Next fall, a team of documentary filmmakers and scientists will head out into the North Pacific in search of a whale.
They know which whale they’ll be looking for, although nobody is completely sure what species it is. It may be a blue whale, is more likely a fin, but could be a hybrid of the two. No human has knowingly set eyes on it, although quite a few have been listening to it for over 20 years. And there are many more around the world who may not have heard recordings of its vocalizations, but have heard of them, and who have been inspired to write music, poetry and books about the whale that makes them -- a whale they have dubbed the 'loneliest whale in the world.'
The story begins in the late 1980s, when the U.S. Navy began providing whale researchers with recordings from hydrophone arrays it deployed to listen for submarines in the North Pacific, and which also happened to pick up the haunting moans of baleen whales as they cried out across hundreds of miles of ocean in search of mates.
In 1989, William Watkins of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution began sifting through those recordings and soon noticed something unusual. Whereas most male fin and blue whales vocalize at a range of about 17-18 Hertz, well below the limits of human hearing and ideal for traveling across vast distances underwater, one whale was consistently vocalizing at a much higher range of 52 Hz.
From 1992, when the Navy made more recordings available, Watkins and his team studied the so-called 52 Hz whale in more detail, triangulating the recordings to track his movements across the North Pacific during mating season. (Outside of mating season, the whales do not generally vocalize.) In 2004, they published a paper in the journal Deep Sea Research, which noted how the whale’s unique vocal properties made it easier to chart its movements.
“It’s very difficult to track a signal consistently in the ocean, without seeing the animal,” explained Mary-Ann Daher, who was part of the team that wrote the paper. “Because if other animals are making sounds at the same frequency, you don’t know if it’s the same guy. But this one, it was the 52 Hz signal that we were able to pick up frequently.”
But that wasn’t the aspect of the research that resonated. What might reasonably have been expected to be a relatively obscure paper in a relatively obscure journal was picked up by media and public alike, who responded to the notion of a whale that was swimming through the ocean, calling out on a frequency no other whale was using, never hearing a response.
The "loneliest whale in the world" was born.
Watkins had succumbed to cancer by the time the paper was published, and Daher was listed as corresponding author in his stead -- which meant that she was the one who had to deal with the unanticipated flood of media inquiries.
“CNN was on my case, the BBC ... it was horrifying,” she chuckles. “I’m very uncomfortable talking about someone else’s research. I was just a research assistant in that lab. Dr. Watkins ... oh God, he’d be dismayed, to put it mildly, to know of the attention.”
As for the whale itself: “We never had a visual,” Daher says. “We don’t know what species it is. We don’t know if it has a malformation. Obviously, it’s healthy. It’s been alive all these years. Is he alone? I don’t know. People like to imagine this creature just out there swimming by his lonesome, just singing away and nobody’s listening. But I can’t say that.”
That hasn’t prevented others from doing so.
“I get all sorts of emails, some of them very touching -- genuinely," she says. "It just breaks your heart to read some of them -- asking why I can’t go out there and help this animal,” she says. “We as humans, we are very soft-hearted, caring creatures. It’s mostly females who write to me -- not always; I also get males -- but there are a lot of females who identify, feeling they’re not part of a pack. I’m no psychologist but boy, what a fascinating case study.”