The Loneliest Whale

whale tail

A whale of a tale.

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.


What’s the frequency, Ken?

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!]

blue whale

Big Blue Whale!

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.)

fin whale

A fin whale.

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.

whale breach

I’ve often wondered if whales breach just because it’s fun. It’s the sort of thing that seems like it would be a real blast.

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)!

A journey such as the one just described is called Wiki Walking (and — of course — there’s an xkcd cartoon about it).

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.


xkcd: best web comic ever!

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

17 responses to “The Loneliest Whale

  • Blues Fairy

    fascinating ! Albeit sad..

  • Doobster418

    Sad, yes, but quite educational. I use Wikipedia all the time, although sometimes I will go to a secondary source just to confirm the veracity of what I saw on Wikipedia. I’d never heard the term “Wiki Walking” before. So I learned a lot from this post. Thanks, Wyrd.

  • Hariod Brawn

    I once attended a pro-audio conference at which the renowned British designer Rupert Neve gave a presentation. Being an old boffin, he came armed with some homemade gadgetry, the purpose of which was to demonstrate why he wanted to create clean signal paths up 24Khz in his audio mixing consoles – as you say, the healthy human ear generally hears up to c.20Khz only. He generated a range of amplified sine wave signals so that the audience could gain an appreciation as to their individual upper hearing limits. Along with several others, I found I could hear up to the theoretical limit of c.20Khz, but no higher, absolutely not. Neve then mixed a 24Khz signal into the pre-existing 20Khz signal, and along with others, I detected a noticeable difference. So, although we cannot hear above c.20Khz, our perception of audio is affected by signals that go beyond this limit.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Oh, absolutely, no question about it!

      A good way to see it is by considering a perfect square wave. You can generate one — and in fact any square wave is comprised of — an infinite series of sine waves of increasing frequency. So whatever the signal path high end cutoff is chokes this series and degrades the square wave into something less perfect. The higher the frequency response, the better the square wave.

      The sounds of instruments — their specific wave patterns — is due largely to their upper harmonics. We can’t hear those, but they affect the shape of the instrument’s wave pattern. If the audio path is choking off extremely high end harmonics, that wave pattern is corrupted.

      And that has nothing to do with actually being able to hear those high-f sounds. It’s their effect on the shape of the sound we can hear. Take them away and what we hear changes.

  • dianasschwenk

    I don’t like the idea of a lonely whale out there somewhere… 😦
    Diana xo

  • SelfAwarePatterns

    I love Wikipedia, and use it all the time (usually several times per day). As long as you understand the limitations of a crowd sourced information resource, it is awesome! I’ve had many sessions like the xkcd one.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Likewise. Most of my blog posts are filled with links to Wikipedia pages. I use it so often I realized I had to become a regular donor to help preserve its ad-free nature — I have been for years now.

      Another site I used to find deadly to free time was TV Tropes. I’ve spent entire days on that site following link after link — it’s almost impossible to stop. You just have to get so tired you can’t read straight anymore. In fact, they’re the site that first turned me onto the term, Wiki Walk, and I think they may be the primary reference for it.

      Unfortunately that site has become so ad-ridden I won’t go there anymore. (Same thing happened with another great reference site: IMDB.) I think they’ve improved slightly now, but I was there months ago hoping to while away a few hours and some of their damn ads tried to take over my computer! That was kinda the end of TV Tropes for me. (I felt like I’d lost a good friend. 😦 )

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        I’ve been donating to Wikipedia since they started asking. I figured if Wikipedia disappeared, that I’d have to get a subscription to one of the online encyclopedias, and I could afford to donate at least what that would have cost.

        On TVTropes, I don’t frequent it that often, but Adblock is a wonderful thing. I don’t begrudge sites their revenue source, but too many let the advertisers run rampant and ruin their usability. I still have to deal with it on my iPad, which makes me appreciate the fact that I have it blocked on Windows and Mac OS X all the more. I do allow Ads on sites I visit frequently and who haven’t allowed the ads to get obnoxious.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        I really need to give Adblock another chance. I’ve tried it in the past and not been thrilled with the results.

        If I may ask, which browser do you tend to use most? I set MSIE aside long ago and used FireFox for a long time until it seemed to get just as bloated as IE. I switched to Chrome, but lately Chrome has become invasive — I don’t see why just booting Chrome has to refresh my desktop and I don’t like the new button to the left of the Minimize button. FF seems much better lately, so that’s been my key browser these days.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        I use Chrome pretty consistently on Windows 7 and Mac OS X. I occasionally use FF when a site doesn’t work in Chrome or when I need to use an add-in that only works in FF. On my iPhone and iPad (iOS) I mostly use Safari, and Chrome on my Android tablet. (Yes I have a lot of devices.) I usually only use MSIE when I’m trying to replicate a customer’s problem at work.

        I’ve been using Adblock for years, and haven’t run into too many problems. Occasionally a site detects it and gets fussy about it, but it’s usually transparent. I wish I could use it on mobile platforms.

  • nshahin71

    I love your blogs! I actually do learn something new every day! 😀

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