Flute dolphins and music makes them jump

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 experimented with musical instruments and sounds that make bottlenose dolphins react.

“Through maybe 25 years of experience, I’ve always noticed that if you want a good dolphin encounter, you sing or play an instrument,” says Olivia de Bergerac, a Sydney-based consultant who has participated in the expedition. “But this is the first time we’ve done it scientifically.”

In December, de Bergerac and the musicians of the ANU took a boat from Port Stephens, New South Wales, and gave a concert to the dolphins.

They played flute, piccolo and Indian recorder, as well as soprano singing. A hydrophone at the base of the boat recorded the responses from the dolphin pod.

Walker playing Pan and the birds to dolphins.

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

“With the misfortune or fortune of my concerts being canceled last year and most of the previous year with COVID, it was time to do it,” says Walker.

“And of course it was a completely COVID safe concert experience because I was playing outdoors and with underwater mammals.”

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

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

When Walker Tried Pan and the birds, by the French composer Jules Moquet, the basket has decided to follow the boat.

“It’s a pod of bottlenose dolphins that normally belong to Port Stephens Bay, and they had followed us out to sea. And then we stopped the boat, and played them this move, […] and they actually approached the boat,” says Walker.

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

The hydrophone recording with the sounds of the dolphins.

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

“So it’s not new, but it’s the first time with a university that we’ve studied flute and dolphin response.”

Dolphins can hear a much wider range of sounds than humans, especially 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,” de Bergerac explains. The melon is a mass of tissue that aids in echolocation.

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Walker says that while the dolphins were a huge boon, playing the flute on a boat is no easy task.

“There were two main issues. The first is that 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 was damaged in any way it would be fine.

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

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

The musicians are planning another boat trip in April, when they will try to listen to the chorus of dolphins on the hydrophone as they play.

“The next time we go out, Sally will play, but she will hear the sound of the dolphins and she will do a little improvisation session with them,” de Bergerac explains.

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

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