Underwater singing

(Die Unterwassersinger von Coogee)

Coogee Beach is not famous for its surf, but the deep curve of the beach attracts distance swimmers for its 350 m lap from headland to headland. Of the several dozen regulars who swim laps across Coogee Bay, few practise underwater singing. Indeed, there is probably just one, and I only took it up recently.

I am a scientist, and lately I have been thinking about underwater acoustical problems posed by the singing of the humpback whale (Megaptera novaengliae). As a result, I started doing some little experiments in underwater singing while crossing the bay, The sound is quite different from one's normal voice: it is nasal and loud and it seems to be coming from everywhere at once.

Now, I don't think that underwater singing has much future as an art form. Words are rather distorted and pitch is a bit difficult to control because of the changing pressure in the mouth, In addition, you cannot just choose songs at random: if you breathe on every third or fifth stroke, say, that determines the phrasing. Then there is the sound of the bubbles, which necessarily become part of the performance. So the tunes are usually improvised: they are slow and evenly phrased, and I dispense with lyrics. I certainly don't claim that they are worth coming to Coogee to hear but, for me, they can add to the relaxing and meditative qualities of a good swim.

There is, however, a potential audience. Many of the bay swimmer use the same points of alignment: Giles' baths on the northern headland and the surf club on the southern. As a result, we pass relatively close by each other more often than one would expect, give the size of the bay and the small number of swimmers, especially in winter.

These close encounters are surprising. Even when the waves are small, there is limited visibility at surface level and you don't see the other swimmer till quite late--or even not at all, depending on the waves and the directions of breathing. On two occasions in the past few years I have actually collided with another swimmer, The first time this happened I was about 100m from the beach, felt I had the whole ocean to myself and was lost in a reverie when suddenly I found myself entangled with another swimmer. We were both alarmed, but relieved to discover that the other party was not a shark.

In the most recent close encounter, I was swimming southwards and, breathing on the crest of a wave, I saw another swimmer, northbound and on collision course only a few metres away. Once again I had been off in dreamland, lulled by the cool support of the water, the unbroken rhythm that one can establish on the long laps across the bay, the vague patterns of underwater light and the calming sounds of the waves and my own swimming, interspersed occasionally by my hydro-acoustic experiments.

I saw the other swimmer just in that glance forward you get as your face goes under for the next stroke.

There was no time to turn, but I aborted the swimming stroke and, without really thinking about it, I gave him warning in best Manly ferry style with a fortissimo bass foghorn note such as I had been practising while thinking about vocal production in the humpback whale. It was very loud--even I was surprised. We both stopped in time, face to face and a metre apart. My fellow swimmer looked very startled indeed.

I must have realised that I would be thought crazy if I acknowledged the origin of the warning blast for, without thinking about it, I said: "What was that?" "Search me" came the astonished reply--which offer I declined. We swam off in opposite directions.

I have not seen this particular swimmer since--perhaps he was staying at the hotel, or perhaps the encounter has dissuaded him from the bay swim--but I imagine him recounting the story from his side, perhaps ending his account of the Sea-Monster Of Coogee by saying: "And I can't have imagined it because there was another bloke there and he heard it too!"

Originally published in the Observer column of The Australian, 22/3/1994. Joe Wolfe / J.Wolfe@unsw.edu.au

A multimedia introduction to the science of speech and some effects of the medium in air and in helium, but not in water.

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