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on sonorous seas

This story begins with a whale carcass which came ashore in August 2018 at Traigh an t-Suidhe/Strand of the Seat, at the North end of the Isle of Iona. It is a story told with the voices of science, art, music and poetry, and it explores the impact of military sonar on the ecology of the seas surrounding the Hebrides - Mhairi Killin



Led by visual artist Mhairi Killin with composer Fergus Hall - in collaboration with artist Tom deMajo of Biome Collective, poet Miek Zwamborn, calligrapher Susie Leiper and in partnership with the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust - On Sonorous Seas gives voice to what is not apparent beneath the beauty of the Hebridean waters. Through art, music and poetry, On Sonorous Seas encourages a deeper listening to, and understanding of the sounds we may find there, and their meaning for the ecology of our seas.


On Sonorous Seas was presented at An Tobar Tobermory, Isle of Mull, from 9th July - 26th August, 2022. Live performances of excerpts from Fergus Hall’s composition occurred at Calgary, Isle of Mull and Traigh an t-Suidhe, Isle of Iona, where two of the whales came ashore in 2018. These performances were supported by talks with scientists from Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust and Scottish Association for Marine Science. Further iterations of On Sonorous Seas took place in Glasgow at the Glasgow School of Art in November 2022 and Taigh Chearsabhagh in North Uist in September-October 2023. 


A series of podcasts is available through the website. On Sonorous Seas has become a living project through the support of Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust, An Tobar, Creative Scotland, CHArts, SPACE CIC, Scottish Association for Marine Science, and National Museum of Scotland.


With many thanks to: All the team at HWDT; Mike Darling for taking on the idea and staying with it; Jon Macleod, Màiri NicGillìosa for bones and stories; Dr. Denise Risch of Scottish Association for Marine Science, for cetacean sounds and support from the beginning; Dr. Andrew Kitchener and Dr. David Cooper of National Museum of Scotland for access to the ‘Whale Room’ and expertise in 3D scanning; Dr. Mariele Tendoeschate and Dr. Andrew Brownlow of Scottish Marine Animal Strandings Scheme, and Ashley Leiper for spectrograms.

Words by Mhairi Killin

the music of on sonorous seas

The music of On Sonorous Seas was made almost entirely from hydrophone recordings collected by the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust and Mhairi Killin during a ten day research voyage in the Hebrides during NATO Joint Warrior Military Exercise, along with some additional recordings from other HWDT voyages. 

The piece is not intended to accurately represent the sonic environments that are inhabited by cetaceans, rather I moulded these recordings into imagined sonic spaces for a listener to place themselves, an imagined space experienced solely through sound and listening.

I say “imagined” as the experience of cetaceans is so separated from our own. It is tempting to romanticise the existence of whales, as animals that have long carried the weight of majesticness and mysticism due to their size and elusiveness. It is tempting to project anthropomorphic characteristics onto them and relate our experiences to theirs with a desire to connect “us” and “them” (though having said this, it is important to acknowledge the importance of whales in the cultures of various first nations communities such as the Makah people on the Pacific Northwest Coast of North America, relationships that are complex and deep rooted). 

The sound environments I have made are imagined because they need to be. The void between our experiences and theirs is demonstrated by us requiring technology to catch a mere glimpse of their world yet this glimpse is hazy, clouded by the rush of water, boat engines and snapping shrimp. The distance is too great for me to recreate an accurate representation of their world so instead one must embrace the distance and create something imagined. For this reason, the sounds of cetaceans in this piece are not always obvious, sometimes they are hidden with only brief fragments audible amongst the static and engine noise. At points I present the sounds as they were found, other times they are elusive or noticeably absent. 

Throughout the piece, I make use of organ and accordion “like” sounds. I was drawn to these as instruments in that they require air or breath, a small reference to a significant characteristic of cetaceans. Organs also carry connotations of religiosity, reverence, and requiem. In reality, the presence of these instruments in the piece is also imagined. They are entirely synthesised from the cetacean recordings using granular processes, it was merely by chance that these audio processes evoked these instruments. 

The vocal samples were provided by Lea Shaw. They were improvised in response to early iterations of the piece and were then heavily processed. Like the organs, I was drawn to the connotations of breath and air, a fleetingly distant evolutionary link that we share, as well as the lamenting qualities of a wordless human voice. 

Baleen, Orca & Boat Noise

The piece opens with the sound of dried baleen, found washed up on a beach in Lewis by Jon Macleod and recorded by me, in his home in Lewis. 

During the Joint Warrior research trip, the HWDT recorded orca calls, during a rare sighting of two of the remaining orcas, known as John Coe and Aquarius, from the West Coast Community pod. These are the first recordings the HWTD have been able to capture of the iconic duo. Distant snatches of their calls can be heard through the static. 

The engines of boats create very clear resonant frequencies amongst the white noise and interference. Much of the pitched material throughout this section comes from the noise of the HWDT boat, Silurian, as it observed John Coe and Aquarius.

Dolphin Clicks & Whistles 

Resonant frequencies from the surrounding water are isolated and looped at varying lengths. Snapping shrimps create little pops and accents within this. 

The calls of a pod of dolphins are mixed with chopped vocal samples. Some of the vocal samples are triggered by the rhythms of the dolphin clicks.

Sonar I & II

Sonar is much higher in pitch than I realised before hearing the HWDT recordings. When pitch shifted much lower it reveals many higher frequencies and artefacts that are initially far outside the range of human hearing. I magnified these artefacts with heavy audio processing, creating a barrage of harsh sound. 

In Fathoms, Rebecca Giggs likens anthropomorphic sound in the oceans to deforestation on land. Though we are largely unaware of this, sonar, oil exploration and shipping lanes carve out vast areas of territory, creating boundaries that are impenetrable for animals that navigate their world using sound. Habitats and food sources, therefore, shrink and mating populations are unable to locate one another.

Minke Whale & Dolphins

The gentle thump of a minke whale with dolphin interjections. The rhythm of the high trumpet-like accents in the organ are from the slowed clicks of a dolphin.


When a whale dies far out to sea, it floats for a while, held up by gases created by its decomposition. As these dissipate, it sinks slowly to the ocean floor and in doing so, creates an oasis of nutrients and organic matter. Life in the deepest, darkest parts of the ocean is sustained by falling particles of organic matter known as marine snow. One falling whale carcass is the equivalent to around 1000 years of marine snow. A whale’s carcass can sustain life at the bottom of the ocean for up to sixty years after it has died, a period of time that matches the lifespan of some species of whale. By the end only the bones are left, slowly broken down by microscopic bacteria.

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