Entertainingly Evil

The Singer and the Song by Manny Frishberg

Even his mother did not hear him cry, his song was so different from all the others. I didn’t understand that at first.

I was elated. Just a lowly grad student out collecting data on a research vessel between semesters, and I had been the first to hear a new whale’s song. An undiscovered species? I thought they might even put my name on the paper.

I played the recordings at triple speed, gathering data points without even really listening. I could hear the difference, of course, long before I realized what I heard. –  creaks and squawks like the pods of blue and finback whales we had come to monitor, but in a vocal range far above either of their songs. A different song from the one the pods composed and sang together throughout the mating season.

Only the males sing, and only during their winter mating season. We can easily tell them apart. Blue whales sing at around 17 hertz and the finbacks an even lower 12 – a rumble at the very edge of hearing, more like a buzzing in your jaw until you speed up the playback. But even at triple speed his call was special, the way his voice rose and fell like an infant’s wail – to my ears at least, mournful.

I replayed the recording at normal speed and for the first time I heard the song just as the hydrophone had recorded it. A shudder swept up my back. It’s just a wild animal vocalizing, a mating call, I had to remind myself.

Since we were there for the season, I logged his movements in and out of the inlet where we lay anchored. His tone made him easy to single out, unlike the rest. The longer I listened the more I began to sympathize, though I’d been taught to try not to.

When I went back to school in the fall, I looked for earlier recordings. The project had been funded just that year so I searched other studies that might have recordings with for similar patterns. None.

I discovered that the Navy had tested sonar in those waters several years ago. It took a FOIA request and getting the ACLU involved to get the data. I heard his distinctive calls on their tapes.

I traced him back a dozen years. Working backwards I heard how his song evolved. In the first years, he sounded nearly normal. Still a calf, his tones seemed almost right; his vocal organs must have been so small. As years went by his voice changed – the tones increasingly wrong, mimicry made more bereft because to the others he was screeching.

All the whales in a pod sing a single song, composed each fall on the trek to the warm, tropical waters. There, the calves are birthed and their next year’s siblings are conceived.

Hearing his songs over those years, I sensed him losing hope. Each year he diverged further and each year he joined the blue whale pod later in the spring – like an exile condemned always to follow, never to join.

For my post-doc I tracked my whale through the next three mating seasons. The longer I listened to him, the more I felt a kinship grow between us. I wished I could tell him that I, too, am a solitary creature, adrift alone in an ocean of my own kind.

(I knew I had conjured this connection in my mind – how could he even know I existed; why would he ever care? Yet the whale had invaded my soul.)

By that time I actually sighted him, I had my name on several papers and an assistant professorship, well on my way to tenure. His body was the unmistakable blue the world’s largest creatures are named for, the same rounded body, but slimmer. Also unmistakable, the dorsal ridge that gives finback whales their name. He was not a new species but a hybrid, a mule. He shared many of the features of both species, but in the end he was neither. Now, seeing him, for the first time I truly understood. After that, nothing else mattered.

My grant was up and my new proposal was turned down. Even so, I had my plan. I knew I’d have to fund it myself.. I sold my house – too much space for a loner anyway – and bought a sailboat, equipped it with hydrophones and a synthesizer with underwater speakers. I set off, searching for a range, a tone.

I found it in the voices of Pacific humpbacks in the seas near Tongo. I stayed with them through the summer, learning to play their song until my synthesizer gave a pretty good approximation.

When the humpbacks accepted me, odd accent and all, I headed north. I found him, as I knew I would, still trailing the pod that he always did in their Arctic feeding grounds, still alone.

I followed them when the pod left for the Arctic, learning to play their new song as they created it. Then I taught it to my whale, transposing the notes and cords as best I could into a key he could sing.

He and I fell further and further back from the pod, changing course a bit at a time, luring him away. Out on our own, I started changing the blues’ song, bending it toward the one I’d learned from the humpbacks until my finback-blue sang only theirs.

In the southern tropics I began picking up the humpbacks calls and, little by little, I backed away. Somewhere near Kiribati I lost him. His voice had merged with the chorus.

These days I play my synthesizer for myself, adrift alone in the world.

I tell myself he is just a wild animal but I miss him like a kindred soul.

Manny Frishberg has made up stories since he started staring out windows. He has been learning to do it better for the last 30 years and inflicting the results on an unsuspecting public since 2010, along with numerous magazine feature stories over a long writing career. He lives near Seattle.

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