Innovative digital technologies are enabling us to decode nature’s sounds, leading to exciting ideas about planetary governance that incorporates nonhuman voices.
Karen Bakker is a professor at the University of British Columbia, a Guggenheim fellow and a 2022-23 fellow of the Harvard Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies.
On a chilly morning in January 1952, Alan Baldridge witnessed a murder. Sailing off the coast of California in pursuit of a pod of migrating whales, he heard screams in the distance. The pod abruptly vanished. Scanning the horizon, he spotted a large gray whale “spy-hopping,” swimming vertically and raising its head above the surface. Baldridge, a marine biologist at Stanford, decided to investigate; drawing closer, he saw seven orcas singing hunting cries, circling a small gray whale calf. As its mother watched nearby, the orcas began devouring the lips, tongue and throat of the dead baby.
Baldridge’s story inspired a controversial research agenda. Soon after his encounter, the Navy began using orca sounds in an attempt to control cetaceans. Their hypothesis: Whales could decode information from sound, a contrarian claim in an era when most researchers believed that animal noise was devoid of meaning. One of the Navy’s first experiments involved sailing a catamaran off the coast of San Diego, playing recorded orca screams to gray whales swimming south on their annual migration. The results were “spectacular”: The whales whirled around and fled north or hid deep in nearby kelp beds, slowly popping their heads above the surface to search for predators. When they finally resumed swimming south, the whales were in stealth mode: sneaking past, with little of their bodies showing above the surface, their breathing scarcely audible.