Archive for March, 2011

March 3rd 2011
The Song of the Loneliest Whale

Posted under news

In the last few days, I have seen several stories posted about what’s being called the world’s loneliest whale. The story, first out in 2004 from New Scientist and also covered by Andrew Rivkin at the New York Times, concerns a whale call first heard in 1989 and tracked since 1992. Theories abound about this whale. It seems that no one has seen it, or at least seen it in conjunction with its calls so that they can be conclusively connected, so its species is unknown.

What’s so different about this whale’s song? Different species of whales make sounds or calls within their own range of frequencies. Fin whales’ calls are at about 20 hz. Blue whales, the largest mammals ever, call out in the 10 – 20 hertz range. Most of us have heard the haunting sounds of humpback whales, initially made famous by recordings made by Roger Payne. Those fall in the 30 hertz to 8 kilohertz range.

This unknown whale calls out at 52 hertz. Think lowest note on a tuba. Sounds pretty low, right? But if you listen to the clip here at NOAA. It’s quite different from other recorded whale sounds (you can hear samples of several whale calls on Wikipedia.) It’s comparatively a fairly high sound.

There is much speculation about its origins and being lonely, unable to be heard and therefore find mates (or even ‘colleagues’?). Its migrations and travels are unlike other known whales. None of the stories mention if the calls have ever been heard in the vicinity of other active whale calls so it’s impossible to know if this whale has ever met another whale (aside from its mother), given how vast the oceans are. Perhaps somewhat ironically, that this whale has been heard at all is thanks to the US Navy’s hydrophone arrays, installed to track enemy submarines. Declassified recordings allowed the discovery of this solitary whale, as well as information about known species like blue and fin whales.

As a human with a hearing loss, which results in my interactions with the world being somewhat different from most, I kinda wish I could just go give this whale a hug. And since whales are primarily acoustic animals and not visual, not being able to interact in this primary fashion is not a good thing. Whether or not this singular whale hears any others would be a fascinating question to answer, but I’d guess that if it could hear others, it might seek them out. I’m not finding any reports that this has happened, at least not when .

What bothers me about most, if not all, of the stories I have seen about this whale is the constant comment that it sings at the ‘wrong’ frequency. Without knowing anything about this whale aside from the sounds it makes, wrong seems to be overstating things a bit dramatically. Better, I think, to call it a unique frequency, one never heard before by our ears (and apparently the ears of other whales currently swimming about in the Pacific Ocean).

This is just another example of the many mysteries still held by our oceans. Let’s hope we have time to understand them before we kill the oceans altogether.

(This post was greatly aided by stories posted by Gizmodo, Kur5hin, and Good.)