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A Whale of An Opera

Though I have spent my entire life around marine life, I never expected the 35-ton creature to get as close as it did, perhaps 100 yards, nor was I prepared for how immense the fluke would be,” says Asker. “One strike would crush us instantly.”

Ahab chased one. Jonah was swallowed by one. Pinocchio lit a fire inside one to escape. Nowadays, millions of people worldwide congregate on shore or hop on a boat just to see one. Bird-watching aside, the Middle East is not particularly known for its wildlife, so an invitation to join an Omani whale watching expedition filled me with more curiosity than anticipation.

We sat eagerly, meandering through the deep, calm Arabian Sea. Gentle waves meeting the sides of our boat made the only sounds the warm day provided. Anticipation for the performance to begin was unusually high. The world’s largest sopranos, obscured in the dark shadows of the sea, are masters at makingtheir audience feel suspense. At the height of tension, a deep sudden chord resonates mournfully through the water. Below us, the opera of the humpback whale has commenced.

Graceful and magnificent, humpback whales inspire awe in young and old alike. These gentle giants are celebrated for their singing abilities, belting out seductive ballads to attract mates or to challenge other would-be suitors.

But they also have other talents. Their distinctive hunting skill, called bubble net feeding, involves a cluster of humpbacks working together to capture schools of herring. Each whale has a particular role in the process: one whale swims in a circle while blowing bubbles under a school of herring. When the bubbles rise, the school of herring cannot escape, and they form into a tight ball in the center. Other whales vocalize—groaning or screaming—to scare the herring to the surface, and that’s when the whales then climb with their mouths wide open to swallow the fish.

We’re spending the day on a traditional 93-foot sailing dhow (boat) that is reminiscent of those that once carried sailors and spices across the Indian Ocean. With two masts shaped from massive tree trunks, sails that hang from long curved booms, and high teak sides, the dhow makes for a smart and stylish vessel from which to observe the action. Today’s concert is mesmerizing, with few of us speaking and all of us leaning over the side of the dhow.

Just like some of those star-studded Arabian Nights concerts in Las Vegas, the whales’ songs last up to 30 minutes with the embellishments you expect from master jazz musicians, who use late nights to improvise their way to genius.

Our tour guide is Badr Al Qadr, a rugged, seasoned fisherman, who is the best-kept secret in the region. “Humpbacks have a unique sound that differs from other whaling populations,” he explains. “Only the males sing, so we know there’s a larger male down there. It’s breeding season, so most likely they are looking for mates rather than looking for food.

“Singing establishes a hierarchy among male humpbacks,” he continues. “Singing breaks out among migrating whales as they start to mix and continues not just in their breeding grounds, but to attract mates even during the feeding season.”

The five Al Hallaniyah islands, aka the Kuria Murias, are remotely located in the Arabian Seas and are only rarely visited due to often rough waters. Their seclusion helped make them an asylum for wildlife including dolphins, masked boobies, turtles and our operatic humpbacks.

It must be intermission because the singing has given way to dancing as the whales perform a few classic moves: puffs of wet air spouting 10-15 feet from their blowholes; fluking—when their powerful split tails rise from the water in preparation for a dive; spy hopping—when a whale pops its head above water for a quick look; and breaching—when they launch their entire bodies out of the water for a dramatic but lumbering belly flop.

As if on cue, the acrobatics end and the concert renews with highly structured songs that include multiple themes that are repeated and even seem to rhyme. Tomorrow we’ll return to Oman’s bustling capital of Muscat, but today we’re alone with the creatures that inhabit the deep blue waters, enjoying a whale of a time at this opera.

 

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