Author: Hannah Cheng

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?


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

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.


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

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.


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