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The left-handed hermit crab, one of the many creatures living in Hawai'i's intertidal zone
Vol. 11, No. 6
December 2008/January 2009

  >>   Teaching Aloha
  >>   Inside Fortress O'ahu
  >>   What Lies Beneath

Cracking the code 

story by Sheila Sarhangi

Jim Darling pushes his oversize silver headphones close to his ears. He lowers his head in concentration, listening. He’s not a deejay; he’s a biologist, alone in a small boat off West Maui, and his hydrophone just picked up the song of a humpback whale. Like a composer, but in reverse, he transcribes the sounds: a short line for a trumpet-like wail, five dashes for a fast succession of buzzes and a long wave for what resembles a creaking door. Below, a camera snaps a close-up of the singer several meters beneath the surface doing the whale’s equivalent of a handstand.

This is only one of the remarkable scenes in Daniel Opitz’ documentary The Humpback Code, which follows Darling, biologist Meagan Jones, National Geographic photographer Flip Nicklin and his assistant, Jason Sturgis, on their quest to translate the song of the humpback whale.

Humpback songs are amazingly complex; they can have two to seven themes and last from 25 minutes to 24 hours—or longer— without interruption. Darling, who has been studying whalesong since the late 1970s, is the first to admit that we’re a long way from understanding them. “You keep having to ask the question, why does it need to be so complex? Because many of these functions we…have speculated it might fill don’t really require this level of complexity,” he says.

We do know a few things: It’s the males who sing, but oddly their songs don’t attract females. They attract other males, who travel miles to join the singer. Darling also notes that humpback songs change over time, and a population will adopt these changes, essentially copying one another. “The whales that are in Mexico sing exactly the same version of the song … as the whales in Hawai‘i and Japan,” he reveals in the film.

Perhaps the most moving moment of the film captures two whales dancing—yes, dancing—to the sound of countless singers, waving their long pectoral fins and gracefully spinning like ice skaters.

What it means remains to be deciphered, a journey of discovery the 45-minute film documents beautifully. Along the way, though, it’s important to resist jumping to human conclusions. “The key and challenge is to let the whales guide you,” Jones says, “to try and learn and observe from them without imposing our own ideas, projections and expectations of what they should be doing.” HH

The Humpback Code is airing on Animal Planet and on the National Geographic International Channel. Check your listings for dates and times.