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Jammin’ with the whales

Veronica Whitney

This isn’t your typical jam session. It’s one between a man, Jim Nollman, and a group of beluga whales.

Nollman, 56, a conceptual artist, writer and musician who works with whales, has a theory: Whales can make music; whales can talk.

“Whales have brains bigger than ours,” Nollman says. “Biologist have realized they have their own language and culture.”

On the screen of his Macintosh computer, Nollman shows a video of beluga whales dancing around a speakerphone underwater. Nollman captured the wales making music with him through underwater speakers and hydrophones.

The sounds coming from the whales, a mix of all the animals’ sounds one can imagine, impeccably follow the notes and rhythms set by Nollman’s guitar.

“Some species of whales can understand music. I can really make them play the blues with me,” says Nollman, who on Sunday gave a presentation, “The Art of Interspecies Communication”, at the Vail Symposium in Edwards. “Sometimes, I make a tune and I’m the lead. Other times, I become their student.”

Can they sing?

Nollman lives “surrounded by whales” in Friday Harbor on the San Juan Islands, Wash..

His 25-year-long career observing and interacting with whales started when he founded Interspecies Communication, Inc., a non-profit that help artists, musicians and philosophers to get out in the field and interact with animals.

“Our culture gives scientists and National Geographic photographers access to nature, but artists can’t afford it, they don’t have the logistics and the tools,” Nollman says. “Artists are, however, an important part of the puzzle to understand animals like whales. Biologist have realized that whales do things that don’t fit the ideas we have of them.”

When Nollman was doing his research for his book, “The Charged Border: Where Whales and Humans Meet”, he asked people who study, who observe, and who kill whales, what makes whales special.

“Everybody seems to agree that whales are like “ET’, they are out of this world,” he says. “They have some kind of wisdom and intelligence.”

Nollman even has had Tibetan monks chanting prayers with orcas.

“Whales are special, a lot of people think they are telepathic,” Nollman says. “People get happy around whales. I have seen that. When I’m with whales, I feel like I am a kid around my mother.”

That’s one of the reasons, Nollman says, whale watching is one of the most popular eco tourism activities.

“Nature is disappearing and people want to reconnect,” he adds.

From turkeys to whales

Before playing music with whales, Nollman spent some time trying to break the code of interspecies communication with turkeys buffalos and wolves.

Nollman’s adventures playing music with animals started on one Thanksgiving more than 20 years ago.

“They called me from this radio station in California and asked me to do a special for Thanksgiving with turkeys. And I did it. I got these turkeys communicating with me,” he says.

Music with the turkeys was a success and the radio asked Nollman to do the same with wolves and buffalos.

“It worked, they all communicate in some way,” Nollman says.

Of all the whales species, Nollman says his favorite is the beluga whale.

The beluga whale is listed in the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources insufficiently known category. Animals in this category are suspected of being either endangered, threatened, or vulnerable, but lack of information prohibits listing the beluga in one of these categories.

“The beluga whale looks like an angel,” he says. “And it could become extinct in 20 years.”

Being around whales isn’t dangerous either, Nollman says.

“I’ve seen fishermen in Japan who have fallen to the water while killing dolphins,” he says. “Even though the water was red with blood, they (dolphins) wouldn’t hurt the fisherman.”

Whaling, Nollman says, could become extinct in the next five years because whales are very polluted with mercury.

“The important thing is that these whales are communiating with each other in ways that we could never understand,” Nollman says. “Because of their level of communication, they could tell each other a whole movie in 20 seconds.”

Veronica Whitney can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 454, or at vwhitney@vaildaily.com.


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