52 Hertz of Heartbreak

North Pacific gray whales are generally native to… well, you get the idea. Although they were twice hunted close to extinction, full protection since 1947 has allowed their numbers to bounce back close to 23,000, which might represent the natural maximum for the species. A population of the whales used to also inhabit the northern Atlantic, too, but they were probably driven to extinction by whalers in the 17th century. Hence, you would never have an opportunity to see a North Pacific gray whale in the Atlantic today.

Gray whale off the coast of Israel. (Photo: Aviad Scheinin, IMMRAC)

Or so you would think. However, unless the gray whales have used the half century to perfect their teleportation technology, the opportunity to have seen one in the Atlantic must have at least theoretically existed recently because one was just spotted in the Mediterranean off the coast of Israel.

This solitary whale seems to have been able to make its way from the Pacific to the Atlantic by negotiating the Northwest Passage, which is now possible because climate change has melted so much of the sea ice. So, never mind what other environmental harm the loss of arctic ice may do: hooray, climate change—now gray whales may start migrating back into the Atlantic. (Expect to hear someone on Fox News mention this as a benefit of global warming soon.)

Don’t get me wrong, I would be delighted to see gray whales returning to their ancestral waters. I’m just not eager to thaw the Arctic to do it.

Also, I can’t help but feel that from the perspective of this cetacean pioneer in the Mediterranean, the tale is more tragic. If it made the voyage on its own, this whale will die alone, far from any waters it could think of as home.

This report reminded me of something I half-remembered reading in New Scientist years back. After some digging, I found it. From December 27, 2004:

A lone whale with a voice unlike any other has been wandering the Pacific for the past 12 years.

<…>

[P]artially declassified [sub-tracking hydrophone] records show that a lone whale singing at around 52 hertz has cruised the ocean every autumn and winter since 1992. Its calls do not match those of any known species, although they are clearly those of a baleen whale, a group that includes blue, fin and humpback whales.

Blue whales typically call at frequencies between 15 and 20 hertz. They use some higher frequencies, but not 52 hertz, Daher says. Fin whales make pulsed sounds at around 20 hertz, while humpbacks sing at much higher frequencies. The tracks of the lone whale do not match the migration patterns of any other species, either.

Over the years the calls have deepened slightly, perhaps because the whale has aged, but its voice is still recognisable. [Marine biologist Mary Ann] Daher doubts that the whale belongs to a new species, although no similar call has been found anywhere else, despite careful monitoring.

Journal reference: Deep-Sea Research (vol 51, p 1889)

What a deeply melancholy image that story paints. A solitary whale, roaming the oceans for a dozen years without companionship, calling to others who may not exist…. Am I just being sentimental and anthropomorphic in thinking that’s immensely sad? Does anyone know whatever happened to that poor, mysterious creature?

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7 Responses to 52 Hertz of Heartbreak

  1. Ed Yong says:

    I know many humans who secretly long to walk the Earth alone, gently muttering obscenities to themselves…

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  2. JR Minkel says:

    I don’t know the fate of that whale, but its predicament reminds me of this story about the last surviving member of a Brazilian Indian tribe.

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