Cetacean Society International

Whales Alive!

Vol. VIII No. 4 October 1999


Listening to Whales in the British Virgin Islands

(And how a good man turned into a whale listening guide)

By Paul Knapp, Jr., CSI Board Member


This will be the 16th season I've returned to Tortola B.V.I. to listen to "live" humpback whale singing just offshore.

My own journey there began even before (naturally), but maybe I should start with a 1972 trip to St. Thomas to be near the ocean which I always loved. I found a job as a mate on a charter fishing boat and stayed and fished for a year. One captain I worked for had run a boat for Jacques-Yves and Philippe Cousteau when they were there the year before, making their video, "The Singing Whale". I remember being out fishing during the humpback season and seeing whales and the captain telling me they sang.

My life then took me to Key West where I stayed three years, mostly working on commercial and sport fishing boats and at dive shops, and here I got my own Captain's license. On days off I would sometimes drive up to Grassy Key to the Dolphin Research Center to see the dolphins, rehabilitated pelicans and other creatures. And I started listening to the new "Songs of the Humpback Whale" on 33 1/3 RPM vinyl.

Summer found me in Connecticut where I am from, working as a self-employed landscaper, saving to return to the Keys in winter. The migrations continued four years and while North, I would meet great people at events of the Connecticut Cetacean Society (now, of course, Cetacean Society International) before heading back to Florida. Also, for some time I had been getting very curious to hear "live" singing and to hear the new humpback whale song, since I read that it changed each season. So during the winter of 1979-80 I left the Keys for the Dominican Republic to be nearer to the whales. I did not get too near or hear them but I was on the trail.

Paul Knapp's boat, Compass

I took a year off to reorganize my life (it was happening anyway), and the next summer in Connecticut I looked up "hydrophone" in the Thomas Register at the Fairfield Public Library, found a list of companies that made them and bought one. Soon I was back in the Dominican Republic and the nearby Turks and Caicos Islands trying to hear. Adventures yes, but no singing yet. A year later I was in Puerto Rico where I heard live singing for the first time!

The next winter I tried the British Virgin Islands, where I was already familiar with the area and knew better where and when (approximately mid-January through late March) the whales were. And I was looking for affordable accommodations, to spend more time. So it was with high hopes to hear the wintering whales of the Virgin bank that I first brought a hydrophone, 8½ foot inflatable boat, 3 horsepower engine and borrowed tent to Brewers Bay campground on the north coast of Tortola. During my first years I took out a few friends to listen and we almost always heard whales singing, through headphones. Gradually I acquired more equipment and now have a 13 foot inflatable boat, 15 h.p. engine and amplified speakers.

Over the last 15 seasons and without charge I have taken out approximately 1,000 listeners to experience these sounds. Sometimes I receive a gift of fuel and sometimes I give a gift of whale recordings. We often travel a half mile from shore and set out a sea anchor (like a parachute) to nearly stop (at other times we use a "real" anchor), then the hydrophone is put over the side and lowered 50 feet, speakers are set out, an amplifier connected and turned on. Immediately we hear crackling shrimp and whales. It can be so beautiful!

Paul Knapp at the mast of Compass

Humpback whales are audible for a distance of about 10 miles, in deep water I have been told even more, so there is always an excellent chance to hear them with minimum effort, and hearing whales "live" gives an experience that is satisfying in a way that we usually assume can only be accomplished by seeing them. If the singing is close we may not want to stop listening. If it is very far or we hear a boat engine we may shut off the hydrophone after a while and talk or listen to "our" music - the two can go very well together. It is never planned, we just see how it goes best.

Hurricane Luis passed near the B.V.I. in 1995, and one of the boats that sank was a pretty 30 foot fiberglass sailboat which I later bought, cheaply. It took 2½ winters of work to get it sailing again, but it was a dream too. Each year Compass is upgraded a little - like adding the best speakers yet (flush mounted, facing back) and stereo CD with aux. input, for a towable hydrophone. I am just learning how to do this from a sailboat, but how special it has been so far to be with friends, warm wind, blue water and humpback singing. Sailing towards a submerged singer, not knowing where it is but hearing the increase in volume, clarity, detail and beauty, it's like the whale was coming to us but of course it's the other way. For me it was nearly overwhelming and I admit that the first time I had tears in my eyes. Then perhaps the singing diminishes as we continue sailing, because it is off some distance to starboard or port. And then maybe another is heard (as a matter of fact no whales were seen last year).

I have heard some sounds that were so lovely, I think if people knew and could hear it, most all would stop and listen.


Listen to a brief sample of humpback whale song recorded by CSI Board Member Paul Knapp in the Caribbean.
(© ® Copyright 1992 Compass Recordings, P.O. Box 38173, Bridgeport, CT 06605. All rights reserved.)
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