Singing Whales

Singing Whales Stir Controversy


Sept. 7, 2004 — The shallow and warm waters off the remote African island of Sainte-Marie are alive with the sound of music — the eerie wailing of hundreds of humpback whales, who escape the rigors of the Antarctic winter and come there every year to breed and croon.

The whales have given rise to a major tourist industry in the past 10 years. An island of only 19,000 inhabitants off the northeastern coast of Madagascar, Sainte-Marie has more than 50 hotels, including three that opened this year.

Not surprisingly, local authorities and hoteliers are determined to protect both the singing cetaceans and their livelihood, but say the Madagascar government is coming under strong pressure to allow the docile whales to be hunted.

“ But the hunting nations like Japan and Norway are putting enormous economic pressure on the Madagascar authorities. ” They see developing the tourist industry as the best way of saving the 12-meter (40-foot) humpbacks. “The more tourists we have here, the more people there will be who are concerned about the defense of the whales and of the sea,” hotel-owner Isabelle Ortolo said.

Desire Tsivatou, the mayor of Sainte-Marie, said “whale safaris” have grown in importance in July and August each year since 1993. There are few places in the world where visitors can be more certain of getting within shutter-snapping distance of the giant mammals.

Local authorities and hoteliers this year have organized several events to popularize the humpbacks, including a painting contest in schools and a four-day whale festival, starting Wednesday.

The hoteliers also fund the activities of a French research association, Megaptera, which seeks to identify and follow the whales on an annual basis.

“The people of Sainte-Marie have to understand the importance of this sanctuary to resist the pressure of Japan and others,” said Valerie Collin, the coordinator of Megaptera.

One danger, she said, is that local fishermen may start seeing the humpbacks as a source of profit. The fishermen “used to be afraid of the whales, but since they have seen us approaching them, they are not so frightened and they may be lured into hunting them,” Collin said.

For the time being, Madagascar supports the international moratorium on hunting that has been in force since 1986, said Didier Cabocel, president of Saint-Marie’s whale commission, “above all because hunting whales is not at all traditional here.”

“But the hunting nations like Japan and Norway are putting enormous economic pressure on the Madagascar authorities,” he said.

Collin said local authorities for the moment seem willing to defend the humpbacks, “but with these economic pressures, we shouldn’t dream — the whales are really in danger here.”

Isabelle Ortolo said the tourist industry wants to turn the offshore waters into a nature reserve, like Nosy-Be, an island off Madagascar’s northwestern coast, “so that hunting is definitely banned.”


Name: Humpback Whale (Megaptera novaeangliae)

Primary Classification: Mysticeti (Baleen Whales)

Location: Worldwide oceans.

Habitat: Polar to tropical oceans.

Diet: Plankton and small schooling fish.

Size: Up to 46 ft in length and 33 tons in weight.

Description: Dark blue-black above; pale or white patches below; several throat grooves or pleats; very long flippers with knobs or tubercles on leading edge; fatty pad at base of dorsal fin; slight ridge from dorsal fin to tail; very long tail flukes.

Cool Facts: Of all the baleen whales it is the most likely to accumulate parasites, such as whale lice and barnacles, because of its leisurely swimming speed. Males sing unique songs during the mating season that can last up to 20 minutes and are often repeated for several hours.

Conservation Status: Vulnerable

Major Threats: Entanglement in fishing gear, pollution and collisions with ship traffic.


One Response

  1. I have two favorite “Whale Song” related music pieces. One is called “And God Created Great Whales” and is by the classical composer Hovhanhess another is by Paul Winter and is called “Lullaby from the Great Mother Whale for the baby seal pups.” Both incorporate whale singing with traditional instruments. I will try to send you a file on you Yahoo account.

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