The Search for the Loneliest Whale in the World (Pt. 3)

This is the final 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 and Part 2 is available here.

52 Hertz is a mystery, but so many of people’s common questions–Is he deformed? Is he really alone? Is he even really a whale?–could be answered with simple observation. Why hasn’t there been any? Why haven’t we studied 52 Hertz more closely?

For one thing, the Navy, which remains an important source of marine bioacoustics data, is not interested in finding a single benign whale. They have different things to worry about.

Then there’s the fact that even if private researchers want to use the Navy’s data for a civilian project, they would have to deal with the time lag between 52 Hertz passing the hydrophones and actually processing the data. Though the Woods Hole team had managed to construct maps of 52 Hertz’s journeys, this information had only become available miles and days after the whale had passed. The raw data has to be processed by trusted ex-Navy specialists before being handed over to NOAA or Woods Hole to be logged and analyzed further. The data also has to be declassified before researchers can release their findings to the public—even if revelations about a whale’s social status hardly seems like a threat to national security.

Using delayed data allowed oceanographers to map 52 Hertz’s travels whenever he was within the hydrophone system’s range. Photo: Jayne Doucette

Not much can be done about declassifying data in a timely manner. But nowadays, the actual data-gathering process about a whale’s location seems like it could be done in the private sector in a speedy manner. After all, we have GPS tags and near-instant satellite communication, right?

Christopher Clark, at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, has created hydrophone systems that relay information within fifteen minutes of detecting a whale for his Right Whale Listening Network project. Created with funding from oil companies seeking to reduce fatal collisions between their freighters and endangered whales, these microphones are equipped with advanced computers technically very similar to an iPhone. These recorders can convey data in near-real time, with smart processors programmed to identify whale-like sounds so that only pertinent clips are sent to human analysts for verification. Corporate ships then can be warned of a whale’s presence quickly—possibly quickly enough for a person intentionally tracking a whale to make a visual.

Unfortunately, these sophisticated auto-detection buoys are expensive to install, costing over $100,000 per unit. A corporation would choose to install these where their ships are likely to run into pregnant right whales calving in shallow waters, close to shore, rather than out in the deep. Using hydrophones to intentionally make visual contact with a single deep-sea individual would not rank high on any corporation’s priorities. That leaves the search up to researchers, whose pocketbooks are much more limited.

Traditional stationary hydrophones are not the only option available to interested researchers. Woods Hole has recently come up with another solution: re-purposing some torpedo-shaped robots that can navigate themselves to record and identify whale calls with an suite of acoustic software and to report the whale’s location almost instantly via a satellite connection.

Though Clark’s auto-detection buoys and Woods Hole’s new autonomous gliders were developed in order to quickly locate and report the locations of endangered whales to protect them from ship collisions, researchers could potentially use this kind of technology to find a targeted whale. But again, according to Clark, priorities work against 52 Hertz.

“There typically isn’t that urgency of knowing something within twenty to thirty minutes. You don’t need to know whether there’s a whale half an hour ago,” he said. Gathering data about seasonal and spatial movements of viable whale families requires long-term monitoring, and since time is money, researchers have to choose their goals wisely.

In economical terms, finding a single, anomalous whale doesn’t make as much sense as locating and tracking sustainable populations. The most efficient business plan for researchers’ limited budget and purposes would be to invest most of a project’s money into processing data, the real meat to be had from fieldwork. Using cheap, long-term hydrophone networks to collect a significant amount of data may take months or years, but processing that data would then take mere weeks.

Even though corporations and institutions rank 52 Hertz a low priority, Clark is also unabashedly optimistic that people’s natural curiosity will find a way around funding issues. Having witnessed technology make extraordinary leaps in the past twenty years, he believes it is only a matter of time before any regular Joe has access to cost-efficient technology to jury-rig their own hydrophone system—meaning that one day, anyone who hopes to track 52 Hertz down for a hug simply has to have the initiative to begin searching.

***

During 52 Hertz’s breakthrough into pop culture, tentative theories solidified into fact without any real scientific backing. Researchers drawn into the 52 Hertz phenomenon shake their heads at the hype, but at the same time they recognize that beneath the embellishments, Watkins’ whale is still interesting. Maybe 52 Hertz is not the hero in some one-whale-against-the-whole-ocean epic, but he is a thread people can follow into the world of marine biology and bioacoustics.

Will knowing more facts about Watkins’ whale and the possibility of other hybrid whales interacting normally with regular citizens of the sea destroy the magic and charm of 52 Hertz?

This seems unlikely. 52 Hertz has become a disembodied idea, an icon, and a beacon for positive modes of creation and exploration. As Christopher Clark sees it, if 52 Hertz wakens the public’s imaginations and makes them curious about listening to the vast library of sounds from the ocean, then all the better for science in the long run.

“If you had went to an old library,” says Clark, referring to the pioneering days that had discovered 52 Hertz, “You would have found [just] a handful of papers of blue whales or fin whales. And that situation has changed dramatically in twenty years because more people are listening, and the more we listen, the more we discover, and the more we realize we don’t know.”

“You can’t stop curiosity, and we should promote curiosity,” he added. “We’re all better off for it.”

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5 Responses to The Search for the Loneliest Whale in the World (Pt. 3)

  1. Doe says:

    Maybe the whale isn’that lonesome and just whistles a funky whale tune along with the humming of the worlds power grid infrastructures. See European standard EN 50160:2010, which allows 52 Hz intervals.

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  2. JimmyDiblanket says:

    They should get Match.com to fund the research.

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  3. christian says:

    These researchers need to set up a kickstarter fund.

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  4. lorraine says:

    Its a shame how little we know about the ocean. We should be studying it learning its secrets. Maybe there’s more of the 52hertz whale. This whale should be studied more. I hope this gets funded before it disapears for good

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  5. kat says:

    Doe, your point on the grid standards is interesting if that standard has been in use for ~30 years. Would be interesting to know – alternately, if the whale hears at that frequency, Europe must be calling.

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