The song of the sea

“As silent as a fish”
– A saying from ancient Greece

In 1953, Jacques Cousteau co-authored a book titled The Silent World: A Story of Undersea Discovery and Adventure. It was long assumed that the ocean was a quiet world, empty of sound.  But we have since discovered that this is far from the truth.  The seas that surround us are filled with a vast array of sounds.

“The underwater soundscape can be as noisy as any rainforest”
Kate Stafford

Underwater sound is generated by a variety of natural sources, such as breaking waves, rain, the sound of bubbles popping and of volcanoes erupting at the bottom of the ocean.  There is the creaking and cracking of ice, screeching and popping and groaning.  The noise from ships at the surface and the sound of the earth quaking.  And of course, the sounds of marine life.

Because sound travels five times faster through water than through air it is a useful tool for aquatic animals.  Especially given that sight and smell are less effective underwater.  All it takes is a bit of murky water and your vision is severely restricted but sound can travel for thousands of miles in the ocean.

Animals use sound to study habitat (echolocation) and to detect predators and prey.  Sound is used for communicating about reproduction and territory and some animals even use sound to stun their prey, such as the pistol shrimps.

Whales and dophins

Probably the most well known sound from the sea is probably that of the whale song.  The haunting, eerie moans gave the whale a voice and in doing so, probably aided conservation efforts.  Whale song is now part of human culture and helps us feel connected to these mysterious creatures.

The humpback whale has the loudest voice in the animal kingdom, carrying for miles.  And it is thought that they may have one of the most complex songs in the animal kingdom.  Their songs are sung by the males and the songs are always changing although whales from one area sing the same song, whales from different areas sing different songs.  Almost like they have accents.

In contrast to the melancholic songs of the whale, we find the excited pips of dolphins who use high pitched beeps to paint a picture of the world around them.  Their language of squeaks and chirps lets them communicate with each other and whistles are used in a similar way to names, they are unique to each dolphin and seem to be a sort of greeting, an announcement that you’re there.

Apparently, dolphins are also able to mimic sounds and one scientific paper suggest they may even sleep talk in whale song.

We have long been fascinated by dolphins, ancient Greek mariners listened to them through the hulls of their ships and according to Aristotle in about 344 BC, they even heard dolphins snoring!  NB, there doesn’t seem to be any evidence that they do actually snore…


The term crustaceans covers a vast array of marine species including crabs, lobsters, shrimp and barnacles.  They are united by their exoskeleton and some use this to produce sound.

For example, the snapping shrimp are rather noisy creatures, especially given their size.  They produce a crackling, sizzling sound by clicking their claws.  They do this to stun prey,deter predators, and to communicate with others.

Hermit crabs make a noise by rubbing its body parts together or rubbing against the inside of their shell and do so as a sign of aggression.  Male fiddler and ghost crabs use acoustical signals to call to females during breeding season and are apparently unique amongst crustaceans in doing so.  Other species use sound once they’ve found a potential mate but not to call out.

Spiny lobsters make a rasping sound by rubbing a piece of soft tissue, called a plectrum, against a smooth, stuff file near their eye.  Essentially they move the plectrum over the file in the way that a bow is moved over the strings of a violin.


We tend to think of fish as silent, except for the occasional little noise of their mouths opening and closing but this isn’t the case.  They produce sound using their swim bladders and their teeth that include grunts, croaks, clicks and snaps.

When it comes to mating, it is usually the male that makes the sound.  Some fish come together in large groups to ‘sing’ and may continue for hours, dominating the local soundscape.  Fish, such as the oyster toadfish, that live in murky water, need to make use of sound to find a mate as vision is limited.

The other key reason that fish make noise is when they are threatened, want to show aggression or need to defend their territory.

For some fish, instead of producing sound, it is listening that is crucial.  Many coral reef fish have a stage in their life where they go away from the reef, returning at a later time to mature.  These fish, such as the clownfish, need to know how to return and it’s thought the song of the reef provides a road map.

The song of the reef

A healthy coral reef is not a quiet place.  When they are teeming with life, they are one of the noisiest places in the ocean, making a sound like crackling popcorn thanks to the snapping shrimp.

The sound landscape changes throughout the day, with a rhythm like birds on land.  Fish have dawn and dusk songs and different creatures call at night than during the day.

Sea urchins are one of the contributors to the evening chorus.  Kina sea urchins dominate New Zealand waters with the sound of their eating.  And that specific local flavour to the music of the ocean is important for our little critters which are searching for home, or for a healthy reef to start new life on.


The song of the ocean is not a static one, it is not a consistent one.  It changes as the day passes, it changes by season and by locality and it changes based on the health of the sea.

There are many recordings of ocean music and of particular species but these are two I found helpful:

Sea Monsters: Whales

Anyone who has seen a whale or any recent representation of a whale may be forgiven for not understanding why they are featuring in my sea monster section.  Whilst we may revere these amazing animals today, they have been cast as villains and monsters in history.

For a long time, whales (and other marine animals) were depicted as oddly shaped creatures, what we would today consider cartoon like.  It wasn’t until the 1800s that a more accurate idea of the whale started to emerge.  The advent of photography helped of course as previous images were based on earlier drawing and beached specimens.  This vagueness around the reality of the whales allowed for myths and folklore to build up around it, including one of the prevalent beliefs that can still be found today.  That is, the idea that whales can swallow creatures, including humans, and shoot them out their blowhole.  Yes Disney, I’m looking at you and the myth you perpetuated in Finding Nemo!

The monstrous whale

“Whales were likely every bit as exotic, weird and frightening for the Greeks and Romans as the likes of vampire squids or goblin sharks are to us”
Philip Boyes

In terms of whale stories, there is one recurrent theme, that of man being eaten by whale.  We see it in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, in Pinocchio, in the bible and in Rudyard Kipling’s Just So story.  Whilst it is impossible for a whale to swallow a person they could trap you inside their mouth where you’d probably drown as you’d likely to be in there with a lot of water…

Although I guess this take on the whale wouldn’t work so well for the stories…  It wouldn’t show God’s dominion over the whale (or generic big fish) in the biblical tale of Jonah.  And a quick death would have made Jonah’s punishment rather less meaningful – once swallowed, he prayed and prayed until God told the whale, or big fish, to spit him out on dry land.

Despite it not being possible, we hear tales of ‘real life’ swallowings such as in Hull in the 1800s where James Bartley alleged to have been swallowed by a whale and to have survived inside it for three weeks.  Later research found that whilst the ship he was on was real, there was no record of him on the crew list.  It is posited that it was a publicity stunt carried out by a man who then sought to portray himself as a real life Jonah and do the rounds of music halls and sideshows.

We also find tales of sailors who came across whales but mistook them for islands, rocked up to shore and got out, often in search of treasure.  Then the island would suddenly move and dive deep into the sea, drowning the people who’d landed there.

In Leviathan, we find the whale as a biblical symbol of evil, a reminder of the wrath of god.  And in the pictures on old maps, we find the whale presented as an unknowable and destructive force, wild and violent, epitomising the power of the sea.

Outside of literature, in the real world, whales do kill humans, but when they do, it is accidentally or understandable.  In 2002, a whale leapt out of the water and landed on a boat, killing the boat’s owner.  Probably an accident, the result of the whale not looking where it was landing…!  Grey whales show aggressive behaviour when boats approach them and their calves.  I’m betting we would all be a bit angry in the whale’s position.  Their size means that accidents and aggressive behaviour are more dangerous and more threatening to us but the whale is not malicious.

Unlike some of our sea monsters, the attitudes towards whales in history are a bit more nuanced, for whilst the whale may be alleged to kill, it also provides.  And I suspect most whale related human deaths or sunken ships have occurred because of whaling…

The bounteous whale

In Iceland, the word for beached whale is the same as that for windfall, and for many indigenous cultures, a large creature appearing as if from the gods was like winning the lottery.  I’ve read numerous myths, folk tales and stories about communities who were struggling, who were facing starvation and then, by a miracle of their particular deity, a whale, or similar, was found on the shore.

Given the immense size of whales and the multitude of uses for them, it is no wonder they were seen as a gift from the gods.  But, as is so often the case, we got greedy.  And along came the whaling industry.

As a commercial enterprise, whaling began in Europe in the 11th century but it was during the 17th century that it rapidly grew until the 19th century when technological advances meant it was even easier to catch a whale.  In the US, at this time, whaling was the 5th largest industry.  But, with whaling came danger.  It was a perilous way of life, battling the sea and facing the intense struggle between whale and man.  Whilst it’s easy to see how the whale could be portrayed as a monster in these situations, we have evidence that tells of tender, heart breaking encounters as well:

“Close nestled to her side was a youngling of not more, certainly, than 5 days old, which sent up it’s baby-spout every now and then about two feet into the air.  One long, wing-like fin embraced its small baby, holding it close to the massive breast of the tender mother, whose only care seemed to be to protect her young, utterly regardless of her own pain and danger… could a mightier example have been given of the force and quality of maternal love.”
– Frank T Bullen, 1898, an account of his time on a whaling boat

Whales were used in many ways that to catch one would truly provide a bounty.  Whale oil was used in products ranging from paint to soap to candles.  Baleen plates were used in corsets and skirt hoops.  Whales were used as fuel, for food and their vomit was even used in perfume…  Heading back to medieval times, we have evidence of whale ribs and mandibular being used as yokes and harnesses for animals.  In ancient Ireland, baleen was used to make saddles and sieves.  We also have houses built using whale bones, whale scapulae used as tomb covers, and whale bones hung outside town halls in whaling societies in the Netherlands as a sign of the wisdom of the authorities.  Whale faeces were even used to dye clothing apparent…

As late as 1939, whales were being killed in large numbers, around 50,000 a year. And in the 1950s, to get footage for Moby Dick, whales were killed on camera.

In so many cases, its hard to see how we can cast the magnificent whale as a monster, given the actions of humanity.

Whale research

One reason we may have feared, or disrespected, whales for so long could be down to lack of scientific research.  Between 1324 and 1913, the law said that the British monarch owned all cetaceans and sturgeons in the water around the UK.  This meant that if dead specimens washed up on the shore, they belonged to the king or queen and scientists, natural historians or curious amateurs couldn’t turn up and start dissecting them.  Now, when whales, dolphins etc wash up on our shores, a group of scientists get a call and can head off and do their thing, the result being better knowledge of this wonderful animals.

On a similar note, because of the size and lifestyle of whales, it wasn’t so easy for a scientist to just pop out and see one.  Yes, whales were caught by the whaling communities but these were cut up and made into things, they weren’t kept as a whole beast and used to increase our knowledge about them.  Also, they were dead by this point meaning any understanding would be predominantly anatomical, not behavioural.

Whales today

Today whales are seen as a symbol of gentleness, of peace, of song and, because their numbers declined, of fragility.  Instead of being viewed as a resource to be exploited, they are seen as a wonder to be protected.  This is illustrated well by the outpouring of concern over the whale which got stuck in the Thames in 2006.

We show whales our compassion, our concern and instead of hunting them, we now head out on boats to try and see them.  NB, this is not without it’s problems as boats can affect natural behaviour, cause pollution, create noise etc but action can be taken to protect them whilst also allowing us to get close.

Knowing more about whales has fostered our relationships with them.  We know that they communicate and once humans found they had a song, the whale started to have a voice.  This created a sense of connection and gave the whales a sentience.

Our attitude towards whales had a complete turnaround.  The whale went from monster to be killed to kin that we need to save and protect.  Despite this, there are still countries who continue to hunt whales today and there are the ‘sanctuaries’ which keep whales in tiny, unfit pools for long and painful lives.


Totally off topic from everything I’ve been talking about but whales used to live on land!  These are creatures which evolved out of the sea, onto land and then went back into the sea, isn’t that amazing?!

Whale: Animal Dreaming


Whale: Wild Unknown Animal Spirit Deck

So I know I’ve already talked a lot about whales but in the wild unknown post I focused on baleen whales so I thought this post would give me chance to consider toothed whales, such as the killer whale pictured.

There are 73 species of toothed whale* and as you might guess, instead of baleen, they have teeth!  In general toothed whales are smaller than baleen whales which is perhaps counter-intuitive when you consider the latter eats only teeny tiny food and the former is more prone to fish, baby whales and even seals.  Another difference is the baleen whale has two blow holes where the toothed whale has one.

Killer whales are an apex predator and are found in most of the world’s seas.  In order to find their food, toothed whales use echolocation.  This allows them to dive deeper, where the light is poorer, to hunt.  They are highly sociable animals and it is believed that different pods have adopted slightly different hunting techniques which are passed on to the new generation. Once they have found their prey, the killer whale’s strong teeth and powerful jaw grip on.  They don’t actually use their teeth to chew, swallowing their kill whole.

Killer whales have also been known to drive their prey onto a beach to feed on it which is a risky strategy as the whale can become stranded and will be crushed under their own weight if they are out of the water too long.  Perversely, they are not safe in the water either – if they cannot come up to the surface to breathe, they risk drowning.

There is also a theory, although how respected it is by scientists I don’t know, that whales engage in self stranding when they are ill.  Sacrificing themselves so that the pod as a whole is not infected, slowed down or hindered in some other way.  However, as whales have highly complex social structures, this can backfire; other whales may then strand themselves to try and help the first whale.  Regardless of the truth in this, it gives us an interesting and contradictory metaphor.  On the one hand we have the ill whale which gives us the idea of sacrificing oneself for the greater good and on the other hand we have the helper whales who are endangering themselves; who helps the helper?  We have a responsibility to look after ourselves first, if we don’t then we cannot help others.  The idea that if a man is down a hole, don’t get down there with him.  This echoes the situation the baleen whale mother finds herself in in the wild unknown card.

As we saw in the wild unknown, the whale is a creature of abundance for people and in dreamtime stories, the beached whale was a gift to the people.

* Note, the term toothed whales includes all species of dolphins and porpoises

Whale: Wild Unknown Animal Spirit Deck


Let’s start by watching a whale make a rainbow!

How awesome is that!

That was me easing you in gently as this is going to be a long post.  But that feels appropriate for this, the final card in the water suit, and one of the most epic animals alive today.

Whales are mindbogglingly massive and can be up to 34m long.  Blue whales are so big that a human baby could crawl through their arteries and they can weigh up to twenty three elephants.  Humpbacks come in a lot smaller at a mere 16m long and 6 elephants in weight which is still pretty impressive!

These giant aquatic mammals evolved from land animals and now live in the open ocean.  This tying together of land and sea is something we’ve seen a lot in this suit but when it comes to the whale, they are so well adapted to life in the water that they cannot survive on land.

As mammals they must breathe in oxygen so they have to come to the surface although they can hold about 5,000 litres of air so they don’t need to do it too frequently.  They also make efficient use of the air, using 90% of the oxygen compared to the 15% that humans use per breath…  When they release the unusable air, it is expelled through their blow hole.  This looks like water because the air they are breathing out is warmer than the environment so it condenses.  I think this would make a good basis for a cleansing meditation or ritual; what stale ideas and thoughts do you need to blow out?

Apparently whales are conscious breathers which I guess makes sense – if you’re many metres under the sea you want some control over when you breathe.  This however means they can’t sleep for very long.  We don’t know much about how they overcome this but in captivity, toothed whales have been shown to sleep with one side of their brain at a time.

This is actually quite a good idea.  Not literally sleeping with half your brain awake, but the idea that different parts of your brain may need rest after a while.  Like when you’ve been painting for a few hours and are getting tired, perhaps try switching to a documentary or going for a walk.  Stretching the metaphor a bit, for me, as I’ve mentioned before, there are certain things I need to do regularly and this activates different parts of my body and my brain; something creative, something intellectually challenging or stimulating, something restful etc.  I need this balance and this flicking between things or my mental health starts to suffer.

Another excellent lesson from the whale is the power of conscious breathing.  We’ve looked at breath work with the dolphin so all I’m going to say here is if you are in crisis mode, if you are overwhelmed, if you are feeling too much pressure, pause, take three conscious breaths.  It won’t change your circumstances but that pause can help how you tackle things.

In terms of food, we have two different things going on here.  There are whales which have teeth and whales which have baleen.  I think this is a humpback whale so we’re going to focus on the latter.  This group of whales have no teeth, instead they have plates of baleen which they use as a filter.  They take in a huge mouthful of sea and strain out the water, leaving them with a nice mouthful of krill and plankton.  This huge animal, lives on a tiny creature.  As you can imagine, they need to eat a lot and indeed, some whales can eat up to 40 million krill a day!  Because of their amazing ability to hold their breath, they dive deep for their food, often down to depths too deep for light to reach them.  Folk, do as the whale, dive deep and filter!

The life cycle of this majestic animal really helps us to understand them a bit better although the nature of their behaviour means we don’t really know very much about them.

First things first if you’re a whale looking for love, you’ve got to get where the other whales are.  Whilst some species are sort of social it’s all a bit vague and definitely not the tight knit groups we see with some water creatures.  So you’re heading off on a long migration towards the equator.  Some whales, some sharks and some turtles use magnetic fields in the earth’s crust to help them navigate which I thought was interesting.  I know work is being done with butterflies and birds to try and get a better understanding of migration patterns and how they know where to go which always seems an amazing feat.  Despite being a sea creature, it feels like the whale is reminding us to get in touch with the earth and listen to it’s wisdom if you’re not sure which way to go in life.

Once these magnificent animals have reached the equatorial waters, finding a mate begins.  As I said, we don’t know a lot about this – it happens out in the middle of the ocean.  It is thought that whalesong has a role to play in choosing your mate.  It is the male that produces the songs which last for up to twenty minutes and which are repeated for hours at a time.  The songs are highly sophisticated and continually evolving.  Sound is possibly used because it travels better underwater than light so is good for communicating over long distances; whale songs can travel for miles.  Some find their songs beautiful, I find them hauntingly sad…  But I’m not a musical person.  If you are, express yourself through sound, write the song you’ve got going round the edges of your mind, sing your heart out.

Once a female is pregnant, she has an 11 1/2 month gestation period before finally giving birth to normally one calf.

As a mother, the whale really presses us to make sure we don’t forget our needs, all of them, left brain and right brain, body and mind or however you see your holistic self.  The whale is a nurturing, tender and gentle mother.  To protect their little calf, they give birth in calm nursery waters.  This provides a nice easing into life for the baby but is really tough on mummy whale.  Nursery waters don’t have much in the way of food for mum and baby is drinking vast amounts of milk each day.  Despite this, they are protective, loving and supportive parents.  They have been seen holding their baby near the surface so it can breath when it’s tired as well as getting between predators who might fancy a nibble on the calf.  There is an element of sacrifice here which goes against the idea of meeting your own needs and looking after yourself first.  There is a time and a place for both.  Before baby was born, mum will have been eating lots in preparation for this period of hunger.  She put herself first before giving birth so she could put her baby first afterwards.

Let’s take a quick breather, have a look at a whale and her baby, before we dive into the second part of this post:

So we’ve learnt a lot about the whale, what about the whale and the world?

Within the sea, the whale plays an important role.  They apparently remove vast amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere making their survival really important for the planet.  And they aren’t just useful alive… Dead whales slowly sink to the bottom of the ocean and provide food for a lot of other animals at all levels of the sea.

Whales are massive and like other large animals around the world, this means they have been worshipped and revered for the abundance they provide us.  Think of how the bison is treated and you will get an idea of the gratitude that cultures have for the whales.

As humans we have a tendency to overdo things and so we have hunted the whale far too much.  But many years ago, the whale would have been an important catch but also one which was used wisely and carefully and was thanked for the bounty it provided.  Whales provide meat, oil, bones, blubber, baleen, sinew, gut etc which can all be used to eat, make tools, for fuel, to make thread and containers and in many other ways.  The whale was not gratuitously killed.  It was killed to provide for families who made the most of it.

There are a number of stories and beliefs which illustrate a reverence for the whale and it’s power.  In Inuit creation myths, a deity found a stranded whale and was told where he could find special mushrooms which would give him the strength to return the whale to the sea and by doing so, return order to the world.  An Icelandic legend tells of a man who through a stone at a whale and caused it to burst.  He was told not to go to sea for twenty years but of course he did and thus a whale killed him.  The whale is also seen as good luck and as holding a sense of the divine.

And breathe out, you made it to the end of the whale.  What can I say, a big post for a big animal seemed fitting… And this is the last of the physical beings in the wild unknown animal spirit deck.  Next we move onto the spirit suit, the realm of mythical beings.