Category Archives: whales


… some photos from the water-world of my summer internship: Cetacea Lab. The North King Lodge boat is from James. Enjoy!

Panoptic Boredom/Suffering Science

Last week, I found myself sitting in front of Cetacea Lab’s spectacular observation window staring at absolutely nothing for several days straight. A heavy front had rolled in and settled across Taylor Bight; even the island less than half a kilometer away was cloaked. One never knows with cetaceans, so we were doing whale scans nevertheless: left to right; front to middle; middle to back. Creatures to locate, identify and mark down on a sheet. As the hours passed one shift, my thoughts drifted from the chair where my body sat. Somewhere out in the fog, I had repositioned myself to face the observer, his tireless red eye gazing from the Tower of Taylor Bight. As the vision-cone came sweeping by, I lowered my dorsal fin and quietly sank into the bubbles.

One of the hardest things about doing science, as I’ve come to know it, is in confronting that strange dialectic between boredom and curiosity. How to pair the scanning, counting, and data crunching that confines our thought with the mental openness necessary to cultivate liberatory interspecies relationships? I’ve coined a term for the condition I sometimes find myself in with the scan work: panoptic boredom. It emerges in that flattening state of specular repetition – a psychic and bodily indigestion which is also a hunger for more visuals to gnaw away at. I’d like to advance the idea that panoptic boredom operates as an extreme foreshadowing of Facebook. Both produce boredom effects by a similar set of imperatives structuring the relation between observer and observed: Looking rates that make possible the surveilling of multiple identities instead of individuals; looking-rules that train the eye to gravitate towards known-in-advance information coordinates; embodied looking-roles that mediate the observer’s position with an interface – a window or a screen.

To feel boredom of any sort presupposes many sorts of privileges. To occupy the panoptic position suggests power. I’m not trying to bemoan the drudgeries of information work or disavow its responsibilities. But as a critical geographer doing whale science, I am beginning to rethink the politics of discipline – all too easily a shock word for me and many of my colleagues. Dedicated scientists who ‘look out’ for animals must pass through panoptic boredom and all its condition forms of neglect, distraction, and imaginative fancy. We need disciplining strategies to perform the identifications necessary to provide space for our companion species, and that means strategies that respect their dramatic ‘nonidentity’ as well – Theodore Adorno’s word for the preponderant ‘thing’ which necessary overcomes its own conceptualization. In their panoptic spatial disciplining, I wonder if critical scientists aren’t in fact performing a kind of suffering – foregoing the depth of their interspecies encounter so that others may find fullness. As scientific activity, panoptic boredom is a like a sigh marking the absence of that feature we should never lose sight of: scientific curiosity.

Undersea sound monitoring and dreams of the deep

Artemia welcomes this post from guest blogger Jessi Lehman (jessislehman(at)gmail(dot)com). Thanks Jessi!

It’s a sweltering mid-summer’s night in the middle of the continent. I’m at my desk, bare legs plastered to the wood chair with sweat, the sounds of traffic, asthmatic a/c units, and the smells of exhaust and cigarette smoke wafting through the open windows. But the screen in front of me is cool blue. Whales’ tails and gently glowing interactive maps, the lazy loops of sound waves and other data visualizations travel with soothing tidiness across the screen.

I’m listening live to sound feed from monitoring stations located throughout the worlds’ oceans. And it’s this auditory component that really creates the sensation of transportation, of immersion. In the heat and dust of a mid-continent urban summer, I’m listening to the Mediterranean, to the North Atlantic, to the coast of Japan.

Facilitating my escape from the oppressive commotion and combustion of the Midwest metropolis is a project called ‘Listening to the Deep Ocean Experiment’ (LIDO), from the Bioacoustic Laboratory at the Polytechnical University of Catalonia in Spain. LIDO also relies on partnerships with other ocean monitoring networks throughout the world, including Neptune Canada, “the world’s first regional-scale underwater ocean observatory network that plugs directly into the Internet.”

These networks generate various kinds of scientific data. When it comes to the acoustic register, a number of operations are taking place to create the seamless ‘undersea listening experience’ of which I am partaking. Numerous underwater acoustic observatories collect sound data, which the LIDO system then processes in real time, beaming the analysis to onshore research stations as well as the internet. It is this simultaneity that makes LIDO unique, and adds to the listener’s perception that these sounds are genuine, and alive.

These acoustic monitoring networks are clearly big operations, requiring the highest degrees of expertise, technology, and funding. It’s the Cetacea Lab of Max R’s study, but on massively ramped up, and with greater (and slightly different) ambit. The impetus behind these efforts is a mixed bag. As Max has explained, whales and other marine megafauna have high levels of auditory sensitivity and use sound to navigate. Sound is also the most accurate tool that humans have for understanding the sea floor and locating potential georesources such as oil deposits – it’s also how naval forces navigate and locate underwater targets or other vessels. The environment of the ocean is therefore fraught with uneven sonic confrontations. Perhaps most famously, the use of sonar by naval operations has been linked to several mass beachings of beaked whales and other species. Noise from fishing, shipping, and drilling likely has other, more insidious effects on undersea environments, but a great deal is still unknown when it comes to sound, the ocean, and its inhabitants. Yet, as science advances and as oceans are increasingly recognized as necessary but endangered resources for combating climate change, international concern about undersea noise is growing (see, for example, this recent online petition against the US Navy’s use of sound, with over 500,000 signatures). So these ocean observatory networks are about science and whale conservation but also about industry, development, and geopolitics.

But I want to come back to the experience of listening. What is it, exactly, that we hear? Mostly just faint static, like the sound of rain falling. Mostly I find myself listening in apprehension, for what could be there. Some would call this kind of undersea listening remote sensing, but it feels more like interspecies or even otherworldly eavesdropping. To be honest, it feels a bit weird. And it’s not just that I’m so far from the ocean, in a place dry and hot and decidedly un-marine. I can’t say that I understand the undersea environment better by listening to these sounds (though I can’t preclude the possibility that on some level I do). Mostly I am made aware that this is a world I don’t know, can’t know, and can only access thanks to complex technological mediations – and even then only marginally. This makes the experience of listening even stranger.

French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy writes “to be listening is always to be on the edge of meaning” (2007:7). He claims that listening operates through a logic of evocation rather than manifestation. Listening to the ocean, and the creatures and creations that inhabit it, does not call them into presence the way visual data might. Rather, evocation makes the reader feel presence as an impulsion, a pressure. Instead of the presence of the thing (in this case the undersea world), evocative logic calls up anticipation, memory, desire – a summons not only to the object but also a resonance or reverberation within the subject (the listener).

So on one hand you might say that listening to the sea doesn’t give the listener the immediate access to the ocean that scientists intend. However, I think that the experience of remote undersea listening might also exceed their expectations. Listening to the sea doesn’t just put the listener into an evocative relationship with the mysteries of the deep. It also puts us into relation with capitalism, with science, and more precisely with the scientific-military-industrial complex. This is not to suggest that I, listening from Minneapolis, have a similar or comparable relationship with NATO’s military patrols as the whales, or as undocumented migrants traversing the Mediterranean. But listening to these highly mediated, always-already industrialized and militarized oceanic soundscapes lends an important new tone to Kelman’s assertion that, at their best, soundscapes provoke us to ask “Where does the exterior soundscape end and the interior narrative begin? What [do we] hear, what [do we] want to hear, and what [do we] dream?” (Kelman, 2010: 213). Where once our dreams were of playful whales, colorful fish, and vertiginous, endless blue, they might now be haunted by the clamor of the oil drill, the naval assault, and even impending environmental catastrophe.


Kelman, A.Y. (2010). Rethinking the soundscape: a critical genealogy of a key term in sound studies. Senses and society, 5(2), 212-234.


Nancy, J-L. (2007). Listening. Trans. Charlotte Mandel. Fordham University Press

‘Soundings of Cetaceans’ [a Pilot Study for your consideration]

What follows is a few scrawls about the pilot study I will be conducting in Hartley Bay this summer. This is JUST the pilot study… my intention is to begin with a laboratory study and work outwards from there… Ultimately, I want to trace the dynamic interactions of other institutions, economies, and cosmologies to the happenings of the one I describe here. The enduring thread, as I see it now, is with cultures of sounding and listening; and how a ‘sonic materialism’ connects to political economy in the making of place. Your feedback is welcome! (Speaking of ‘welcomes’, ARTEMIA would like to announce that a new blogger is in the fold – Dawn Hoogeveen!…)


Soundings of Cetaceans

This pilot-study stages an ethnographic encounter with cetology (whale science) and the study of sound. Its aim is to reveal an ‘acoustemology’, a term coined by anthropologist Steven Feld to refer to the “local conditions of acoustic sensation, knowledge, and imagination embodied in culturally particular senses of place…” (Feld, 1996, 91; Feld, 2012). Acoustemologies allow researchers to consider how sound matters to everyday environments; rather than substitute for visualist approaches to knowledge, they encourage investigations which seek to understand how various senses combine to create spatial understanding. My project puts the concept to work at a whale research laboratory, Cetacea Lab, located on a remote island in Caamaano Sound, Northern, BC. Through a seven-week fieldwork residency (August- September 2012), I hope provoke thoughts on how broader knowledges relate to sustained acts of whale listening. In particular, I will pursue two questions 1. how work in acoustemology, hitherto focused on Indigenous encounters in the developing world, can be challenged and extended by an outdoor laboratory science setting, (Feld, 1996, 2003; Daniels, 2008; Maxwell, 2008; Ramnarine, 2009); 2. to understand how Cetacea Lab’s activities produce an acoustemology of Caamano Sound and its environs.

The central actors of the pilot study are the scientists who conduct Cetacea Lab’s activities. Since 2001, Cetacea Lab scientists have been monitoring whale activity through a network of radio-linked hydrophones, remote observation, and boat-based surveys. Every summer, their efforts are supplemented by two groups of volunteers (5-7 per group), who live at Cetacea Lab for 6-8 week periods (May-July; late July-September). These volunteers provide crucial support for the monitoring activities required during ‘peak’ times of cetacean activity: In late summer especially, Caamano Sound, and neighbouring Campania Sound and Whale Channel play host to an array of migratory and resident fin, humpback, and killer whales variously involved in annual mating, feeding, and socializing… (Ford et al, 1989, 2007). Hearing all the complex sonic activity generated by these creatures is perhaps the most pronounced feature of daily life at Cetacea Lab…


During my stay, I will be interested in assessing how cetology is done: how it is a performed activity. Among my guiding assumptions is the idea that cetology has many features which suggest it as a ‘nomad science’, a term coined by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari (Deleuze and Guattari, 1987). As Pickering (2010) elaborates: “Royal science is finished science, cold, rigid, formalized and finalized… Nomad science is instead science in action, research science developing in unforeseeable ways — warm and lively, always liable to upset existing arrangements and to suggest new ones” (Pickering, 2010, x)… While cetology enjoys ‘royal’ status in universities and government laboratories, it is marked by internal tensions which have given rise to many ‘nomadic’ activities along its fringes (see: Burnett, 2012; for examples, see Lilly, 1960, 1967; Spong, 1969; McIntyre, 1974; Payne, 1995). Cetacea Lab suggests one good example: a small, non-profit lab headed by two ‘non-expert’ researchers (neither founding member has graduate level training in a scientific discipline) with stated interests in interspecies kinship and New Age intuition; reliant on volunteer work and local collaboration; conducting research marked by an evolving battery of methodological approaches. At the same time, Cetacea Lab engages in activities that place it squarely under the ambit of ‘royal’ science: seeking article publication in accredited journals, submitting evidence to government review panels, arguing for whale conservation strategies… One of my central concerns will be to evaluate how Cetacea Lab’s ‘nomadic’ features articulate with its ‘royal’ ones to shape the roles of listening and sound documentation as place-making forms of knowledge-construction.

Cetology and Cetacea Lab

To better understand how the question of acoustemology relates to Cetacea Lab, then, it is necessary to say a few more words about the discipline of cetology. In what follows, I briefly outline the two contact points that will direct my investigation…

Cetology as a sonic science

Whale science is unique among the biological sciences in its focus on sound. Certainly, this has much to do with the low-resolution watery medium in which its investigations are conducted… but the unique status of whales as “acoustic creatures” must be foregrounded (Burnett, 2012; Schwartz, 2012). Sonic focus is evinced through cetology’s reliance on one technology in particular: the hydrophone. These underwater microphones transform vibrations into signals that can subsequently be rendered into stereo, providing spatial relationships for human ears unable to locate sound-sources underwater (Hohler, 2003; Helmreich, 2006, 2010). Originally developed as military technologies for submarine travel, hydrophones made possible the ‘discovery’ of whale song in the 1950s (Burnett, 2012). The notion of that whales ‘sing’ gestures to a complementary facet of cetology’s sonic interest: this discipline is uniquely concerned with the voice as a vector of knowledge (for the classic study on whale song, see: Payne and McVay, 1971). Studies have argued for the acoustic diversity of whale clans (Ford 1987; 1989), regional groups (McDonald et a, 2007) and interspecies cultures (Noad, 2000; Whitehead and Rendell, 2001); suggested the importance of amplitude for mating displays (Chu and Harcourt, 1986); affirmed its affinities with Sonar technologies (Frazier and Mercado, 2003), and cybernetic models of knowledge (Bateson, 1972; Darling, 2006). While the echo-locative benefits of whale vocalizations are agreed upon by different schools of cetology, key disciplinary tensions persist around the different functions sound plays for whales in general.
…There is much to suggest the prominence of sound in shaping daily life at Cetacea Lab. Hydrophones broadcast sound continuously, and are actively attended to from 5am until midnight by rounds of volunteers. Sounds from all five hydrophones are fed into an audio mixer that enables the simultaneous monitoring of all stations. Three speakers are located within Cetacea Lab’s two buildings and two more lie along the connecting pathway; their combined effect saturates the lab and its environs with the continuous hiss, buzz, and (occasional) wail of underwater acoustic activity. In order to maintain a permanent record of all ‘acoustic encounters’ with cetaceans, and to aid in group identification during subsequent analysis, detected vocalizations are recorded digitally by volunteers from the moment of detection until approximately 20-minutes after the last vocal was heard. These activities are supplemented by an informal sightings network of local fishermen and ecotourism operators who report news over VHF radio, from visual monitoring efforts at the land-based research station, located on the south end of Gil island, and from the research out-camp, (Squally Point).

Hydrophones in Caamano Sound

Cetology as a place making science

As its strong ties to oceanography and naval bioacoustics would suggest, cetology is intensely preoccupied with the geography of its field-engagements — evinced both by its efforts to map the habitats, mating grounds and migratory routes of cetaceans, and by the spatial requirements of its data-gathering infrastructures. Cetology produces place and is itself produced by place; its claims are dependent on the contingencies of whale proximity, the presence/absence of local actors (e.g. large boats); and the resonant features of underwater geologies. Cetology involves the production of networks of data-gathering hydrophones and remote base-camps; in invests in naturalistic observation, surveys, and the extensive mapping of underwater geographies and water-layers. Initial US military interest in cetaceans, a crucial funding source for post-war research efforts, owed largely to the military potentials of whale echolocation (Urick, 1983; Burnett, 2012). Sonar enables objects to be located, identified and tracked by means of those objects’ sonic emissions: Its development would open the ocean to new forms of spatial understanding, themselves shaped by new understandings of the ocean’s sonic qualities… (Shiga, 2012).
Cetacea Lab, established at Taylor Bight, on the southern end of Gil Island, in 2001… engages in various sorts of place-making scientific activities. Since its founding, the lab has conducted over 600 photo-identification-led marine surveys, recorded over three thousand hours of hydrophone activity, and totaled nearly two thousand hours of ‘dedicated searching” (visual observation) (NCCS Evidence, Pt. 1-3, 2012). Boat based efforts between 2004 to 2011 alone totaled 2,174 hours (including 1390 hours of dedicated surveys and 392 hours spent in opportunistic pursuit of Humpback Whale and Killer Whale sightings) (NCCS Evidence, Pt.2, 2012)… Since, 2006 Cetacealab has been collecting data to publish an Abundance paper on Humpback whales from Douglas Channel to Caamano Sound — research which suggests a marked increase in the number of humpbacks using the region as a summer feeding ground…

Caamano Sound


My pilot-study develops a multi-method approach centered on an ethnography of sound (by ‘ethnography’, I mean a combination of site-immersion, participant observation, and semi-structured interviews). Through my residency, I will relate my experiences as a whale listener and Cetacea Lab volunteer with those of the other volunteers and research scientists. These efforts will be supplemented by an archival study of knowledge production at Cetacea Lab — texts, recordings, surveys, blog entries etc. …While the literatures raised in my ‘background’ section will direct my subsequent research activities, my time at Cetacea Lab will immerse me in the everyday duties of a fully functioning lab, and it these activities that I chose to focus on in this study.

This pilot study has four main objectives:

– To document the history and structure of the Cetacea Lab project, and to clarify the different parties that are involved in and contributing to it;
– To document how technologically-mediated sound (inc. whale vocalization) is broadcast, attended to, textualized, and enlisted in Cetacea Lab’s scientific projects (e.g. taxonomies of ‘mating call,’ ‘social,’ ‘bubble net feeding’ etc.)
– To examine — through participant observation, semi-structured interviews and personal reflection — how cultural appraisals of whale sound shape the production scientific knowledge at Cetacea Lab.
– To assess how the above three features articulate an acoustemology of Caamano Sound and its environs.

... and so on! I depart for my field-work July 24, taking the Port Hardy Ferry to Rupert and the Metlakata Express from there down the Hartley Bay. I’ll bring microphones, clothes, sun-tan lotion and Melville’s Billy Budd (read that other one). Despite such preparations and precautions, I expect only to be confused and unready upon arrival — the only way to be, some would say! Stay tuned for my special ARTEMIA installment, ‘Cetacea-Blog,’ to be initiated once I’m up there and have found my bearings…

Give the Whale Some?

What sort of songwriting credit did the whale get? It’s a legit question for a good hundred or so albums released in the 1970s. Ceta-voices feature centrally in the classical composer Alan Hovhaness’ “And God Created Great Whales” (1970); they duet in Paul Horn’s smooth jazz classic Paul Horn and Haida (1974); they playfully intersperse throughout Fifth Beatle George Martin’s nature rich Icarus (1972). Ceta-sounds describe a whole sampling blitzkrieg for pop singers (Joan Collins), hard rockers (Jethro Tull); classical composers (Toru Takamitsu), and jazzmen (Paul Winter).  The Seventies was the decade of ceta-song, and its motherlode was Songs of the Humpback Whale (1970) the instructively titled album of recordings that got nominated for a Grammy 1970 and remains the highest selling nature album ever made. Spectrographic analysis had led the recording team of Roger Payne and Scott McVay to conclude that the patterns of squeaks and mumbles had a songlike structure.  While some reviewers were clearly confused by the deep groans and plaintive squeaks —  “music that might have come from the throat of a 40 ton canary to the rumble of a stupendous Model T with a crack muffler” said one — good ol’ Rolling Stone got it nailed: “This is a good record, dig?… Its especially good for late at night and peaceful, together moments. It stretches your mind to encompass alien art forms.”

The motherlode: "Songs of the Humpback Whale" (1970)

As Jon Carroll’s words suggest, much of this whale-sampled music is best understood under the trope of New Age, as part of a ferment that included Joan Ocean’s Dolphins into the Future, with its Hawaiian ‘pod’ sociology and its theory of “sound holography” (cetacean communication); Joan McIntyre’s anthology Mind in the Waters, with its voluptuous descriptions of interspecies encounters; and John Lilly’s The Mind of the Dolphin, which sought to develop the insights of dolphin research for extra-terrestrial communication. I’ve been going through the music archive as part of a larger research project about whales and the BC coast. Not such much the big name stuff, but the cottage industry that followed it: the cassettes and blank CDRs that still fill meditation room closets. Subliminal messages, echoes, trance chords, synths, voices from the deep – its all in the grammar of New Age whale music.

Vibe man Dane Spotts released "Ultra Mediation IV: Cetacean Mind Link" in 1984.

My early conclusion from listening? Truly, its about the vibes. Grasping the “vibe” is almost like doing everything but listen for the signal. Grasping the “vibe” is about becoming conscious of the conditioning exchanges between self and environment given through the vibratory media. “Vibes” collapse subject-object distinctions, they render consciousness infrastructural to an entire social sensorium.  This is what makes them great for socializing behaviors: ceta-sounds enable your Downward Dog to happen, they let those minutes fly off the waiting room clock and get you to let go and enjoy that rub. Sometimes the whale calls are just too wild, too interesting — they make you pay attention–  but most of the time the drones and the compressed synths just get you easy. My current favorite is Dane Spott’s 1984 tape Ultra Mediation IV- Cetacean Mind Link. “Words can hardly describe the experience, it was like taking a two-week vacation in 28 minutes!” Words from Dane Spotts himself, a man who clearly got the vibe he was transmitting.

Yes! From the music video "Don't Kill the Whales" (1978)

New Age whale music was more than a few bottled mating calls, it was a whole freaky style. The painful lyrics of the terrible Yes! music video are worth the price of admission alone, but substitute the splashy slo-mo breach of a humpback’s fluke with a pair of boobs and the “cetaesthetic” suddenly describes another cultural logic.  A sizable chunk of New Age suggests close cousinhood with the equally-ocean obsessed “bikini-core” industry that flourished on the West Coast in the early 80s.  In both cases, good feelings, energy, and the mythos of the body grace drive hedonistic, cosmetic, and objectifying impulses to feel real goodRebecca Solnit has found parallel logics in the waterfalls of great American landscape photographers and the centerfolds of Playboy magazines. The ‘whale porn’ stretch isn’t a hard one to make… “There goes a narwhal Here comes a bikini whale!” sang the B-52s in 1979.

New Age’s DIY capitalism would be subsumed within the mainstream music industry by the late 1980s, but the pre-botox, post-modern sounds of its Seventies heyday are still very much alive. Meditation products combining whale song and mantras are easily found online.  “Children’s whale music” promising better behavior and quicker to-bed times get reviewed in Science Journals. Meanwhile, as Simon Reynolds notes in his 2011 book, Retromania, a whole ‘New New Age’ of experimental musicians have begun to champion the cosmic loops and melodies of the 80s-processesed whale voices. James Ferraro, White Rainbow, Onenhetrix Point Never, Stellar Om Source, Emeralds, Ossining, and Grouper are just a few of the more prominent names. No doubt in parallel reaction to the digitization of the musical commodity, this movement covets the informal exchange of mix tapes, with their warm analogue hiss and decay; the earnest mantras about mindfulness. The semi-undergroundedness of the scene is easily observed online, in the rich blogger culture that combines the new stuff with the ‘Old New Age’ iconography of rainbows, dream vessels, mandalas, and cetaceans.

Perhaps the most pertinent theme the recent stuff makes clear (if only cynically)  is how much New Age really encourages its instrumentalities to shine through: the very spirit of the genre, Douglas McGowan has observed, lies in entrepreneurialism. Alongside their sounds, many of the early New Age practitioners were selling a whole spiritual home-brew: personal messages, suggested postures, breathing programs, massage products etc. A big problem with the employment animal-sounds and all their supposed renderings of Gaia-conscious guilt, then, is how eagerly they exploit a general economy of stress.  New Age sounds and whale-song tapes sooth the city-dweller with a dose of ersatz tranquility. Meanwhile, the rise in boat traffic brought upon increasingly cute-ified, discovery tour-watched, hydrophone mic’ed ocean mammals has introduced a new problematic of ambient noise into their already precarious environments. The resultant stress has become a big problem.

Some of the early recorders clearly had loftier ambitions in mind when they advocated that ‘society’ take seriously the song of the whales. “We have learned,” Roger Payne said upon the release of Songs of the Humpback Whales, “that all men are created equal, but the whales remind us that all species are created equal—that every organism on earth, whether large or small, has an inalienable right to life.” But the welfare of the animal singers is totally unquestioned throughout the vast majority of the New Age hullabaloo (old or new). Sure, there’s environmentalized-concern, there’s good vibes, but what about “Who was that I was listening to? Are they still in captivity today?” “Did they benefit in the slightest from this sharing of their voice?” Not so much.  The US Marine Mammal Protection Act (1973) and Greenpeace (1975) may have slowed the whaling, but the sonic thievery has continued unabated.

Thoreau: “Can he who has discovered only the values of the whale bone and whale oil be said to have discovered the true use of the whale?” Fortunately for Thoreau’s unoiled skin and brittle bones, it would be another 100 years before they got going on spiritual massage.