A few weeks ago, I managed to fire off a few emails to Jim Darling in the height of the humpback whale research season. For the past 30-some years, Jim has spent his winters in Hawaii—off the shores of west Maui, in particular—studying humpback whales. Jim’s primary field of research is humpback whale song. Through Jim’s research, as I shared last week, we know that only the male whales sing and they do their primary singing in and around the breeding season. While Jim has studied gray whales off Vancouver and humpback whales throughout the North Pacific, he returns to Maui annually to focus on humpback singers and their song. Here, he answers a few questions I asked him.
How did you get started in this research? And was there a moment or an encounter with a whale when you knew this would become your life's work?
When I was in university I spent the summers on the west coast of Vancouver Island surfing, and we often saw whales just outside the surf breaks. One year I drove a charter boat, which took people to see sea lions, and we kept finding whales. One thing just sorta led to another. I was in a place where whales were seen daily, nothing was really known about them, some opportunities came up to look at them, and I guess I was curious. I don't know if there was a single encounter or moment--it probably had to do with spending a lot time close to the animals, realizing they could be individually identified (by photos of natural markings), and then realizing we could actually study them in the wild--something that was not really considered possible at that time.
Will you describe a typical research day?
First thing each morning is a check of the weather--specifically the wind, as it will determine if we go out and what we can do. A lot of what we do with singers requires calm. The boat(s) need to stay stationary (with engine turned off) near the animals without being blown off. Supposing we are working on singers (which is most common for me), the first step is to find one. This is done by moving--more or less randomly--and listening with a hydrophone at each stop. When we hear a relatively loud song we stay and wait for a single whale to surface nearby. Once we have confirmed who is singing we can begin to record or do whatever work is planned for the day.
Unique challenges: the wind. If it’s blowing our job is do-able but much, much harder. I guess the next biggest challenge is number of whales present in Hawaii. Singers sing until they are joined by another male and often there are so many whales around that this happens within minutes and before I can get a full song recorded. (It would be easier if there were fewer whales.) Besides this, I guess it’s just trying to have all the ingredients work at the same time--good weather, stationary singers, and all the electronics and other equipment including boat actually working.
What does a whale song sounds like?
I think novelist Chris Moore had most best description in his book Fluke. He said something like the song sounds like an ambulance in jello. The song is about a 15 minute sequence of sounds in a specific arrangement which includes everything from the lowest throbs to highest whistles and squeaks. Once a whale as worked its way through its sequence of sounds, it starts again, continuing until joined by another male or stopping itself to join other whales.
The song gradually changes in composition as its being sung, yet all the singers in a population sing the same version of the ever-changing song at any one time.
I have not analyzed the current song to compare in detail with last years, but I will say this year’s song shows a full range of what the whales are capable of--that is, a wide range in sounds from one theme to another.
After 30 years, what keeps you coming back to Hawaii to research the humpbacks?
I have worked on whales in many parts of the world, and explored many others looking for the best study locations. We want calm, clear water, enough whales that you don't have to spend all your research time just trying to find one, good access, support facilities, and no wars. Hawaii really is one of best places in world to study whales.
Jim provides a wealth of additional research in his recently published book Hawaii’s Humpbacks: Unveiling the Mysteries.