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The Loneliest Whale in the World

by Nicola Twilley

February 24, 2011

On a 2011 episode of their always-enjoyable Dinner Party Download podcast, American Public Media's Rico Gagliano and Brendan Newnam featured the story of "a lonely whale with vocal problems whose love song supposedly chases lady whales away."

According to a 2004 New York Times article on the subject, this particular baleen whale has apparently been tracked by NOAA since 1992, using a "classified array of hydrophones employed by the Navy to monitor enemy submarines." It sings at 52 Hertz, which is roughly the same frequency as the lowest note on a tuba, and much higher than its fellow whales, whose calls fall in the 15 to 25 Hertz range.

To make matters worse, the high-pitched whale "does not follow the known migration route of any extant baleen whale species." The result, according to Dr. Kate Stafford, a researcher at the National Marine Mammal Laboratory in Seattle, is that the lonely whale keeps "saying 'Hey, I'm out here,'" but "nobody is phoning home."

The cryptozoologist Oll Lewis speculates that the lonely whale might be "a deformed hybrid between two different species of whale," or even "the last surviving member of an unknown species." Gagliano points out that the whale's plight, though poignant, has a silver lining for scientists:

Because this one whale’s song is totally different than any other whale’s, it’s easy to track it and hear how its voice changes over time. So now we know, for instance, that a whale’s voice gets deeper as it ages.

You can hear the 52 Hertz whale's song for yourself, here, and learn more about its lonely life over at the Dinner Party Download site. Just imagine that massive mammal, floating alone and singing—too big to connect with most of the beings it passes, feeling paradoxically small in the vast stretches of empty, open ocean.

Photo by Patricia Talmage

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