The search is on for a never before seen whale, dubbed 52 Hertz, that for more than 20 years has been heard singing an unanswered mating song.
The whale in question is likely a fin whale, though scientists won’t be sure until they are in close proximity to it, something they hope to achieve next autumn when they will travel to the North Pacific Ocean and begin scouring the waters for what has been dubbed the “world’s loneliest whale.”
The whale will also be the subject of a documentary.
The mystery as to why the whale’s song has gone unanswered for so long relates to the unusual frequency at which the whale sings.
Usually, the calls of male fin and blue whales fall between the 17 to 18 hertz range. This is too deep for humans to hear. The so-called Lonely Whale’s song registers at the 52 hertz mark, which is just above the lowest note on a tuba.
It is unlikely that other whales would identify this as a whale call and respond to such a high frequency. Conversely, while it is usually almost impossible to track a whale by their song alone, 52 Hertz has been recorded with relative frequency.
The first recordings of the lonely whale were found among a cache given out by the US Navy in the late 1980s. Dr. William Watkins of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution began to sort through those recordings in 1989. He noticed that one whale’s song was markedly higher than the others.
Dr. Watkins’ team set about triangulating the whale’s movements during mating season, a time when whales are at their most vocal. The team published their findings on how they had tracked this whale in 2004.
The research itself, while intriguing, seemed unlikely to spark media interest. That is until the buzzard eye in some pressured news room spotted a chance to seed interest in the story. Lines in the research paper saying that the whale, it seemed, had been swimming and singing all this time but had never received a reply fired the imagination. Soon, stories started floating around about the “lonely whale” and a melancholy legend was born.
Apparently the idea of the whale as a lovelorn creature destined to spend its life alone continues to resonate with the public.
“It’s very sad that so many people identify with this whale,” says marine biologist Mary Ann Daher of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, who co-authored the original research on the discovery of 52 Hertz.
“I receive letters, emails and poems – mostly from women – and it’s heartbreaking to read some of the things they say. They identify with this animal who doesn’t seem to fit in anywhere, doesn’t make friends easily, feels alone and feels different from everybody.”
It is worth mentioning, however, that while the whale has never been recorded being accompanied by another whale, and while 52 Hertz does not appear to follow normal migratory courses, researchers cannot say for sure that he is always traveling the ocean alone.
This, in part, is what researchers hope to ascertain when they attempt to follow the wale’s song and catch a glimpse of the whale soprano (perhaps a stretch but a nice thought) next autumn. The enigmatic 52 Hertz was last heard in recordings in 2004 not far from Kodiak Island. Incidentally, you can view a map of his convoluted migration routes from 1992-2004 here.
As mentioned above, a documentary surrounding the search for the “lonely whale” is also in the works.
The documentary, titled “Finding 52: The Search For The Loneliest Whale in the World,” will be written and directed by New York filmmaker Joshua Zeman.
The film is billed as “an emotional journey to explore the phenomenon of human reaction to this whale’s tragic plight while shedding light on its connection to the growing epidemic of loneliness in our interconnected world.”