For more than 20 years now, there is a unique song that is echoing through the Pacific Ocean. This song, of a very singular whale that is calling out in search of company, on a frequency like no other, has baffled scientist and captivated imagination of laymen for decades.
The story of a whale nicknamed simply “52” begins in 1989 when a US Navy hydrophone array picked up an unusual signal. This facility, that was used to detect submarines during the cold war, prior to being declassified and repurposed for oceanographic research, discovered a series of whale songs that were unique both in their frequency and pattern. While it is certain that they were whale songs in origin, at the time it was unknown whether the whale was male or female and what species and age was it. To make it more interesting, even its migration pattern, easily tracked by those peculiar songs, was unusual.
In a true movie fashion, this data, obtained by a military installation and classified at the time, found a way to a scientist by the name of Bill Watkins, a marine mammal researcher at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. He was the first to realize significance of this signal, and following this mysterious whale became his passion, that he followed to his last day. Unfortunately, he passed away in 2004, but he left behind a paper that made a summary of the recordings he analyzed, that were made in a span of 12 years. There are still numerous discussions regarding these findings, but Watkins believed that 52Hz whale was not just unusual, but outright unique.
The mystery of a whale song
This whale is singing at a higher frequency of 52 Hz than the other whales that usually sing at frequencies between 10-40 Hz. To put things in perspective, the deepest sound that humans can hear is around 20 Hz, and this whale sounds a bit like the deepest tone of the oboe. But even more interesting is that it speaks its own language in a way. Namely, not only is it singing at a higher pitch, but its calls are also more frequent and shorter than usual. Although it has similar migration route to blue whales, the 52 is unique in this way also, as no other whale follows quite the same route.
To complicate matters even more, this whale’s signature call has been steadily dropping in frequency over the years. The whale’s current frequency has been recorded at 47Hz, according to John Hildebrand of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in California. This could be a sign of it maturing, although it seems to be connected to another mystery.
It is not the only one singing deeper. According to a 2009 study by Hildebrand, blue whales in the wild have been lowering the pitch of their calls since 1960’s. This, combined with a simmilar migratory behaviour suggests that there is a connection between this lone wanderer and blue whales.
No one knows why the blue whales started changing their songs. One theory suggested that they are trying to make their calls stand out in the increasing ocean din made by ships and offshore facilities, but it is more likely that the whales would be increasing their pitch, not lowering it, if that was the cause.
Is this whale really unique? Could there be more like it, a previously unknown species of baleen whale? There are several theories posed by both the scientists and the general public. Some suggest that it is malformed, or a hybrid – an offspring of two different whale breeds, such as a rare blue whale and fin whale hybrid. Some even suggest that it might be deaf. Many have found his story tragic as they believe that its solitary behavior is caused by other whales not being able to hear him, which in turn dooms it to wander the oceans alone, desperately calling out for company. While this is very dramatic, it is, in truth, very unlikely.
One of the critics, Christopher Willes Clark of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, claims that this whale is not as unique or anomalous as people believe, based on the recordings of the 52 Hz whale he made in 1993.
“Many types of idiosyncratic whale calls have been detected, and some studies suggest that groups of whales living in particular regions have dialects. When you consider that, the 52Hz whale is not completely mind-bogglingly unique,” he says.
More importantly, Clark claims that the lonely 52 might not be as lonely as we believe, and that he can be heard by other whales just fine.
“The animal’s singing with a lot of the same features of a typical blue whale song,” he says. “Blue whales, fin whales and humpback whales: all these whales can hear this guy, they’re not deaf. He’s just odd.” This fact could make this big guy an equivalent to an unpopular kid in a school cafeteria, a fate deemed by many sadder than just not being heard.
The most popular hypothesis is that this whale is a hybrid, and as such would have slightly different body shape and physiology, which in turn could have influenced its song. Since the fin-blue whale hybrids have been spotted, but never recorded, it is very possible that this is the answer to the mystery.
Cameras are rolling
Since Dr. Watkins passed away, the interest for this mysterious ocean wanderer has been dwindling. Until recently, when a group of filmmakers made a kickstarter campaign for a documentary that would follow a research team that is trying to locate this elusive creature.
A team led by Director Josh Zeman and a group of marine scientists, Dr. John Hildebrand, Dr. Ana Sirovic, and Dr. John Calambokidis is heading to the Pacific Ocean in search of the legendary 52.
Ana Sirovic, one of the team leaders, made a short mission statement before they embarked on this amazing adventure in the fall of 2015: “During the expedition, the Scripps team will be using multiple directional hydrophones (underwater microphones) to triangulate on interesting whale calls. When we can isolate a calling whale (maybe, if we are lucky it will be the 52Hz whale), we will dispatch a small boat manned by researchers from the Cascadia Research Collective to its location for collection of photographs to allow us to catalogue the whale and create a photo ID, collect a genetic sample, and, if we are still very lucky, deploy an acoustic tag on the animal so we can track its diving behavior.”
The story of the 52 hertz whale, the loneliest whale on the planet has touched people on many levels. It resonates with the human feeling of loneliness that is felt now more than ever in this era of long distance communication and relationships. On the other hand, it also shows the impact of ocean noise pollution and other forms of human recklessness on creatures that inhabit our vast oceans. It is time for us to start listening again.