The Search for the Loneliest Whale in the World (Pt. 1)

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Somewhere off the west coast of British Columbia wanders a whale—at least, his voice can be heard there. He appears to be alone.

Simply by eavesdropping, scientists have deduced a few details about this whale. He swims the cold waters of the North Pacific, probably in pursuit of food and love. In all likelihood, he is a baleen whale: a long, grey tanker with a pointed head and generous lower jaw. For food, he would chase clouds of plankton and tiny shrimp-like creatures called krill, gulping gallons of water into his mouth and pushing it all out through two long furry-looking plates sprouting from the roof of his mouth where one would expect teeth. These plates, called baleen, filter krill and other crustaceans out of the expelled water. Miraculously, these tiny creatures are all the sustenance this giant mammal needs to survive.

The baleen whale suborder includes blue whales (above) and fin whales. 52 Hertz could be either. (Photo: Creative Commons)

For love, he calls out in long, low moans. Each intonation lasts anywhere from five to fifteen seconds, and he waits up to thirty seconds between each cry, taking ten minute breaks between each song. He will sing like this for hours. His voice carries for miles, and any females nearby would surely take note of his voice’s strength and range, the variety of his repertoire, the duration of his song. In the murky dark where a whale can barely see its own tail, the quality of these musical elements should prove that he is a worthy mate.

Despite his efforts, he receives no reply. Meet 52 Hertz: the loneliest whale in the world.

It was 1989. At the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts, William “Bill” Watkins, the man who invented the first underwater recording system, was in charge of categorizing the mysterious moans and groans resonating through the ocean. His team had begun cataloguing whale mating calls, specifically tracking males because they vocalize so frequently. One day, Watkins noticed a high, unique voice easy to hear and identify over other background noises: the call of that lonely whale wandering the North Pacific alone.

There was something strange about this whale. The harmonic intervals—the rise and fall of his calls—resembled those of baleen whales, but these patterns were unlike any the team had heard so far. Even more notably, certain kinds of vocalizations, typically too low for humans to hear unaided, averaged to about 52 hertz.

In acoustics, increasing the number of hertz shifts the sound’s frequency higher, towards mosquitoes and cartoon characters and away from timpani drums and James Earl Jones. The corresponding vocalizations for a regular blue or fin whale falls somewhere around 15-20 hertz, the kind of frequency that you can feel in your bones when a car blasting a deep bass drives by but can barely register hearing (the human hearing range falls between 20 to 20,000 hertz). So transposing a regular whale’s call from 20 to 52 hertz means that a sound that usually registers as a marrow-deep mumble suddenly takes form as a recognizable note: still low by human standards, 52 hertz is on par with a lowest toot on a tuba.

This spectrogram of 52 Hertz’s calls was posting on the NOAA wesbite. Click on the picture to hear a recording of an actual 52hz call sped up to 520hz so it is easily audible to humans.

Why was this whale’s call comparatively so high? Was he deformed? Did he represent a previously undiscovered species? Was he a hybrid? Did the strange frequency of his voice isolate him from other whales?

At the time, Watkins had no answers; marine bioacoustics was still a young field, and Watkins and his team were not quite sure just how rare or important this anomaly was in the grand scheme of things. They did not linger on it much before returning to their research.

But something strange happened in the coming years. The whale continued swimming up and down the North Pacific alone, regularly passing within range of the Navy’s hydrophone system. In 1992, the Navy declassified more data that they had gathered, allowing Watkins and his colleagues to begin tracking this odd, tuba-sounding whale more closely. And for the next dozen years, they tracked it, assembling remarkably detailed maps of its migratory patterns.

Then, on September 24, 2004, just as the resulting paper was being prepared for publication in Deep Sea Research, Watkins succumbed to cancer. Mary Ann Daher, a marine biologist and colleague of his, became the corresponding author for the Woods Hole team’s work, which was published later that year. Then, on December 8, Reuters published a short article focusing on two key details from the research paper: the whale’s migratory patterns had seemed “unrelated to the presence or movements of other whale species” and its calls “did not match those from any other species.”

News articles multiplied in national and local papers, shifting focus from the whale’s research significance to its status as a lone whale with a unique voice. Among the journalists who followed up was Andrew Revkin at the New York Times, who wrote two articles about the case. The first focused on the research itself. The second examined the flood of empathy and sympathy for a creature that nobody had even laid eyes on, a reaction that continues to this day.

Since the research paper’s release, 52 Hertz, as the mystery mammal came to be called, has become associated with loneliness and isolation, inspiring a number of artistic works. Alternative rock band Dalmatian Rex and the Eigentones features “The Loneliest Whale in the World” on their Psychedelic Monsters album. Comedian Kate Micucci wrote a humorous song “Doreen the Whale,” while musician Laura Ann Bates performed a more somber “The Loneliest Creature on Earth.” Artist Mike Ambs runs an audio project called the loneliest mix, designed to share blue whale calls one mix-tape at a time. German author Agnieszka Jurek put together a book, 52 Hertz Wal, illustrated by Thies Schwarz. And, perhaps most ambitiously, director/writer Joshua Zeman is in the process of filming a full-length documentary on 52 Hertz’s discovery and people’s desire to connect and communicate with the lonely creature.

Yet 52 Hertz still swims on, alone. For despite the popular desire to find and maybe befriend him, we don’t know how to find 52 Hertz. We don’t even really know what he looks like.

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