The Loneliest Whale in the World?

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It's the human response to the image of a lonely whale, at least as much as the scientific validity of that image, that particularly intrigues documentary maker Joshua Zeman.

“To many scientists out there, the story is kind of annoying,” he concedes. “It over-anthropomorphizes the whale. "Yet ... whales are incredibly social creatures, so how could it not be lonely?"

He first heard the story while writing a screenplay at an artists’ colony, and was immediately struck by his own emotional response to it. Sometime later, after he had returned home, “one of the other colonists wrote to me to say, ‘I’ve written a play about the 52 Hz whale,’ and I thought, ‘Wow, that’s interesting that it affected you so much too,’ and I looked online and saw that there were a lot of people who extrapolated the story of this whale, and created art as a result.”

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Zeman is producing a documentary that looks at why the 52 Hz whale strikes such a chord. It's an emotional resonance that, he suspects, is partly rooted in our unique appreciation of whales.

“Whales are mysterious," he says. "There is always a certain amount of awe about them.”

But Zeman also thinks our responses may say much more about us as a society, about our own growing feelings of disconnection from others as we eschew “real interpersonal face-to-face relationships in favor of 140 character anecdotal relationships.”

But if his documentary focuses on the human response to the 52 Hz whale, it does not ignore the whale itself. Which is why the denouement of the movie will be an attempt to find it.

“I don’t think you can do this story properly without a good old-fashioned quest,” he says. “To not have this exploration and this voyage is really doing a disservice to the story, and to the whale.”

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Leading the scientific team on that expedition will be renowned whale researcher Bruce Mate of the Hatfield Marine Science Center at Oregon State University.

“I don’t believe the animal we’re looking for is a new species, or the dying out of an old species, or anything that dramatic,” Mate explains. “It is much more likely the animal might be the equivalent of an animal with a lisp, that it has -- I won’t call it a speech impediment, because it’s probably understandable to other animals, but it’s different.”

Mate and his team have been continuing to follow the 52 Hz whale, and by combining real-time acoustic monitoring with the whale’s inferred travels since 1992, they will seek to narrow down a search area before setting out to sea at the beginning of the fall mating season next year. They will further refine their search pattern by towing acoustic devices that are tuned specifically to the whale’s unique calls.

“From my standpoint, while I understand that there are some people who are passionate about this whale, who have very strong emotions about the loneliest whale in the world, when we go out and find this animal, I expect to find it in the midst of other whales,” Mate says. “I’m going to guess they’ll be mostly fin whales. My expectation is that we’re going to tag 15 to 20 whales in its vicinity; in the process of getting satellite tag monitors on them, we will also take biopsies, and we will know the genetic pedigree, so to speak, of all the animals we can.”

In other words, whether the team finds the 52 Hz whale, and whether it turns out to indeed be lonely or surrounded by companions, the story will have a happy ending. It will have provided a platform for scientists to learn more about the baleen whales of the North Pacific than they might otherwise have been able to. And while the whale may be lonely, its cries have not gone unheard. And if all goes according to plan, sometime next year, those who have listened to those cries most intently will finally meet up with the whale that makes them.