grandmother hypothesis, he will decimate the idea that all members of a species or a gender are mass-produced mechanisms. 

“They’re not eating-breeding machines,” as Andrew puts it. 

Mandy-Suzanne Wong is the author of the award-winning fiction chapbook Awabi (Digging Press) and the novel Drafts of a Suicide Note (Regal House), a Permafrost Book Prize Finalist, Conium Review Book Prize Semifinalist, SFWP Literary Award Shortlistee, and PEN Open Book Award nominee. Her nonfiction book on nonhuman animals in radical art, Listen, we all bleed, was named a finalist and awarded an honorable mention in the Red Hen Press Women’s Prize Competition.

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2 responses

  1. Kiskadee

    […] Kiskadee 3. The Challenger Humpbacks and the Grandmother Hypothesis […]

  2. Adelia Esperon

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