The sunken lighthouse
a sound composition by Marco Montiel-Soto & Misael Morales Vargas
Edition of 250 records
During the months of October, November and December 2020, we, Marco and Misael, made 30 expeditions in a semi-rigid boat to observe, listen and understand the cetaceans that surround and inhabit the Special Area of Conservation Teno-Rasca, between Punta de Teno by Los Gigantes cliffs, and Punta Rasca, by the town of Las Galletas, in the south- west coast of Tenerife island, one of the eight Spanish islands that forms an archipelago located off the west coast of Africa: The Canary Islands.
Each expedition departed from Marina del Sur, in the town of Las Galletas. Pointing the boat compass 270 degrees southwest towards La Gomera and then 30 more degrees starboard, parallel to the coast towards Los Gigantes. Always passing by Punta Rasca, with its old lighthouse, illuminating the horizon since 1899.
During the expeditions, we conducted field surveys. On a designed spreadsheet we annotated environmental information, such as date and time, temperature, sea state, wind direction, visibility, navigation time and distance (effort). But also, and most importantly, our observations such as: species, geographical position, behavior, abundance of adults, juveniles and calves, photo ID and sound recordings file names, number of other boats around and types of interaction of the animals with us. To achieve these goals, we used photo and video equipment, as well as an underwater camera and a hydrophone connected to a sound recorder.
Leaving the port behind us, we navigated until we were close to reach a depth of 1000 meters, then we reduced the speed and started looking at the horizon, searching for fins, blows, splashes in the water, or anything that might looked like a cetacean. Sometimes pilot whales hid behind the waves and the observation was lost with the movement of the boat. From time to time, we had to dislocate our gaze to spot them in the distance… then, they appeared… a black dot moving in the horizon, a reflection sinking into the sea.
Pilot whales (Globicephala sp), are odontocetes cetaceans from the dolphin’s family (Delphinidae). Some people consider them whales, as they are much bigger, dark grey almost black and can grow between 5 to 7 meters long. Pilot whales are sociable species, that gather in family groups or pods, they are rarely found alone. They form matrilineal groups, where mothers are bonding with theirs calves and teaching their youngsters. They are mammals breathing air at the surface, but to feed, they need to hold their breath for about 20 minutes and dive between 600 and 1200 meters deep, to hunt a variety of prey, such as squids and some deep-sea fishes. Pilot whales, as well as all odontocetes, are creatures that have developed acoustic abilities. They use whistles for communication, and they find their preys through sound, using sound pulses. An ability called echolocation.
Pilot whales are present in almost every ocean. They are generally migratory animals, but there are a few (five in number) resident populations in the planet: one of them – the biggest one, in number of individuals and area is Tenerife. There are two species of pilot whales, the short-finned pilot whale (Globicephala macrorhynchus) that inhabit the Canary Islands and the long-finned pilot whale (Globicephala melas) that inhabit the Mediterranean Sea.
During the expeditions, we always met pods of pilot whales and we approached them following a legal protocol to ensure the respect to the animals. Keeping a distance of at least 60 meters, where we turned off the engine of the boat and deployed the hydrophone into sea. We observed the pilot whales’ behavior and wrote down the GPS position. We also counted the number of individuals and took photo identification pictures of their dorsal fins to identify each animal individually, because dorsal fins are for them, what fingerprints are for humans, Unique.
On some occasions we had positive interactions. The pilot whales were curious and would approach the boat. Passing by us on the side, underneath, and in circles around the boat. We could hear them communicating with whistles. We could also hear the clicks, these powerful sound pulses that they use for echolocation, an ability that, on the same principle as radar, allows them to get a mental picture of everything around them.
We concentrated our efforts on locating pilot whales, but often we also stopped by the
In addition to the sound recordings of the pilot whales, we also recorded other dolphins and some of anthropogenic noises such as the chains hitting the structure of a fish farm. In some occasions we also recorded the sound of our own boat and other boats, but notably, the sound of fast ferry engines (noise pollution).
Noise pollution underwater is impressive. During the pandemic this underwater noise was reduced, but in our normal daily life, the noise of boats, ferries and cruise ships severely affect whales and dolphins. These animals are creatures relying on their acoustic abilities, their ecology and biology depend on sound.
On one of the expeditions, we found a plastic tank floating at the surface with some gasoline inside. It could have fallen from any boat, but we knew that it had fallen from a clandestine cayuco (patera) that carried 80 migrants that had arrived the day before in Tenerife. The coast guard escorted the cayuco to Marina del Sur, the port of Las Galletas. For several days we watched the design of the patera and the way it was painted. A few days later, the cayuco was moved to the shore, covered with a huge cloth. Some employees from the port said that a hole should’ve been made in the boat to be sunk in sea.
During those days more cayucos came. We read in the news that in those weeks more than 500 migrants arrived. We observed in the newspapers the photographs of the cayucos, the drawings and decorations and the phrases that were painted on them. We tried to investigate what they were doing with these boats. Did they really sink them? Is there a cemetery of cayucos at the bottom of the sea?
Every day, we heard on board a radio call alerting about the presence of Patera boats, with undetermined number of passengers, traveling in precarious conditions from the African coasts toward the Canary Islands. The coast guard prevented all boats on VHF channel radio 16, to notify any information about it.
Someone told us that there were some cayucos on an abandoned terrain near a school. The location seemed abstract, but one day, finally, inside a field covered with a four meters high aluminum fence, we saw 12 cayucos stacked inside. One on top of the other in a hole. Are they going to bury them there? cover them with soil? burn them?
Along the history, many dolphins and whales, including pilot whales, have been persecuted by fishermen who killed them to sell their meat and blubber. Emblematic is the sperm whale’s head, known as the spermaceti organ, the fat is extracted from the cavities of the skull and has long been used as a valuable source of energy and on a variety of cosmetics.
Pilot whales have also been used in different aquatic parks (dolphinariums) around the world. The most famous is Bubbles, that spent almost its entire life in captivity in San Diego (USA). In recent years, different documentaries and films have shown the tortures to which cetaceans are subjected before being enslaved in parks, even killed, as in Faroe Islands (Denmark) or the annual massacre of dolphins in Taiji (Japan).
The Sunken Lighthouse is a sound composition that gathers part of the material collected during our expeditions in the south of Tenerife. The sounds of pilot whales, bottlenose dolphins, Atlantic spotted dolphins, whistles, clicks, pulses, waves, emergency radio calls, underwater noises, engines, voices that drown in the deep dark sea.
This sound composition explores the hydropoetic and violent relationships between fauna and human being, extinction and biodiversity, ecosystem and food chain, art and marine biology, freedom and captivity, migration and expedition, Africa and Europe.
All files recordings by Misael Morales Vargas and Marco Montiel-Soto.
Record cover by Marco Montiel-Soto in collaboration with Ana Agustín.
The production of this record was realized under MAREBOX project (614735-CREA-1- 2019-1-EL-CROSS-SECT-INNOVLAB) co-funded by Creative Europe Programme of the European Commission, in collaboration with Atlantis Consulting, 3D Research,
Savvy Contemporary, Biosean and the University of Oslo.
Record production in Neophon, Dusseldorf, Germany
Edition of 250 copies