Sounds of the Sea

We hear singing whales, the grunts of fish, the crashing of waves on rocky coasts and sandy beaches. The wailing sound that rigging makes when strong winds blow. The nightly slapping of wavelets on a hull of a still sailboat. The hills are not the only place filled with the sounds of music.

Ever since the first man or woman carved out a tree trunk, climbed aboard and floated down the river, rhythmic utterances, later known as songs, helped propel them to their destination. They mimicked the sounds of the waters they traveled, coordinated their work to raise sails or pull oars, lamented their separation from those ashore, and sang songs from inspirations gleaned from the sea. They appealed to the gods of the oceans for safe passages, bountiful catches, and quick return home.

It is no wonder that the grunts of early seafarers became the chanties and melodic sounds of generations of voices that followed; that instruments to accompany and argument those songs were carried aboard and protected as much as the provisions were for long passages. The advent of recorded singing and worldwide communication didn’t dim the need, or want, of such musical tradition.

With this background, we raise a flag to the spreaders. It signals that we are open for seafarers to gather aboard and, as a friend once said, “bring joyful noise to life”. No need to be proficient, learned or even melodic in temperament. Voices can be angel sent, or a devil’s growl. The idea is to use the language of musical intonations to convey something that otherwise lies dormant. It fills a void left by the inadequacies of both spoken and written word to convey full human feelings and yearnings. In short, not all things in the heart can be communicated with the spoken or written word. Nature has not given other animals the speaking and writing abilities of humans, but we are blessed that those abilities can be melded to nature’s sounds.

There is, of course, always another side of the story. In this case, the other side of the interface between air and sea: underwater sounds in the ocean. Recent news articles have pointed out how scientists, after listening to the sounds in the ocean “confirms that anthropogenic noise is becoming unbearable for undersea life” (NY Times Feb 4, 2021). “Sound travels faster and farther in water than in air. Over evolutionary time, many marine organisms have come to rely on sound production, transmission, and reception for key aspects of their lives. These important behaviors are threatened by an increasing cacophony in the marine environment as human-produced sounds have become louder and more prevalent.”

Humans, apparently, and their ships, seismic surveys, air guns, pile drivers, dynamite fishing, drilling platforms, speedboats, dinghies, and even surfing — have made the ocean an unbearably noisy place.

The articles describe how these noises interfere with many living sea creatures. Juvenile Clown Fish need to hear the surf breaking on the reef to find their way home. Dolphins are well known underwater  communicators. Whales can go deaf, get extremely disoriented and beach themselves when subjected to prolonged and powerful sonar pulses. The later was aptly detailed in the book War of the Whales by Joshua Horwitz. It described the U.S. Navy’s cover up of how sonar affected whales in the Bahamas and in other places worldwide. At one time the navy had one sound generator in the Indian Ocean that could be heard in virtually all oceans (it was used to track Russian submarines).

Jelly fish and zooplankton are impacted as well. “Marine life can adapt to noise pollution by swimming, crawling or oozing away from it, which means some animals are more successful than others. Whales can learn to skirt busy shipping lanes and fish can dodge the thrum of an approaching fishing vessel, but benthic creatures like slow-moving sea cucumbers have little recourse.” Which sounds an awful like how “environmental injustice” works on land when more affluent people can escape the effects of land pollution by moving to better neighborhoods. So, am I adding to the cacophony of disruptive sounds in the ocean by jamming on board our sailboat?

To sing or not to sing, that is the question. Is it better to suffer the pains of silence or take voice and bellow out against inadequacies of just the spoken words and writings of a feeble mind? Will those creatures of the deep suffer the slings and arrows of our piecing songs, to die, to sleep? And by a sleep to say they end the heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks that fish are heir to.

Shakespeare concluded that such a question led to no action at all as conscience makes cowards of us all. Methinks we have progressed and can face the challenge. Let us be mindful and sing in harmony with the creatures of the deep.

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