Jeopardy! category: ISLANDS OF THE PACIFIC (19-02-2014)
$800 clue: A big tourist activity in Tonga is whale watching, & since the whales are mainly this singing species, whale listening too
The gist: Those of us gritting our teeth at the cold this time of year up here in the north of the northern hemisphere are probably a little jealous of the subjects of this category, but don’t be when it comes to this one. The Humpback whales of the southern Pacific are certainly down south, but probably further south than we’d want to go. The cetaceans spend the southern hemisphere’s summer and fall (around December to May) in the frigid waters of the Antarctic, feasting on krill while the females gestate and eventually
conceive deliver their calves. Around June, they return to the waters of the South Pacific, including around Tonga, where the newborn calves grow and learn the skills they’ll need to survive on their own. As the Kingdom of Tonga itself puts it on their official website, “the shallow and warm waters of the Kingdom of Tonga provide the perfect viewing platform, with excellent visibility in the crystalline reefs surrounding the islands of the Vava’u group.” Who better to say so?
Although many species of cetaceans are vocal creatures, the low, melodious sounds we humans have designated “whale song” are only made by two groups, an Indian Ocean subspecies of blue whale and humpback males. The sort of whale song you’re probably listening to in your head right now, the haunting trumpets and “woo-woos” that sound like they’re coming from the bottom of a cave, is almost certainly from a humpback, that species having cornered the market on New Age-y nature sound relaxation recordings. The giant creatures are capable of producing sounds throughout and beyond the human range of hearing (generally 20 hertz to 20 kilohertz – the whales can sing at 20 hertz to 24 kilohertz). The “structure” of the songs, if such a thing exists, has been the subject of intense study and debate among marine biologists, and while features of the songs have been described in broad strokes, we’re still not sure if apparent subtleties are actually intended or are merely the results of pattern-hunting and pareidolia. Whatever the case, the claims made by some sellers on Amazon seem rather spurious to me.
The clue: Whale-watching is a major portion of Tonga’s tourism sector, and it’s not too far-fetched that someone would know that – maybe they have a friend that won’t stop talking about swimming with the whales in Tonga, or maybe they’ve done it themselves or are dreaming of the time when they can. Regardless, this is really a question about whales rather than a question about islands – which species of whale is best known for singing? The writers have tied it in well with Tonga, though, since there are other kinds of singing whales but it’s humpbacks you’ll see in those particular waters.
In Jeopardy!: Less popular than blue whales (30 clues) and killer whales (28 clues and some more that call them orcas), but more than baleen and sperm (21 each), humpbacks show up in 25 clues in the J!Archive. Several of them wax on about their vocal prowess, but more often they mention the animal’s distinctive shape (their humped back, of course). Remember that whale plus song or whale plus shape is almost certainly the humpback.