Issue 10.3: June / July 2007

Earth, Whales & Fire

story by Michael Shapiro

If a volcano erupts under the sea and no one's there to hear it, does it make a sound? Definitely.

In 1997, University of Hawai‘i scientists installed the Hawai‘i Undersea Geo-Observatory (HUGO), a submarine observatory designed to monitor a newly hatched volcano. Located thirty-five miles off the Big Island's southeast coast, the Loihi seamount began erupting intermittently in 1996. Currently, Loihi is less than 1,000 meters from breaking the surface to become Hawai‘i's newest island. Among HUGO's instruments was a hydrophone (a submersible microphone) to listen in on the eruption. For two months in 1998, the hydrophone recorded the visceral growls and convulsions of a seismic event. But it also picked up something else—whale songs.

HUGO went offline in 1998 after its power supply failed, but it left behind hours of recordings of haunting, unearthly sounds that had never before reached human ears: humpback whales singing against the backdrop of a volcanic eruption. "The recordings just sat there for years," says Dan O'Connor, an engineer for the HUGO project. "I played a sample for some musicians, and they were all moved by it. They said, "Dan, if you can make that into a CD, people would love to hear that soundscape.'"

So Dan collected the most compelling hour's worth of recordings and made a CD, Na Kohola o Loihi (The Whales of Loihi): Whale Songs from an Undersea Volcano. On each of the five tracks is the mesmerizing and occasionally explosive sound of "uhi "uha, a Hawaiian word for the rumble and crack of flowing lava. If you're an audiophile with a killer sound system, crank up your subwoofer and prepare to have your skeleton rattled by the raw power of Mother Earth. The eerily beautiful whale songs rise in counterpoint, surging from guttural baritone to soprano trills echoing through the fathoms. "To me, it's primal," Dan says, "The lows are really amazing. It's a birth sound ... the whales singing as a new island rises."

The big question is, of course, whether the songs are a response to—an appreciation of—the volcano. But for Dan, the mystery needs no explanation. "There's a consciousness, alien but also familiar, singing this soulful jazz, mele kai like you nevah heard. Someone's out there singing in the abyss ... just because."

Na Kohola o Loihi (The Whales of Loihi): Whale Songs from an Undersea Volcano