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The Beluga Spiral

From the Interspecies Newsletter

This is the longest piece of writing on I have included it, because the field project it describes epitomizes our holistic approach to whale research. Read it in a few sittings, to savor it as a detective mystery, art history lesson, Arctic expedition, and human/whale interaction. Rauno Lauhakangas is interspecies Finnish representative. His beluga project on the White Sea is in its 10th year, and flourishes with support from several European government agencies. In 2004, Rauno oversaw the construction of a shore-based whale-viewing center to promote eco-tourism on the White Sea, free of intrusive boat traffic.

— Jim Nollman, for


Riding shotgun in an old Volvo station wagon, heading northeast across Finland through uninterrupted forest of birch, spruce, and alder. My driver Rauno Lauhakangas informs me we’re passing through the heart of the lake district, then hands over a roadmap displaying a freshwater labyrinth spreading a hundred miles in every direction. Noticing a road sign warning us to be on the lookout for moose crossing the highway, I compare the sway of these Finnish hills to northern Maine, only to be interrupted by Rauno. "The name of my country is Suomi, not Finland. The error got started by the Romans, who referred to a far northern people called Finns." Then he brightens, "I like having a fin appendage—just like a whale."

Rauno is a nuclear physicist, affiliated with the European Laboratory for Particle Physics in CERN Switzerland. CERN is where the World Wide Web was invented, and Rauno was there at the inception. When the potential of the new medium was first explained to his eight year old son, the boy immediately responded that the web should be used to save the whales. That answer prompted Rauno to start The Whalewatching Web, to further his own premise that wherever whalewatching flourishes, whaling inevitably withers.

Rauno maintains that whalewatching serves the cause of preservation by giving local people — even former whalers — jobs to educate tourists about the beauty and intellect of whales. Recent studies have made it clear, for instance, that the growth of eco-tourism in Japan is influencing that whale-consuming culture to appreciate living whales more effectively than 20 years of foreign protest. I argue, in turn, that tourism promoters who depend on nature for an income, often hype the whales as animal celebrities, and end up transmuting the marine ecosystem into an eco-carnival that harms the animals it purports to save. Off San Juan Island Washington, for example, thirty or more loud, diesel-spewing boats can be seen encircling the local orcas on any given day between June and September. Common sense suggests that polluting the acoustic environment of an animal population that is utterly dependent on sound for social bonding and food gathering has to compromise the general health of that species. Nonetheless, the industry continues to bloat despite biologists’ warnings that the orca population is starting to crash. The two of us finally agree that the modern phenomenon of whalewatching be placed at the midpoint of a hypothetical graph that displays industrial whaling on one end and leaving the whales alone on the other end.

Rauno is also the president of the Finnish Prehistoric Society, and an avid student of ancient European petroglyphs. Scandinavian bedrock is adorned in many places with carvings dating back to the stone age; created by Finno-Ugric tribes, which include the ancestors of Finns, Hungarians, Estonians, and Saamis. Images run the gamut, including animals, ships, the heavens, and depictions of village life so effusive in detail, they could have inspired Breughel. The well-known glyph shown at the top of this page depicts a boat with four adults initiating eight young people into adulthood by teaching them how to harpoon a baleen whale. The strange image below is carved on a sweeping slab of granite that slips a half inch below the water line of a large lake. Itbelugahunt is believed to be a snake. When the wind blows, small waves surge across the rock, forming eddies at the raised angles, giving to the snake the distinct impression of movement. The glyph is believed to be the oldest extant example of an animated image.

The most spectacular sites are located at our trip’s destination in Karelia, the Russian Republic that shares a long western border with Finland. Well into this century Karelia and Finland comprised a unified culture even though Finland spent hundreds of years under Swedish domination, while Karelia has been controlled by Russia since the time of Peter the Great. Much of the oral and overtly shamanic folklore upon which the Finnish epic poem, The Kalevala, is based was actually collected in Karelia during the mid-19th century. With the "new" Russia experiencing economic meltdown, the provincial Karelian government increasingly turns to its prosperous Scandinavian neighbors for aid and co-development projects to help re-establish their common heritage. This economic initiative has recently gotten Rauno’s full attention.

One of the most famous Karelian petroglyph sites, located where the Vyg River empties into the White Sea near the town of Belomorsk, displays a 6000 year old image of an ancient Finnish shaman communicating with a beluga whale. Scholars now believe that the glyph is the world’s oldest extant picture of a whale. The fact that belugas still reside nearby, suggests to Rauno that he’s the best man to develop a program of whale-watching and petroglyph viewing to provide the spark to ignite Karelian eco-tourism. Scandinavians, will arrive in droves to locate their prehistoric roots in Karelian bedrock while catching a glimpse of the last beluga whales to be found in all of Europe. In Rauno’s estimation, the White Sea should be an eco-tourist’s Mecca. On Zaitsky island, located just a few kilometers south of the beluga whales’ prime summer feeding ground, is a remarkable site comprising the largest labyrinth in the world. Thirty kilometers offshore, lies Kusova Island, where prehistoric tombs are marked by boulders stacked into free-standing human forms, and which closely resemble the sculptural Inukshuks constructed by the ancient Dorset culture in Arctic Canada.

The Soviet military barred foreigners from northern Karelia for seventy-five years. The north/south channel that connects the White Sea to the Arctic Ocean was the home of their nuclear fleet, although today, many of the ships and submarines are rusting at anchor. The Russians who have inherited the mess are currently dumping nuclear material offshore, transmuting the ocean and coast into the most dangerously polluted place on earth. The White Sea was also a major locus of Stalin’s Gulag Archipelago. On Solevetsky Island, a local archeologist has set up a business that buses a slow trickle of Russians tourists into the architectural jewel of a fifteenth century monastery that Stalin converted into one of his most infamous concentration camps. One old story has it that the monastery’s cornerstone was dragged to Solevetsky across sea ice by a white horse. Unfortunately the ice broke, dragging in the horse to it’s death. The archangel Michael responded to the monk’s prayers. He found the stone, put it into place in the chapel, and then changed the horse into the first beluga whale. Up to 200 beluga whales still reside today within site of the onion dome steeple atop the Solevetsky monastery.

Ironically, the Soviet authoritarianism that instigated the growth of the nuclear fleet, the gulags, and the forced deportation of native Karelians, also assured that these White Sea belugas are among the few populations of the species still thriving in the wild anywhere in the world. Until the European Renaissance, belugas were apparently common off the European coast, including a population in the Baltic near Helsinki, with other groups making seasonal migrations up the Rhine, the Neva, the Oder, the Thames, and possibly the Seine as well. These southern populations were killed to extinction in the seventeenth century, mostly to provide heating oil and a supple white leather. Today, belugas in Arctic Canada and coastal Alaska are still relentlessly hunted by native people. A relict population, living in a tributary of the Saint Lawrence River in southern Canada, is fast dying off from chemical population.

Russia was one of the world’s most active whaling nations until well into the 1980s, and most outside observer’s fear that the current economic pessimism could easily entice the government to start it up again, perhaps focusing on coastal species like belugas. In 1999, Russian hunters slaughtered several hundred belugas in Siberia, then shipped the meat to Japan, where it was immediately seized by agents for the CITES convention, as a breach of international accords against trafficking in an endangered species. Also in 1999, three White Sea belugas were captured and shipped to an oceanarium in Canada. The good news is that the Oceanarium’s usual source for belugas in Hudson Bay refused to comply with the order because the growth of whalewatching has finally made it more worthwhile for the locals to keep their population intact.

Rauno the eternal optimist is hopeful that the establishment of whalewatching on the White Sea will obviate the resurrection of whaling, while contributing an essential building block to the edifice of Karelian self-sufficiency. Almost predictably, the main hurdle to his ambition to bring sustainability to northeastern Russia is the xenophobic Russian bureaucracy itself. Even as we travel by car to the Karelian capitol of Petrozavodsk to meet with tourism promoters, local politicians, and TV journalists, then catch a ship with an international film crew for a 48 hour passage to Solevetsky Island to hopefully encounter the White Sea beluga whales, the question remains whether the central government will ever grant Karelian entrepreneurs the autonomy to guide their own economic affairs without also demanding an outsized "tax" that will assuredly destroy the program before it ever develops. Helsinki, may only be two hours away from Solevetsky by small aircraft but, so far, the Russian Tourism Ministry has demanded that Rauno’s seminal whalewatching program route all its clients through Moscow, a prohibitively-expensive detour that adds three thousand miles onto the journey. Although Rauno keeps plugging away, both his vision and his will have been severely tested this past month by a rumor that the Russian Navy will soon bar all foreigners from visiting northern Karelia, including the White Sea.

Six hours after leaving Helsinki in the Volvo, we cross the border into Karelia after submitting to a customs check generously described as high Baroque. Out the Russian side, we encounter a change in vista as startling as the one between Mexico and the USA. The Finnish divided highway quickly alters to a single lane gravel road. The Karelian "towns" we pass through during the next several hours seem designed primarily to accentuate oppressiveness. These include one of the most celebrated communes of the Soviet Utopia.. A rundown highrise project zigzags like a snake petroglyph around an outsized chlorine-spewing paper mill. The town houses a hundred thousand workers and their families, yet there are no stores to be found outside a diminutive central market where vendors sit in house trailers and behind card tables to display nothing else besides essential goods and vodka. With no shops to satisfy the cravings of this accidental tourist, I make due with a package of vitamins contained in a box displaying the peppy image of a bottlenose dolphin jumping through a hoop of Cyrillic letters.

Just before dark, we enter the beautiful Karelian capitol of Petrozavodsk, laid out on the shores of Lake Onega, which rivals Lake Erie in size. Here we join the ship taking us to the White Sea,. That night we meet for dinner with politicians representing the Karelian department of tourism, biologists from the Russian Academy of Science, archeologists from the Karelian Research Institute, and an international film crew funded by Canadian and Finnish TV networks. The discussion focuses a very far-reaching vision that merges media production with environmental activism, whale behavior, petroglyph interpretation, economic development, interspecies communication, and European prehistory. Rauno smiles like a Cheshire cat throughout, but says little. Actually, he reminds me more of the white knight who keeps muttering "It’s all my invention."

I am a quirky addition to Rauno’s whalewatching hubris. I play music with animals. I’ve tried it with ravens, dolphins, bellbirds, frogs, orcas, humpback whales, elk. I’ve worked for the Smithsonian Institute blowing harmonica among howler monkeys on an island in the middle of the Panama Canal. I’ve recorded flute music with wolves, produced Thanksgiving day radio shows singing Froggy Went a Courtin' with gobbling turkeys, appeared on 60 Minutes strumming an Indian raga with whales off Vancouver Island. Today I specialize in such musical communication with whales, several times inviting Tibetan lamas onto a boat to sing their prayers with orcas, playing reggae with pilot whales off Tenerife. To learn more about this work, read my last book, The Charged Border, Where Whales and Humans Meet.

In my pursuit of interspecies relations and animal aesthetics, I have made a lifelong study of totemic peoples’ attempts to communicate directly with various species. A few years ago I staged a theatrical performance in Helsinki on the subject of shamanism, an event promoted by a poster displaying the petroglyph in orange, below. Rauno, in his one-time role as concert producer and poster artist, had copied the image from an old book about Karelian rock art written in Russian by the Lithuanian archeologist V. I. Ravdonikas. Ravdonikas had discovered the petroglyph along the Vyg River in the 1930s, cleaned it up, and drawn this outline. I was astonished at how accurately the image reflected my own in situ musical experiences with whales, and it sparked me to write an interpretation, which Rauno posted on the whalewatching web. That led to an invitation by the Karelian Research Institute to read the interpretation at a petroglyph conference held in Petrozavodsk.. belugahuntReturning home, I re-formatted the essay as an animated computer presentation and took it on the road, where it was eventually seen by the Canadian film producer, Patricia Sims, who raised the seed money to send a bare bones film crew, along with Rauno and myself, to scout the White Sea whales, the petroglyphs, and the Russian will to protect both. This glyph stands directly responsible for instigating a Canadian film production entitled Whales Speaking Across Time.

The only previous assessment of the glyph was made by Finnish anthropologist Eero Autio, who described the rear figure as "an unidentified sea animal". Actually, the animal’s bulbous forehead, up-curved rostrum, blowhole, and lack of true dorsal fin makes for an anatomically precise rendering of a beluga whale. The straight diagonal line is actually an ancient crack in the bedrock that clearly gives the animal the appearance of spy-hopping. This is probably no coincidence, since belugas do spy-hop while observing people. Belugas are also called white whales, and are among the few cetacean species to naturally vocalize in air. They were called "sea canaries" by 19th century whalers who marveled over the euphonious complexity of their chirping and chortling.

The position of the arms and the shape of the oblong objects held in the hands of the human figure suggests the performance of a musical instrument, probably two stones struck together like the wooden claves popular in Latin music. This interpretation draws upon the persuasive work of the Russian ethnomusicologist, Alla Ablova, who has discovered similar percussive lithophones (oblong musical instruments of stone) at petroglyph sites throughout Karelia. Similar interspecies music-making activities have been documented half a world way along the north coast of Australia where Aboriginal shamans strike "dolphin sticks" together, underwater, to initiate a remarkable ceremony of human/dolphin cooperation. Bottlenose dolphins respond to the clicking by corralling fish ashore which are then gathered by the tribe. The Imragen of Mauritania have also developed a fishing relationship with dolphins by beating branches on the water, an event documented by Jacques Cousteau in the 1960s. At Cunningham Inlet in the Canadian High Arctic, I once attracted belugas to my side by clicking handmade "dolphin sticks" underwater.

The figure in the foreground of Ravdonikas rendering of the petroglyph was described by Eero Autio as a "humanoid wielding a weapon", suggesting that the arrow is a harpoon, although why it grows from the left elbow and points away from the whale was never explained to satisfaction. My own initial interpretation was just as profligate, and declared that the mysterious arrow alluded to a dance step.

Many primitive cultures around the world developed totem ceremonies commemorating interspecies relations, often ornamented by music reflecting the animal’s own vocalizations. The likelihood that Karelian shamans used music to engage beluga whales seems further verified by a compelling historical source. In 1074 AD the German monk, Adam of Bremen, journeyed through northern Finland and Karelia.. Writing in Latin, Adam observed that:

All People in the Northern countries are Christian, except those who migrate along the sea coast near the Polar ice. It is said that that they have great wisdom and that they use magic to communicate with one another even when they are far apart in the world. In addition, they sing songs with powerful words in a murmuring voice to persuade great whales to come close to shore. These people know many things firsthand, which the Bible tells us are the talents of wizards.

Adam’s Latin phrase murmure verborum has been translated by the Icelandic historian of whaling, Ole Lindquist, as a reference to overtone or throat singing still performed by modern Saamis. I have also attained some success using overtone singing with whales. In 1995, I invited a Tuvan overtone singer to join me to help entice humpbacks to interact musically while sailing off Okinawa. In an area where no whales had been sighted when we left shore, a humpback mother and newborn calf swam close to our boat soon after the vocalist started singing accompanied by my Jew’s harp. We documented the encounter for a Japanese magazine, and then recorded the whale’s signature vocalizations, only to learn much later that it is exceedingly rare for humpback females to sing.

Some whale researchers believe that belugas are uniquely precocious in their ability to vocalize. Bioacoustician Becky Sjare has concluded that the species makes a greater variety of calls than any other cetacean. Dolphin communication pioneer, John Lilly, goes a step further, describing belugas as the best animal candidate for interspecies language research. Ten years ago, I spent a week recording belugas calling to one another at Cunningham Inlet. Their vocalizations echoed off the pack ice as an otherworldly merger of canary chortles and human voices. The sounds reminded me of an energetic conversation heard through a wall, obscuring the words, although the rise and fall of intonation clearly recommended a language. I was especially struck at how often and how loudly the belugas vocalize in the air, which is a behavior unique among cetaceans. Tribes residing along the shore of the White Sea five thousand years ago would have experienced similar communicative behavior in the belugas they witnessed every day.

The Moscow-based Shirshov Institute has established a beluga research center on Solevetsky Island, where cognitive scientists have erected a tall log tower at the tip of a skinny, boulder-strewn glacial esker that all but disappears at high tide. This vantage offers a stunning view of the local beluga pods which congregate at the esker’s drop-off to exploit a tidal upwelling that attracts huge schools of herring. The local belugas visit the feeding area in small groups of five to fifteen animals, always led by an advance scout who signals the rest of the pod if the fish are present and the humans aren’t acting too offensively. Having witnessed the bold investigative qualities of a beluga scout in action, I am led to conjecture that the beluga petroglyph may commemorate a singular relationship between one shaman and particularly friendly scout. This premise is based on a personal experience with another species of whale. When I worked with orcas for eight summers throughout the 1980’s, it was never "the whales" who interacted with us, but two specific animals, a mother and her son, who came close to our boat almost every night about an hour after dark, over a significant eight year period.

The director of Solevetsky whale research is Vsevelod Bel’kovich, a dapper, soft-spoken biologist in his 60’s who has been studying belugas for 30 years. In the 1960’s he made the first Russian translation of a John Lilly book despite the overt disapproval of his American colleagues. Learning of my friendship with Lilly, Bel’kovich laughed to conclude, "and you Americans think that only the Soviet Union censored books!" Like Lilly, Bel’kovich strongly believes the belugas possess a language. He first knew it, for certain, while witnessing a group of females surround another female giving birth. They offered her "vocal encouragement". When the healthy baby finally emerged, the group expressed joy to one another. Then they all turned to the new mother to offer congratulations.

Bel’kovich humbly confided to me that he does not know how to prove his profound hypothesis about beluga language and intellect. So he remains content to describe population dynamics and simple behavior, but hopes that one of his students will eventually figure out how to "crack the code." He agreed with me that music could be an apt tool for exploring the potential for communication with the melodic-whistling beluga whales. Bel’kovich does not hide a concern that human beings are currently killing off the last best chance we may ever have to converse with another species. "ET is alive and well and living in the Arctic," he declared sincerely, "But without protection, they may be extinct here within the next ten years."

Russian scientists have always been more open-minded to extrasensory phenomena than their Western counterparts. Bel’kovich, the dean of Russian whale studies, is no exception, and has recently involved a Moscow-based police psychic who is reported to have solved several murder cases. She has met the Solevetsky beluga whales, or to be most precise, has met mind-to-mind with one of the whale scouts. When the "meeting" concluded, the psychic confided that the pod was disinterested in humans because they had not yet met anyone who could teach them about life or wisdom. But they have agreed to answer a few questions the research team will eventually pose to them through the psychic.
Two of Bel’kovich’s assistants are developing a more traditional hi-tech approach to interaction. They have placed a video monitor and camera in a waterproof housing, hung it near the feeding area, and then watched the whale’s pause to admire their onscreen image. The scientists have filmed individual whales studying their own faces, then intoning a specific call that is unique to the experience. According to Bel’kovich, the whales also enjoy watching cartoons on the underwater screen. One of their favorites is the character who may resemble them most: Casper the Friendly Ghost.



Ravdonikas's interpretation of the beluga shaman petroglyph was emphatically wrong. His error almost certainly resulted from his technique of sketching the poorly preserved petroglyphs rather than relying on rubbings. When Rauno and I returned to the White Sea as part of the film crew, we spent a sunny afternoon on our hands and knees using chalk and crayons to generate the first accurate renderings of a glyph that is proving crucial to a proper understanding of stone age European culture. Ravdoninkas totally missed the star carved above the whale, as well as the circle, possibly signifying the sun. Add in the moon, and the triangulation of three celestial objects ostensibly describe a time and date when the shaman’s ceremony occurred.

More importantly, Eero Autio’s purported harpoon is nothing of the sort. Our rubbings clearly show the object in question originating directly from the shaman’s mouth. Many Karelian petroglyphs rely upon exaggerated anatomical features to describe the powers and abilities of those depicted: huge feet to describe a fast runner, big hands to depict a talented hunter, a big penis that describes a man with many children. The beluga shaman glyph shows a human with an outsized tongue, almost certainly the mark of a talented speaker or singer. In this case, the person is talking or singing (perhaps murmure verborum) to communicate with another species.

Our rubbings also show the whale sporting a new appendage: a dynamically-articulated spout emanating from its blowhole. This proves that our whale is indeed spyhopping. And because beluga whales often vocalize in the air, it is no wild stretch of the imagination to conclude that this particular whale has been captured at the precise moment it is responding to the singing shaman.

Stone age Karelians killed and ate whales, an activity documented in this epic image of four boats dragging a great whale, probably a bowhead, back to shore. The ancient Karelians may have hunted belugas in the same way traditional Inuvialuit in Arctic Canada did it up to thirty years ago, by stationing a scout on top of a log tower. When a pod was sited near shore, the hunters would row their skinboats towards the whales and make a kill with a harpoon.belugahunt

It can be difficult for modern people disconnected from their food source to imagine ancient people worshipping as spiritual beings the same creatures they depended upon for food. A traditional Inuvialuit whale hunter had to refrain from work or sex for four days after a hunt because that was how long the animal’s ghost lingered near the carcass. No one in the village could use a sharp object for fear of wounding the ghost. No one made a loud noise for fear of frightening it. If the ghost was offended, bad luck would visit the village, which demanded more ritualized injunction.

Eero Autio’s original interpretation of the beluga glyph concludes that the hunter/shaman has been caught at the moment of shape-shifting, his penis already transformed into whale flukes. The eminent Estonian archeologist, Vaino Poikelainen strongly disagrees, pointing to the swell of the figure’s breast to pronounce the shaman a woman giving birth to a whale. That a small crescent moon — a universal symbol for the eternal feminine — can be seen floating in the air adjacent to the breast strengthens this argument. Autio himself has challenged the Russian presumption that always depicts the petroglyph carvers as men. He draws upon the oral tradition of the Kalevala to point out that ancient Finnish shamans were often female, and that a fair share of the petroglyphs were constructed to encourage fertility.

A myth told by traditional people across the Arctic describes a totemic marriage between a woman and a beluga whale, and mirrors the putative theme of the petroglyph so closely that it seems well worth retelling. A young maiden left her village one day searching for bird eggs, and returned with a whale skull which she wore like a hat. The spirit in the skull eventually pulled her out to sea where it turned into a beluga whale, named Keiko, who made the woman his wife. The woman's brother was bound to preserve his family honor so he built a boat and sailed out to rescue her. Keiko became frightened when the boat stopped directly over his home. His wife had grown fond of him, and now she tried to calm Keiko. She swam to the cliffs to gather eggs and birds for a feast to serve their guest. The brother ate little, while beckoning Keiko to eat more than his share. Finally, the brother whispered to his sister, "your husband has eaten too much. Sing to him now, that he may rest." So she sang a lullaby, and Keiko slept. When the whale awoke, he saw his wife was gone. He followed the boat's wake, and soon caught up to the pair on the village shore where many people arrived to stab Keiko to death.

The woman eventually gave birth to a tiny whale who was much beloved by everyone in the tribe. She kept him in a little cup. But he grew quickly and soon asked to be put into a pail. Finally he pleaded to be set free into the ocean, where he quickly grew to a full-sized whale. One night strangers arrived who killed the whale for food. In the Yakut Siberian version of the myth, the tribe responds to this murder by attacking the strangers.

This story is told to explain how warfare first came to the human beings. In a version from Hudson Bay, the strangers were the first European whalers.belugahunt

I’m not a scientist. My work neither avows objectivity nor pursues data. As one musician collaborator once described it, "It’s just music; just us warm-blooded mammals out on the water getting into a groove together. Actually, that glib description doesn’t accurately describe my true motivation. I’m a conceptual artist as deeply fascinated by the slippery concepts that spring from this work as by the music itself. Coaxing a musical collaboration from brainy, friendly, acoustically-sophisticated and commercially-threatened cetaceans generates metaphors about animal intelligence, conservation, totemism, field biology, the place of art in the ecology movement, animal rights, the politics of extinction, co-evolution, shamanism, data-collecting, music, etc. It’s all of that. By producing films and making recordings that show cetaceans communicating through music, I am hoping to alter the way humans currently perceive them. During my first trip to the White Sea last summer, one afternoon I pulled on a pair of high boots, carried my beluga drum into the water at the edge of the esker below Bel’kovich’s observation tower, and quietly played a melodic rhythm on a floating drum while five to ten belugas dove for herring less than 100 meters away. Their response was non-committal, neither curious nor evasive, although this aloofness was not unexpected. Past experience has taught me it can take weeks or even months to establish a trusting relationship with wild cetaceans.

When whales do respond, which occurs often enough to keep me coming back to them, events sometimes turn magical. I once recorded an orca improvising a solo that predicted my guitar chord changes on all the correct downbeats. Hearing the results of such a collaboration, some people end up working overtime to disclaim the meaning of what their ears plainly hear. On the other end of the scale, a few listeners seem willing to elect a singing orca, president of the United States. In the grand scheme of things, what I mostly seek is a more respectful context to the forum where cetacean welfare is legislated. It is the place Rauno and I find common ground.

I flew home from that film scouting on the White Sea to spent the winterworking with Rauno to plan a long term strategy for engaging the beluga whales. Just as I volunteered to aid his eco-tourism initiative, he likewise volunteered to join my communication team as chief scientist. The film producer raised her film money and chipped in many resources previously unattainable to us. The Russian Academy of Science granted us access to their research ship. Karelian entrepreneurs started printing their eco-tour brochures.


The prototype for this international alliance may be found, at least whimsically, in another petroglyph, dated to 3500 BC, depicting the life and times of one heroic individual. The image is composed in a distinct counterclockwise spiral which has been overlaid here for emphasis. The outer edge displays what could easily be interpreted as a birth. Traveling downward along the spiral, our hero acquires various tools, then starts to engage other people. He takes a boat journey, kills some animals, then is seen using various unidentifiable instruments with other animals. Just before the spiral climbs again, a moose crosses his path. The spiral heads upward, he takes yet another journey on a much bigger boat. Objects appear that look to me like microphones and underwater speakers, but which archeologists interpret as the sun, signifying enhanced political and spiritual power. Finally, turning inward again, our hero arrives at the center of the spiral, a place signifying spiritual transformation. Here, in a picture strikingly similar to the motif of the boy riding a dolphin found on Greek coins minted thousands of miles south and two thousand years later, the man is depicted at the end of his journey riding on the back of a beluga whale.

As I write this account, Rauno and I are spending three to four hours each day on an inflatable boat anchored 200 meters offshore in the White Sea’s beluga whale summer feeding grounds. We are at the mid-point of a three week experiment in interspecies communication, which is being documented by the film crew for international distribution.

One experiences a lot of spare time and good conversation living on an inflatable boat waiting for whales to show up three or four times a day. Yesterday, I showed Rauno a news clipping a friend sent me from the Inyo Register in eastern California, describing a local Shoshone protest against white people visiting a petroglyph site near Owens Lake. In the paper’s account, spokesperson Pauline Esteves announces that her tribe’s sacred images "are not there for people to look at."

The notion that tourism desecrates sacred sites seems all but lost in this age where every cathedral and shrine solicits tourists to enter and walk around, read the plaques posted in several languages, and gawk at worshippers as if they were actors hired to grant the place an aura of authenticity. My friend appended a note to the clipping that read: "The Shoshones’ position is more about native hegemony than any real concern about the site’s desecration. Visitors to that site do appreciate the art, because they have to walk miles into the desert just to get there.

Rauno commented that the Shoshone "see" the petroglyphs, and can not tolerate strangers arriving merely to "look" at them. To bolster this argument, he explains that the best known Karelian site at Lake Onega is now open only to scholars who appreciate the art’s cultural value. Locals are kept out because they deface the petroglyphs with graffiti and build bonfires on the rock which chars it’s surface. But I am left confused by his example of the politics of looking versus seeing. Two years ago, at the Russian petroglyph conference, my presentation seemed the only item on the program that made any attempt to link the ancient messages to our own time. "Now you understand why I invited you." laughs Rauno, "Those Russians had to listen to you. You were their token American clown."

It may take a clown to willingly predict the future of the Karelian beluga whales. When the Soviets banned independent thought, they left a vacuum in the memory of the people. Now that the old regime has departed to Nikita Khrushchev’s ash bin of history, one imagines the vacuum filling up with any number of alternative worldviews. The two most often cited for Karelia are the agnostic, democratic socialism that holds sway in the rest of Scandinavia, and the mean-spirited social Darwinism that currently drives the Russian Mafia.

This clown suggests an idealistic alternative that portrays the Karelians appropriating practical aspects of conventional politics, but also initiating a revitalized version of their own ancient nature religion. The concept of environmentalism merging with religion and economics already grows strong among Northern European visionaries, codified by the Norwegian philosopher, Arne Naess, and popularized by the Finnish Green Party. If Deep Ecology, with its reconstructed murmurs of totemism and sacred sites ever takes hold in Karelia, obviously, the petroglyphs—and possibly the whales as well—will emerge as arbiters of its disclosure. Since the Karelian people serve as gatekeepers to the vast Siberian wilderness, the animals inhabiting the largest intact ecosystem on the planet will emerge as unanticipated victors of this alternate outcome. One might even imagine the old shamans smiling down on Karelia from their perch on the back of a cosmic beluga whale, and raising their cups to toast the successful delivery of their rock-carved message after all these years.

Our acoustic relationship with the local whale pods is developing well. We start each session the same way, by striking a heavy brass bowl-shaped bell, cast in Tibet by lamas who use it as a focusing agent for meditation. The bell tone is our signature, loud and piercing, producing distinct beats as the sound emanates across the water. It almost always attracts the attention of the local beluga scout, who swims to the boat. He or she never surfaces although we remain content to watch the sinuous green-tinted body sidle six feet underneath us. Belugas and narwhals are the only cetaceans with pliable necks. At one point during the inspection, the whale turned its head——just its head——to stare straight up at us. My playing style has evolved into a minute-long repeated pattern of sound followed by silence, in effect creating a drawn-out rhythm. A few days ago, this pattern eventually caused five nearby whales to chirp and moan, neigh and whistle in the air as well as underwater, and only during the periods of silence. They repeated this synchronous vocalizing five times in a row which dispelled any disagreement that their timing was a mere coincidence.

Once the bell has established our identity, I sometimes switch over to playing an electric guitar through an underwater sound system. I prefer a simple chord progression played in a reggae rhythm which creates distinct "holes" of silence for the whales to fill in if they so choose. Yesterday was a remarkable experience. A thunderstorm had formed far out at sea, its rumble and flashes of lightening moving ever closer as I put the bell away and plugged in the guitar. Within fifteen minutes, five whales drew within a hundred meters of the boat and started to vocalize, utilizing notes within the D major key I had chosen. The scout left his group to swam right up to the underwater speaker, then turned about to rejoin his pod. Within another minute, some whales within the group started vocalizing within the silent spaces of the reggae progression. The session was ended abruptly by a bolt of lightning striking too close for us to ignore any longer.

Rauno also has an instrument, a digital phrase sampler which allows him to record short bursts of beluga sound, clean up the starts and finishes, and modulate the recorded data with various audio filters. His task is more linguistic than communal. He is collecting up to thirty-two individual "words" and "phrases" from the local beluga lexicon, which are stored in the sampler’s memory and can be played back into the water in any order by simply pressing buttons. Pressing several in a row may create a sentence. Or nonsense. With his hefty computer background, Rauno eventually plans to incorporate voice recognition software into the sampler to help ascertain which individual whales are making which sounds. With luck and perseverance, he may eventually isolate individual words. With years of time and support, this could lead to the actual meaning of those words and phrases. Unfortunately, so far, his attempts to engage the whales with sampled calls has met with no success whatsoever. Actually, every time he presses a button the whales vanish for several hours. Rauno the optimist notes that the guitar also scared the whales away the first time I plugged in.

The beluga whale has a brain larger than a human beings. The species almost certainly possesses the rudiments of a true language. Yet in this age when all of wild nature finds itself flying, crawling and swimming in full retreat from wanton human violence, how strange that this most sensitive creature remains so willing to engage us in a playful dialogue. After a week spent here, the whales have given us many signs that they are as equally interested to explore the acoustic interface between our two species as we are. Time will tell if they help us develop a common ground for correspondence. Where it goes is impossible for any mere human to map. How could it be different, since we grant the whales equal disgression to direct the course of our mutual voyage of discovery. If the gods keep toasting us, we’ll definitely return to this place again for a longer stay.

Beluga Game
The Cetacean Nation
Beluga Language?