Why is the whale lonely? The mystery of the 52 Hertz ‘Lonely’ Whale

"Aquarian" by Harousel via Deviantart.com

“Aquarian” by Harousel via Deviantart.com

Have you heard the story of the world’s loneliest whale?

Almost thirty years ago, sonar researchers detected a plaintive cry echoing through the ocean.  It was clearly a whale song, but like none that has ever been heard before or since.  Measuring a very unusual 52 hertz, the whale’s eerie moaning was far too high to be that of a blue whale (usually 20-40 hertz), for example.

It was first recorded in 1989, and then every year since.  It has been firmly tracked since 1992, following a migration route across the Pacific Ocean every year.  The route is similar, but not identical to, that of the blue whale, and close to that of the fin (or finback) whale – but different to either.  It strongly suggests that the whale is neither species, possibly a new species altogether.  A genetic anomaly projecting its unique, mournful song through the depths, waiting for a mirrored melody that will never come…

One is the loneliest number that you’ll ever do

Two can be as bad as one, but the loneliest number is the number one

General consensus amongst the scientific community is that the ‘lonely whale’, often called ’52’, is a cross-breed, most likely between a blue and fin whale.  Cross insemination amongst whales is extremely unlikely (not least due to the incredible size differences between species – a fin being 60 feet and a blue being 100 feet), making 52 literally one of a kind.  The probability of malformed mongrel ever finding a mate would fall at zero.

However, the world’s loneliest whale seems to be relatively healthy: it’s been in this world at least as long as I have (approaching the three decade mark), and its distinctive sonar signature has deepened a little over the years, signifying its continued maturity.

You can view an early article in the New York Times here, and find its distinctive spectrographic call (including a recording) here, at the PMEL Acoustic Monitoring Program’s site.

Of course, it’s easy to personify 52’s plight.  The animal is alone, but that does not mean that it’s lonely.  The whale ‘sings’, but those blips of sonar noise aren’t necessarily a lament.  Its soliloquy might remind we ‘thinking animals’ of lonely, painful times, but no-one can be sure of a cetacean’s ability to feel, however romantic its doomed, tragic story may be.

What interests me in particular is how we have crafted stories around the ‘lonely’ whale.  By adopting it as a mascot for isolated people everywhere, what is that saying about us?  Why do we identify with the lonely whale so easily – or at all?  Are there so many people crying out into the darkness?  It is an animal, but then so are we all (although I know people who would fiercely disagree even on that simple fact).  We have personified the animal, even anthropomorphised it, and spun tales about its hopeless search for love and friendship.  Religious purists would despise the idea of an animal having a ‘fate’, but this word has come up so often lately in relation to 52.  What is its fate?  What will become of this desperately lonely soul as it wanders back and forth through the abyss?

It was hard for me to ignore the recent Kickstarter campaign headed film maker Adrien Grenier, who hopes to raise $300,000 to locate the lonely whale.  With less than 3 days to go, they’re just shy of $240,000, which is agonizingly close.  Spare a few dollars and you could bag yourself a mix tape of 52 songs inspired by the planet’s most depressed water mammal, amongst other incentives.

If you’re artistically inclined, you could also check out the recent glut of Deviant Art inspired by 52, with some typically beautiful and heart-rending paintings from the internet’s elite.

I have my fingers crossed for the Lonely Whale.  At the very least, it’s a fascinating mystery and scientific curiosity.  In my heart of hearts, I wonder what a whale truly feels in the isolating gloom of the deep, and wish 52 the very best.

—db

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