Playing the flute brings dolphins jumping

Want to increase your chances of spotting dolphins? Playing the flute might be your best bet.

A group of musicians from the Australian National University has been experimenting with musical instruments and sounds that get a reaction out of bottlenose dolphins.

“Through maybe 25 years of experience, I always notice that if you want a good encounter with dolphins, you sing, or you play an instrument,” says Olivia de Bergerac, a Sydney-based consultant who was involved in the expedition. “But this is the first time we’re doing it scientifically.”

In December, de Bergerac and the ANU musicians took a boat out from Port Stephens, in NSW, and gave the dolphins a concert.

They played flute, piccolo, and the Indian wooden recorder, along with some soprano singing. A hydrophone at the base of the boat recorded the dolphin pod’s responses.

Walker playing Pan and the Birds to the dolphins.

Flautist Sally Walker, a lecturer at ANU, says that she and de Bergerac had been thinking about trying this for over a decade.

“With the misfortune or fortune of my concerts being cancelled last year and most of the year before with COVID, there was time to do this,” says Walker.

“And of course, it was a completely COVID-safe concert experience because I was playing in the open air and to underwater mammals.”

Walker says that music she loved, rather than “technically dazzling” music, was this thing that caught the dolphins’ attention.

“I tried to play my favourite music, which is Bach, I played some Telemann, some Vivaldi. They really responded to the Bach, I noticed,” says Walker.

When Walker tried Pan and the Birds, by French composer Jules Moquet, the pod decided to follow the boat along.

“This is a pod of bottlenose dolphins that normally belong in the bay of Port Stephens, and they’d followed us out to sea. And then we stopped the boat, and played them that movement, […] and they actually came right up to the boat,” says Walker.

“It was magical, because they followed us, and usually they don’t go out like that,” says de Bergerac.

The hydrophone recording with the dolphin sounds.

De Bergerac says that some groups of Indigenous Australians used music and sound to communicate with dolphins. There’s a long history of cooperative fishing between some Aboriginal Australians and dolphins in eastern Australia.

“So it’s not new, but it’s the first time with a university we’re studying the flute and the response of the dolphins.”

Dolphins can hear a much broader range of sounds than humans, particularly at higher frequencies.

“It’s also a way for them to scan things. The sound bounces back, and they get a hologram in their melon, in their forehead,” says de Bergerac. The melon is a mass of tissue that assists with echolocation.

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Walker says that while the dolphins were a massive boon, playing flute on a boat is not an easy task.

“There were two main problems. The first is salt corrodes silver very, very badly. So I didn’t dare play my professional flute on the boat. I was playing a student model flute that wasn’t really in great condition, so if it got damaged in any way, it would be okay.”

The second problem was the strength of the wind – always a risk outdoors, but higher on boats.

“The wind can blow at an angle where it’s actually blowing into your flute,” Walker says. “And that sounds very weird, I feel the sound blow right back into my face. […] I think there’s no solution for that because I can’t control the winds.”

The musicians are planning another boat journey in April, when they’ll try listening to the dolphin chorus over the hydrophone as they play.

“Next time we go out, Sally’s going to play, but she’s going to hear the dolphin sounds and she’s going to have a little improvisation session with them,” says de Bergerac.

“That opens up all kinds of interesting areas,” says Walker.

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