The Search for the Loneliest Whale in the World (Pt. 2)

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This is the second installment in a three-part series about the decades-long search for a mysterious whale whose calls have been haunting researchers for years. Part 1 can be read here.

The researchers who listened to 52 Hertz’s calls over the years never had to lay eyes on the whale, mainly because they lacked the funds and opportunity to perform such a needle-in-the-haystack search. Bill Watkins and his group had to be satisfied with tracking him from the East Coast while he swam along the West Coast through data provided to them by the Navy.

A hydrophone used to record underwater sounds. Photo credit: Hannes Grobe.

The U.S. Navy had originally installed these billion-dollar hydrophone systems in deep waters to detect Soviet submarines during the Cold War.  Laying down hundreds of miles of cable across the sea floor was an incredible investment of time and manpower for a project that was not really understood or well-tested. Fortunately, the gamble paid off. The North Pacific system was stable and sensitive enough to detect approaching subs lurking in the distances. But once the Cold War ended, the Navy was not quite sure what to do with the hydrophone systems.

They decided to open the recording systems up for civilian use. Visiting the hydrophones, let alone using them, still requires a security clearance, but having access to the data they gather is an immense boon for scientists who would not be able to afford installing such an expansive open ocean system on their own dime. With the Navy’s acoustic data, marine biologists and bioacoustics experts were able to map seasonal migratory patterns of blue and fin whales for the first time.

Oceanographers at Woods Hole and researchers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have shared the Navy’s data on marine mammals since the early 1990s. Watkins was the first person to identify 52 Hertz as a baleen whale. These days, researchers tend to think 52 Hertz is probably a hybrid between a blue whale and a fin whale, two closely related suborders of baleens.

There is also the possibility that 52 Hertz could be a linguistic hybrid. Whales have very localized dialects, meaning that a blue whale from the Atlantic would sound different from a blue whale from the Pacific. There are even regional differences between the North and South Pacific blue whales.

Does this mean that neither blue nor fin whales can hear or understand 52 Hertz? Christopher Clark, director of the bioacoustics research program at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, does not think so.

“[Whales] share many characteristics in their social structure,” Clark says. “When you get into their social sounds, that’s where you get this rich mixture of loudness, and the structures are very context-dependent…that’s where you find there’s a great deal of overlap between these kinds of sounds between different kinds of species.”

The easiest social sound to recognize and compare between species is the male mating song, which Clark termed “very elaborate acoustic displays” to advertise a whale’s robustness. These are the sounds that Watkins’ group was using to track their whales, leading to most researchers referring to 52 Hertz as a “he.”

“The males make the loudest call, so we could probably pick them up from farther away,” says David Mellinger, project leader and senior researcher of NOAA’s ocean sounds research group. When asked if females were just too quiet for hydrophones to pick up, he conceded that “there could be females [with 52 Hertz] that are just quieter or just silent. It could be that this male just travels alone for parts of the time.”

So 52 Hertz: the lonely whale, or the loner whale?

Until further research can be done, all we can do is speculate. There is no proof that other whales shun him upon contact—just as there is no proof that they don’t. 52 Hertz could be meeting up with friendly whales somewhere in uncharted waters, leaving them to follow a favored food source up and down the latitudinal lanes of the North Pacific—or he could be just as lonely as the world at large pictures him. From here, any more speculation about the individual 52 Hertz has no scientific bearing.

His call still may be a result of deformation, but the fact that he managed to survive for the twelve years that Watkins tracked him is a testament that he is not debilitated. With extended observation, any combination of possibilities could be rendered as fact.

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