There is an ancient Maori legend I’ve heard of, while living in Aotearoa (New Zealand), about a special connection between the mighty Kauri tree and the Parāoa (sperm whale). Thousands of years ago, they were very close friends and, before returning to live in the sea, Parāoa gifted its skin to Kauri for protection. This explains the similarity between the skin of the sperm whale and the bark of Kauri trees and the fact that both produce valuable substances for humans: kauri gum and ambergris. Some say that, to this day, when sperm whales come closer to the coast of New Zealand, they sing for the Kauri trees and the trees sing back to them. sound ecology

Kauri trees are the biggest trees in New Zealand and amongst the biggest in the world and they hold a special place in Maori culture and traditions. Kauri trees have been seriously threatened for quite some time now by a virus that attacks the roots, preventing the tree from feeding properly. The virus has come from overseas supposedly around 100 years ago and it has been increasingly spreading through the bush with the growing tourism and trekking activities.

When I heard about the legend and the song of the sperm whale to the Kauri, I could not avoid imagining a connection between the dieback of the kauri trees and the heavy pollution of the sonic environment of the ocean.

Let me explain.

Sound travels through water faster and farther than through air, yet the awareness of the level of noise pollution in the oceans is still not very high, at least amongst the general public. Most people tend to imagine the underwater environment as a semi-silent one, filled with muffled, bubbling sounds of fish (do they even make sounds?) and underwater currents.

Sea life relies on sound much more than on sight. In very clear water, near the surface the range of visibility can reach 70 metres, but, as one dives deeper, it decreases quickly. Sound is way more effective in water than light. Fish and sea mammals rely on sound for communicating, finding food and navigating, all of which is consistently disrupted when the environment is filled with noise. The barbaric practice of seismic blasting to locate oil deposits consists in producing very loud noise every ten seconds, 24 hours a day for extended periods of time. In the case of New Zealand, for example, seismic blasting has been used in the South Taranaki Bight, and oil companies are trying to gain permission to blast the whole Taranaki Basin, which happens to be the only feeding ground of the Blue Whale on the New Zealand coast. Luckily, this permission has now been denied by the current government. sound ecology
Seismic blasting is the most damaging of underwater human activities, but the wide-spread noise of ship and boat engines has become one of the most recurrent sounds in the oceans of the Earth. Marine biologists who use hydrophone (underwater microphones) for their work, often find that this kind of sound is virtually omnipresent. Over the last 50 years, whales have modified their vocal behaviour to adapt to the new levels of noise. Basically, they are screaming over the noise we make the same way we do when we have a conversation in a noisy street or a crowded pub.  

What if we lived in a world where the whales sing to the trees and the trees sing back to the whale as an important nourishing element of the ecosystem?

What if the changing song of the sperm whale is no longer nourishing the Kauri tree as it used to, depriving it of a strengthening nourishment that could possibly make it more resistant to its sickness? I believe we should start asking ourselves these kinds of questions more often.
Interspecies communication is a recurrent theme amongst indigenous cultures throughout the world. sound ecology
For example, the tribes and peoples of the Arctic Ocean have many traditional stories about the communication between humans and whales. Some groups of traditional fishermen in Brazil and in Myanmar depend on a most peculiar collaboration with dolphins, where the dolphins have learned to signal the fishermen when and where they need to throw their nets.

This only sounds unlikely to the disconnected and narrow-focused mind of the post-industrial man who normally does not display a very wise relationship to his own environment. But if we dare to step into the unknown territory of what was previously known and now forgotten, we may be surprised to discover consistent, meaningful communication between everything and everything else that is alive on this planet. And we would start wondering what they say about us and the disgracefully noisy way we occupy our space. sound ecology

Copyright 2017/18 - Simone Vitale

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