Whales Are Plotting Something

Image: Wellcome Collection

For time immemorial, human beings have demonstrated a persistent inability to simply leave whales the fuck alone—whether it’s Jonah claiming squatter’s rights in a whale stomach, Ahab refusing to just let a hot whale live, or cargo ships interrupting whale conversation with the frequency of a white man in a business meeting. And now whales are whispering in the depths of a roiling sea. They are done with our bullshit. Something is coming.

According to The Atlantic, whale songs have been getting deeper over the past half-century: “Since at least the 1960s, their pitch has downshifted the equivalent of three white keys on a piano.” Reports of the change in pitch come via a recent study analyzing over 1 million recordings of whale calls that found similar tonal shifts among different species of whale and amid groups that never interact with one another.

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There are a few theories about why whales are suddenly mumbling. The first is that sea traffic is making it hard to hold a conversation. However, even whale populations in more rural parts of the ocean without a ton of maritime traffic are singing in deeper voices and many whales already know that they have to pause their conversations to let ships pass. So why now? What are you saying, whales?

The second theory is that protections against commercial whaling have helped populations to rebound, meaning there are now more whales in closer proximity to one another. Their calls have become lower in pitch because they are no longer communicating long-distance. So, evidence that whales are now close enough to quietly plot. Opportunity.

The third theory is whale calls are getting deeper because we are ruining the ocean:

Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, meanwhile, may indirectly influence whale voices in other ways. Recent monitoring of Antarctic blue whales shows that, during the austral summer, their pitch rises. Researchers have hypothesized that in warmer months, the whales must use their forte volume to be heard amid the cracking ice—a natural sound amplified by unnatural processes, as rising temperatures exacerbate ice-melt. So the impacts of a warming planet may modulate animal sounds even in remote places with barely any humans, and where the most thunderous notes come not from ships, but from the clatter of breaking ice.”

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Motive.

As a person who has read Moby Dick several times and is, therefore, an expert on whales that have been pushed too far, allow me to connect all three of the above hypotheses: there are more whales now, they’re tired of watching their friends choke to death on our fucking garbage, and they are whispering plans to have their revenge. But unlike Ahab, the vengeance of sea creatures upon humans is meet and just. And if “concerted effort by furious whales” is how humanity ends, I personally think it will make a beautiful story for a timeless whale ballad that future whales will sing at the volume of their choosing in a docile ocean now liberated from the tyranny of man.

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