Walruses have a huge vocabulary of sounds. They whistle, they grunt, and they can even sound like a steam train.
But, Rosemary Ponnekanti says, they also can sound musical.
“They make bell-like sounds and they can use their flippers to make percussive noises,” said Ponnekanti, who works on the communications team at the Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium in Tacoma. “They also get this funny, guttural kind of (sound) — I can’t even do it myself because I don’t have the right equipment in my voice.”
So, imitating the beloved creatures with the double bass — arguably the walrus of the music world, she says — is pretty fun.
Ponnekanti, who plays the double bass semi-professionally, recently composed original music that she performed for Mitik and Pakak, adolescent male walruses who were rescued from Alaska in 2012 and reunited at the Point Defiance Zoo last year. The music was a series of harmonies, improvised patterns created using a looping pedal.
Ponnekanti got the idea after noticing how other animals — including her dogs — spontaneously responded when she played music outside.
“I actually noticed that some of the birds, the local birds, would respond when I got up to their frequency,” she said. “I would play and they would sing back.”
Ponnekanti decided to experiment with playing for the animals at work, starting with the gray wolves at Northwest Trek. When they responded positively, the next stop was the walrus tanks at Point Defiance.
And the walruses loved it so much, they created music of their own in response.
"Whistling with Walruses" was produced by videographer Katie Cotterill.
“Pakak was very close to me and just occasionally hit the glass with his flipper, as to get my attention and make some noise himself,” Ponnekanti said. “I would sometimes echo the sound back to him.”
The Point Defiance Zoo has been open to visitors since June, with restrictions as a result of the pandemic. That means fewer crowds interacting with the walruses, who like the company.
Ponnekanti says the keepers worked closely with her to ensure the animals were benefiting from her performance; she was prepared to stop at any time they reacted negatively.
But that never happened.
“They had not had very many visitors to the underwater windows,” she said of the day they filmed the interaction, in late July. “They are very curious animals. They do like engaging with our visitors.”
But Pakak and Mitik aren’t the only ones who benefited from the performance. Ponnekanti says it was a meditative experience at a time when joy is in short supply.
“At the zoo, in that beautiful blue underwater space with the walruses, I was a whole lot closer to those animals. And so I really felt like I was as much in that world as I was ever going to be,” she said. “We were both creating the soundscape together, whether deliberately or not. And somehow sharing this way of being or this temporary world.”
Ponnekanti says the experience improved the rest of her day, and her mind travels back to that happy place every time she listens to or plays that music.
“I think we all need that at this time. And I think that's why the arts are so very crucial during the pandemic and in the Pacific Northwest during this wildfire season,” she said. “It's not escapism, but it's more like reminding ourselves of beautiful possibilities of this world and how they do exist.”
The jury is still out on one thing, though:
“Whether they prefer Ponnekanti to Brahms, that's something we'll actually never know.”