The sounds in this piece consist mostly of field recordings taken in the Beaufort Sea (Alaska) in the mid and late 1980s. They were generously shared by Cornell University cetologist Christopher Clark, who has spent over forty years studying the animal near Point Barrow (Clark and Johnson 1984; Clark et al. 2015). Using acoustic data to rigorously map bowhead whale spring and fall migration patterns has made Clark an impassioned exponent of scientific listening a skill and a normative ideal he impressed upon me over the course of several conversations we had in the summer of 2020. By additionally considering some of the sounds bowhead whales’ encounter as they navigate their environment, this ten-minute piece reflects on scale and temporalized soundings – both in audio and conceptual modes of plumbing watery depths. Depth, distance, and duration define the bowhead whale’s acoustic ecology. In working through these dynamic characteristics, it becomes necessary to engage the ocean as a force for conceptual reorientations (Jue 2020, p. 5). To creatively depict seawater’s unique spatializing and temporalizing features, I  apply drones built from sine waves subjected to minor distortion and frequency modulation. Cuts and fades attempt to convey bathymetric transitions and interactive ocean elements. In what follows, I employ a textual signposting strategy to situate moments of the resulting sound-work in a political ecology of the present-day Beaufort Sea-area.  

00:01 – “Ice”

Listening to ice. Our guide to this experimental foray is the bowhead whale (balaena mysticetus), for whom arctic ice resounds with diverse spatio-temporalities of being. For bowheads, listening to ice suggests interplays of pressure, time, and space, not just headphones and ears, but entire bodies as resonant interfaces. Cracking, ridging, melting, and bobbing ice take turns dominating the perceptual profile (Milne and Ganton 1969). Large-scale “ridging” – ice forming and deforming under different environmental drivers – generates low-frequency sounds that rub with thick frequency modulations (Milne 1974). In the evening, when cooling can contract ice sheets, bowhead listeners might encounter thunderous cracking noises or sound “scattering” (Milne and Ganton 1969); they might encounter “new ice,” which behaves differently than “old,” differently across spring, summer, and fall; each listener, each surface, resounding differently…

Absent careful attention, ice can sound as plain as television static. But its distinctive moments of feedback, decay, and dispersion constitute thick navigational cues for a sizeable cast of ocean actors. As materials for regional lifeways, these sounds are a riposte to one of today’s easiest environmentalist conceits – that of a spectacle-tending, stratigraphically straight and equally distributed Anthropocene. Listening awry, listening weirdly, listening to how others listen – such practices have rightly been promoted by sound studies scholars seeking to destabilize, unsettle, and reconfigure received ways of grasping ecological crisis. Ice is of some assistance here; for its evident centrality to climate change dynamics, but also for the ways it enacts different sonic agencies (human and non). Bowhead whales are not just an ice audience, they are active ice manipulators. Their protruding blowholes are evolutionary adaptations to ice-dominated environments, and capable of puncturing sheets 20 cm thick (George et al. 1989). Anthropocene scholarship has de-emphasized the material qualities of ice. Bowheads invite a reappraisal. They are a species for whom icy changes are consequential to the understanding and feeling of the whole, melting, socioecological system.

In a powerful essay, the geographer Jen Rose-Smith (2020) problematizes the dominant ice-narratives now being employed to convey global environmental degradation. “Within Anthropocene conversations,” she writes, “ice… gets de-linked from the social histories of its origins and is made to serve as evidence of a shared global crisis” (p. 3; cf. Dodds 2019). This Sensate Journal piece suggests that ice sound’s multivalence – its ability to impart different meanings across time and space – can restore some sense of diverse origins. Together with other voices, ice can help us in thinking about a changing Beaufort Sea. And in this way, sound can invite other Anthropocene narratives, including narratives less bound to the structures of an abiding Western universalism.

01:41 Chorus

Whales and ice are not the only composers in the underwater Arctic. A multiplicity of voices and inter-species communicational forms shapes these aquatic environments. Complicating Anthropocene narratives of linear declines, new bowhead voices attest to some of the ways the Beaufort Sea region has become more biologically productive in recent years. Rising temperatures, the growing penetration of sunlight in the ocean surface layer, and increasing nutrients flowing north are conspiring to permit greater numbers of krill and copepods – and with them, more mammalian predators. Abiotic ecologies also play a part in the chorus that we hear here: ice, surface winds and distant earthquakes all contributing to the sound profile at different frequencies and periodicities. Amazingly, bowheads seem able to negotiate this confusion, sorting through different frequencies and calling-arrival times to identify conspecifics. In the beginning of this section of the piece, bearded seals dominate – and specifically within a 250–2500 Hz band shared with bowheads. Scientists speculate that the duration of the bearded seal call indicates male “quality,” with longer trills implying increased fitness and reproductive success. But the temporalizing trill serves another function: guiding the seal as it spirals downwards in the water column while releasing bubbles that territorialize its prowess.  Bearded seal populations across the Arctic are robust, not unlike the bowheads whose recent population expansion has surprised many of Clark’s colleagues. Both species bring new seasonal rhythms to the Beaufort Sea. They give spaces once muffled by heavy ice new cultural-biological meanings, as soundwaves propagate through and across them.

02:41 Pulse

But it would be a mistake to register the new sounds in the Beaufort Sea as proof of an ecological success story. Clark spends a long time worrying about the diffuse biological stressor known colloquially as “ocean noise” (Ritts 2017). He tells me that shipping in the Beaufort Sea has tripled since the 1980s (Giesbrecht 2018), increasing sound levels in the 10–1000 Hz range relied upon by bowheads. Diminishing sea ice is enabling increased exploration for oil and gas companies, and this will likely lead to the construction of new and vast oil-production islands and oil platforms. Some economic commentators believe the Northwest Passage will be in routine use by mid-century (Smith and Stephenson, 2013). Some critiques of the Anthropocene hew too closely to fossil capitalism as locus classicus of human-led eco-despoilation (e.g., Malm and Hornborg 2014). But they have an essential lesson to impart nonetheless: metabolic histories of industrialization, and fossil fuel combustion events from 150 years ago, are reanimating in the materialities of present-day ecosystems. Ice, I learn, can function as an archive of one system’s changes, evident in the Beaufort adjacent ice core samples as well as in the audible feedback of the new ice melts Clark and others have observed in their fieldwork (see Urick 1971 for evidence of other drivers of ice melt).

Pulse. In their study of a year in the acoustic life of a bowhead, Clark et al. (2015, p. 237) report “very faint air-gun impulses” registering every dozen or so seconds. Several waves of seismic exploration have taken place in the Alaskan North Slope area of the Beaufort Sea since the 1970s (Gilders and Cronin, 2000). Clark is concerned that more are on their way. Air guns release high-pressure blasts of air, creating high intensity sounds or “pulses” that reverberate across the ocean basin and get picked up on hydrophones thousands of kilometers away (e.g., Hutt 2012). The impacts on bowhead whales are unknown, largely because their listening response curves are non-linear: they suggest adaptation to the sounds at certain doses, avoidance or debilitation at others (Richardson 1985; Blackwell et al. 2017). Increased shipping and oil and gas-related construction raises the prospect of additional payloads of anthropogenic sounds defining their underwater sound-fields. What the mixture of industrial tones threatens, Clark tells me, is the bowhead whales’ “communication space,” what he defines as “space over which an individual animal can be heard by other conspecifics, or a listening animal can hear sounds from other conspecifics” Clark et al., (2009, p. 251). For a highly transient bowhead whale, the ecological costs of constricted “communication space” are (likely) intricate and convoluted. For a listening human scientist, these costs are also a story of “altered sense ratios,” and of ontological queries, dizzying in implication (Peters 2015).

05:06 Oar-like

There are sounds I cannot identify in Clark’s recordings. Some of these are probably self-noise from the hydrophone, likely positioned miles off the continental shelf, subjected to sudden and inclement weather. At one point I clearly think I hear an object dipping into water, swooshing water around. An oar? Over the phone, Clark disagrees. Likely a hydrophone cable, or water rushing through an icy crevasse. But the mishearing is propitious. It invites a story about Benny Nageaq, an Iñupiaq hunter whom Clark met during his 1979 field season: “Amazingly, he knew all the species by voice,” Clark noted in a study, published decades later. “He then patiently explained how his ancestors had listened too, not with a hydrophone, but with an oar paddle placed into the water with the butt of its handle against the jawbone” (Clark et al. 2015, p. 238).

Moving from the factual to the figurative, the oar-like sound can help us recognize the absent-presence of Indigenous voices within the dominant narratives of Arctic ice science. Iñupiaq hunters were the first humans to gather knowledge about the sounds of bowhead whales, animals who remain a core component of the diet in some Iñupiaq communities (Ray et al., 1969). Iñupiaq hunters were also the first to note these animals’ responses to seismic surveys (Albert 2001). Cognizant of the bowhead’s excellent hearing abilities, they pursued their own canoe-based encounters stealthily, treating the animals not as objects to kill, but lively and sentient forces to share worlds with (Roburn 2013). It is important not to romanticize Indigenous whale relations in the Anthropocene narrative. Rose-Smith (2020, p.4) reminds us of the “niche narration” of Indigenous peoples’ knowledge: “a potential resource … that can recover a global ‘we’ from self-inflicted destruction.” Ways of listening can also be appropriated. Iñupiaq listening can be made to seem anterior to our present sense of ecological crisis – an Anthropocene conceit par excellence (DeLoughrey 2019). Indigenous relations to whales are, in different ways, also changing. From Clark, I learn that the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission (AEWC) is one of the main forces responsible for protecting bowhead whale habitat from offshore oil drilling over the last three decades – a significant contribution to listening in its own right.

06:42 Descent

To my ears, some of Clark’s recordings are unavoidably stark in their messaging. Animal acoustics can reverberate with human apprehensions even when we try to listen otherwise. Descending tones produced by bearded seals dominate several portions of Clark’s recordings. They are plaintive and urgent, wonderfully expressive in their downward sweeps. They suggest an “anxious semiotics” of Anthropocene change (Whitehead 2014). Kathryn Yusoff (2015) has called for a revaluing of “anthropogenesis” narratives; asking for stories about new complex beginnings instead of the customary endings that center the White Male Human. This is a challenging if necessary project, asking us to shift the affective resonance in the tonalities we hear. Fortunately, there are great examples to draw from, like Jana Winderen’s “Spring Bloom in the Marginal Ice Zone” (2018), which depicts multiple agencies and eco-systemic processes in emerging ocean ecologies; or Rob Frye’s “Chihuahuan Desert Birdscapes” (2018), which presses human sound-making tools closer to the compositional predilections of migratory bird populations. In these works, attempts are made to reconcile acculturated commitments to narrativization without endorsing assumptions buried deep in the grammar of our dominant representational modes. As imagined acoustical spaces, the works of Winderen and Frye offer attentional resources for considering “contemporary forced transits and relocations” – such as those taking shape across the Beaufort today (Rose-Smith 2020, p. 14).

08:42 Song

And then there’s the bowhead whale song. Forty years on, Clark remains in awe of it: “What you’re doing is going – wait a minute, these animals are just working in a completely different, special, temporal acoustic frame!” Bowhead songs consist in rich, tonal sweeps, similar to humpback whale songs in their reverberant qualities. They swirl around like sonic flashlights, giving form to underwater darkness through lows and mids. These compositions generally consist of two-voiced, patterned sequences lasting about a minute, but sometimes more (Clark and Johnson, 1984; Würsig and Clark, 1993; Stafford et al., 2012). Scientists have identified twelve distinct “song variants.” But bowheads are also ice-composers in another sense. They deliberately bounce sounds off ice surfaces to find navigational “leads” (George et al. 1989) and use ice-free water channels to communicate with one another across great distances (Hutt 2012). As records of cetacean experience, these bowhead whale songs capture unknowable impulses and inclinations, individual and communal life histories. But as records of movement and activity, they make the spaces and temporalities of changing ecologies more comprehensible, or at least more proximate. In a hopeful register, they call us to form new aesthetics for Anthropocene listening, through new ways of listening to ice.


Thanks to Shannon Mattern, Sophia Roosth, and Rafico Ruiz for some generative feedback. Extra special thanks to Chris Clark.


Works Cited

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