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The Heartbreaking Story of the World’s Loneliest Whale

Having to roam the world in search of company, constantly calling out for a mate but never getting an answer sounds terrifying and sad, which is why so many around the world empathize with ’52’, the loneliest whale in the world.

The solitary whale, named after the distinctive 52 hertz frequency of its call, belongs to an unknown, unidentified species. The sound it produces is just above the lowest note on a tuba – clearly that of a whale, but one that no other whale in the world shares or recognizes. So it roams the world’s largest ocean, year after year, desperately calling out for a mate but never finding one.

Interestingly, 52 has never actually been seen; only its forlorn love songs have been picked up by navy sonar detectors, but never accompanied by another whale call. This phenomenon is so intriguing that scientists have closely been monitoring the frequency since it was first detected by William Watkins of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in 1989. He happened to be studying the mating calls of male whales in the North Pacific, when he came across the anomaly of 52.

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Photo: 52 – The Search for the Loneliest Whale

Since then, the US Navy’s sophisticated billion-dollar hydrophone system, designed to track Soviet nuclear submarines during the Cold War, have recorded 52’s migratory patterns every single year as he moves from central California to the Aleutian Islands in the north Pacific. 52 has always travelled solo, and according to a report in the Deep Sea Journal, its  migration is “unrelated to the presence or movement of other whale species.”

Experts figure that 52’s sonic signature, although deep to humans, is very high-pitched compared to the normal call of the giant blue whale, the fin, or any other species of whale. Some believe this is because the giant mammal might have a physical deformity, while others think it could be a hybrid of a blue whale and other species.

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Photo: Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Mary Ann Daher, a marine biologist who has spent years eavesdropping on the hidden lives of whales, co-authored the original research on the discovery of 52. As the paper went public, more and more people began to identify with the whale’s hopeless situation, so much so that they even wrote to Daher expressing their empathy.

“It’s very sad that so many people identify with this whale,” she said in a 2013 interview. “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.”

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Photo: 52 – The Search for the Loneliest Whale

Musicians and storytellers  around the world have used 52’s unusual story as inspiration in their works. The Loneliest Whale in The World is a rock song written by British band Dalmatian Rex and the Eigentones. Singer Laura Ann Bates also recorded a song dedicated to the unique whale, called The Loneliest Creature on Earth. And German author Agnieszka Jurek wrote a children’s illustrated book, titled 52 Hertz Wal.

It seems that people are able to see a range of narratives in 52’s mysterious lifestyle. “For some people, he’s so lonely,” said filmmaker Josh Zeman, who’s determined to meet 52 someday. “For others, he’s celebrating his alone-ness. He’s an inspirational message – because he continues to call out no matter what. For other people, he’s a kind of cautionary tale about technology and social media.”

Zeman accepts that all this sounds like anthropomorphizing, something that scientists like Daher are completely against. Daher says that the romantic angle to 52’s lonesome sojourns is entirely a human construction – there’s no way for scientists to really know what’s going on in the mind of a whale. “We don’t know if he’s lonely,” she said. “The supposed emotional yearnings of 52 Hertz say much more about the humans who hear his story than it does about the whale himself.”

But research also shows that whales are social creatures, and some whale songs can travel 3,000 miles across the ocean with the sole purpose of communicating. And most people, like Zeman, choose to focus on this aspect. “Being lonely or calling out and never being heard is one of our greatest fears as human beings,” he said. “We are completely social beings. … Whales are the same. They have spindle cells, which allow them to love, hate, be part of certain (social) circles. … Imagine a being out there that could even feel love, acceptance (and) pain in ways we can’t even comprehend?”

 

Last year, Josh Zeman teamed up with ‘Entourage’ star Adrian Grenier for a Kickstarter campaign to crowdfund a 20-day expedition to find 52. Their goal was $300,000, but the heartbreaking story of the world’s loneliest whale apparently struck a chord with a lot of people, as they managed to exceed that goal by over $100,000. If they managed to track 52 down, they’ll be able to tag it with audio-sensing equipment, allowing scientists to study it in detail.

Sources: The New York Times, CNN, The Express