Spyhopping The Skies

Fellow in the field of performing arts Ivana Ivković explores her long-lasting and persistent fascination with cartography, navigation, movement, and divergent notions of atlas through a series of posts that reveal trajectories and references of her developing project.

This series is published on the occasion of the publication of Solitude Atlas, a special publication mapping 25 years of Akademie Schloss Solitude through letters, essays, poems, short stories and illustrations of its former fellows.


Our world rarely moves in straight lines. And when it does, it looks up to the skies for guidance.

I’ve long been fascinated with the precision of portolan charts. Medieval nautical maps of the Mediterranean and Black Sea inked onto skin of sheep or other animals, criss-crossed by straight lines representing the 32 directions of the mariner’s compass. With nothing more than the compass and notes of sailors’ directions, mapmakers drafted exceptionally accurate maps that bring to mind contemporary satellite imagery.

Researchers are still at a loss in decoding the transference between sailors’ notes and the resulting vivid maps. With no longitude and latitude, no trace of lineage from Alexandrian mathematician, geographer and astronomer Ptolemy, how could portolan map makers provide correct coordinates and realistic depictions of shores?

Were the dark Middle Ages lit up by stars in this instance? Did the mapmakers look straight up as much as they looked across the waves?

Another mystery of straight lines confounds contemporary science. Since the 1970s scientists have used tagging devices to study the movements of humpback whales during their long seasonal ocean migrations that can span more than 10,000 km of open ocean. Satellite tracking technology has been used to depict the uncannily straight paths humpback whales follow for weeks at a time, never deviating more than 5 degrees from their migratory courses and often, incredibly, less than 1 degree.

How do the whales stay on arrow-straight paths that vary less than Earth’s magnetism, traverse such long distances with such precision, and at the same time choreograph large pods of other whales spread over many miles?

There is vocalization. Remnants of Cold War technology, a network of hydrophones that listened in on Soviet submarines, are now employed in picking up whale echolocation. Prior to the introduction of human noise production, boats, military and civil sonar, the noises may have travelled uninterrupted from one side of an ocean to the other.

The results of a recent study suggest a single migratory mechanism isn’t responsible. Instead, humpbacks may use a combination of echolocation, the Sun’s position, Earth’s magnetism, and even star maps to guide their long journeys.

But how do whales see the constellations?

Spyhopping – what a wonder-instilling word – is hypothesized as another piece of the puzzle. Spyhopping is stationary behavior during which a whale surfaces for 15 to 30 seconds slowly turning as if in pirouette and surveying their surroundings, the landscape and perhaps the sky above them.

As I collect charts, examine cartographies, read about cetacean sound mapping, I am confronted with the work of other artists in the house who are also glancing up.

The whales and us, navigating the world by spyhopping towards the skies.


Reading list
Michael Benson, Cosmigraphics, 2014.
Umberto Eco, The Book of Legendary Lands, 2013.
Philip Hoare, Leviathan, or the Whale, 2008.
Hans Ulrich Obrist, Mapping It Out: An Alternative Atlas of Contemporary Cartographies, 2014.