Somewhere out in the Pacific Ocean swims what is said to be the loneliest whale in the world. He (or she, but here I’m going to assume he) is known as the 52-hertz whale. That designation comes from the sound of his whale song, which has a much higher pitch than any known species fitting his migratory pattern.
His calls were first heard by Woods Hole in 1989 and again in 1990 and 1991. His cries have been detected every season since 2004. His movements (he’s been tracked, but never seen) don’t match blue or fin whales any more than his cries do. One theory is that he was born deaf and never learned to sing like others of his species.
All of which gives me a real affinity for the poor guy!
Let me back up a bit. The term “hertz” is a technical term for “cycles per second” — in other words, the frequency or pitch of a signal. As with a lot of terms for physical units, it’s named after a guy (not the car rental agency): Heinrich Hertz. One hertz (1 Hz) is the same as one cycle per second.
A whale cry of 52 hertz therefore has a frequency, or pitch, of 52 cycles per second. This is a very low-pitched tone. If you’ve ever heard “60-cycle hum” from audio gear, you’ve heard a tone that’s very close (albeit much more boring than a whale song). Our whale’s cry is just a bit higher than the lowest note a tuba can play.
So when we say his cry is higher than other candidate whales (blues and fins), “higher” is a strictly relative term. Blue whales vocalize from 10 to 39 Hz and fin whales around 20 Hz. As a reference point, human hearing starts at 20 Hz — the lowest frequency we perceive as a tone.
[The highest frequency we can hear is about 20,000 Hz. This tends to decrease considerably with age. This leads to some shops using very high-pitched sound emitters to prevent teenagers from hanging around. Some fast food joints deliberately use hard, uncomfortable benches for the same reason. Come, buy, eat, go away!]
One theory is that the whale might be a hybrid or may have been born with a birth defect. His tone has deepened slightly over the years, which suggest growth or maturity. Another theory is that he was born deaf and couldn’t learn from other whales.
His migratory track doesn’t coincide with any other whales; he seems to be all alone in the sea. It begs the question whether he is alone by choice or by rejection. Perhaps it was both.
In any event, he seems unique. No other whale has ever been recorded singing a similar song.
I was born with a severe hearing defect, and I somehow managed to spend most of his life alone (by both rejection and choice), so I can really feel for the guy. We swim in our separate seas alone. (Even if he’s not a blue whale, he must be a blue whale. Maybe he’s just singing the blues.)
As an aside, discovering my cetacean compadre came about in a round-about fashion. It started (as best as I can recall) when I was reading an article that mentioned “the hum” but didn’t explain it.
So I went to my usual first source, Wikipedia (very possibly the best site on the ‘web), and “the hum” turned out to be really interesting. That article led me to one about UVB-76 (and others of that ilk), which was also really interesting. The whole area of “numbers stations” is fascinating to a über-geek like me.
Back tracking (“popping the stack” as I like to say) after following several links finally returned me — much amazed at the variety of the world — to the first article about “the hum” where See also led me to a page: List of unexplained sounds.
How could anyone resist a page about unexplained sounds! It was just as interesting as it sounds, and it led directly to the 52-hertz whale. I was touched by his loneliness and put a link on my desktop to remind me to post about him someday.
I’m trying to work through a large stack of post topics, so today is the day (and I can finally remove that link from my desktop)!
Wikipedia isn’t perfect by any stretch, especially on controversial topics. But when it comes to basic science and engineering, it’s one of the best resources out there. Some studies have shown its accuracy is extremely high in those topics.
So take a walk on the Wiki side sometime. Feed your curious mind. You never know what, or who, you might find.