The Legend of the Loneliest Whale in the World

Wild Things
Slate’s animal blog.
Aug. 27 2014 1:22 PM

The Legend of the Loneliest Whale in the World

Illustration by Tim Jeffs

Illustration by Tim Jeffs

This article is excerpted from “52 Blue,” the newest single from the Atavist. You can purchase the full story from the Atavist’s website. It is also available on Amazon.

Dec. 7, 1992: Whidbey Island, Puget Sound. The World Wars were over. The other wars were over: Korea, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf. The Cold War was finally over, too. The Whidbey Island Naval Air Station remained. So did the Pacific, its waters vast and fathomless beyond an airfield named for an airman whose body was never found: William Ault, who died in the Battle of the Coral Sea.

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But at that naval air station, on that day in December, the infinite Pacific appeared as something finite: audio data gathered by a network of hydrophones spread along the ocean floor. These hydrophones had turned the formless it of the ocean and its noises into something measurable: pages of printed graphs rolling out of a spectrograph machine. These hydrophones had been used to monitor Soviet subs until the Cold War ended; after their declassification, the Navy started listening for other noises—other kinds of it—instead.

On Dec. 7, the it was a strange sound. The acoustic technicians thought they knew what it was, but then they realized they didn’t. Petty Officer 2nd Class Velma Ronquille stretched it out on a different spectrogram so she could see it better. She couldn’t quite believe it. It was coming in at 52 hertz.

She beckoned one of the technicians. He needed to come back, she said. He needed to take another look.

The technician came back. He took another look. His name was Joe George.

Petty Officer 2nd Class Ronquille told him, “I think this is a whale.”

Joe thought, Holy cow. It hardly seemed possible. For a blue whale, which is what this one seemed to be, a frequency of 52 hertz was basically off the charts. Blue whales usually come in somewhere between 15 and 20—on the periphery of what the human ear can hear, an almost imperceptible rumble. But here it was, right in front of them, the audio signature of a creature moving through Pacific waters with a singularly high-pitched song.

Whales make calls for a number of reasons—to navigate, to find food, to communicate with each other—and for certain whales, like humpbacks and blues, songs also seem to play a role in sexual selection. Blue males sing louder than females, and the volume of their singing—at more than 180 decibels—makes them the loudest animals in the world. They click and grunt and trill and hum and moan. They sound like foghorns. Their calls can travel thousands of miles through the ocean.

The whale that Joe George and Velma Ronquille heard was an anomaly: His sound patterns were recognizable as those of a blue whale, but his frequency was unheard-of. It was absolutely unprecedented. So they paid attention. They kept tracking him for years, every migration season, as he made his way south from Alaska to Mexico. His path wasn’t unusual, only his song—and the fact that they never detected any other whales around him. He always seemed to be alone.

So this whale was calling out high, and he was calling out to no one—or at least, no one seemed to be answering. The acoustic technicians would come to call him 52 Blue. A scientific report, published 12 years later by researchers at Woods Hole, would describe his case like this:

No other calls with similar characteristics have been identified in the acoustic data from any hydrophone system in the North Pacific basin. Only one series of these 52-Hz calls has been recorded at a time, with no call overlap, suggesting that a single whale produced the calls. … These tracks consistently appeared to be unrelated to the presence or movement of other whale species (blue, fin and humpback) monitored year-round with the same hydrophones.

Much remained unknown, the report confessed, and difficult to explain:

We do not know the species of this whale, whether it was a hybrid or an anomalous whale that we have been tracking. It is perhaps difficult to accept that … there could have been only one of this kind in this large oceanic expanse.

*  *  *

Soon after the report was published, the researchers started getting notes about the whale. They weren’t just typical pieces of professional correspondence. They came, as New York Times reporter Andrew Revkin wrote at the time, “from whale lovers lamenting the notion of a lonely heart of the cetacean world”; others were “from deaf people speculating that the whale might share their disability.”

After Revkin’s story ran that December, headlined “Song of the Sea, a Cappella and Unanswered,” more letters flooded Woods Hole. One marine-mammal researcher quoted in the story, Kate Stafford, may have inadvertently fanned the flames: “He’s saying, ‘Hey, I’m out here,’ ” she told Revkin. “Well, nobody is phoning home.” These letters came from the heartbroken and the deaf, from the lovelorn and the single; the once bitten, twice shy and the twice bitten, forever shy—people who identified with the whale or hurt for him, hurt for whatever set of feelings they’d projected onto him.

A legend was born: the loneliest whale in the world.

In the years since, 52 Blue—or 52 Hertz, as he is known to many of his devotees—has inspired numerous sob-story headlines: not just “The Loneliest Whale in the World” but “The Whale Whose Unique Call Has Stopped Him Finding Love,” “A Lonely Whale’s Unrequited Love Song,” “There Is One Whale That Zero Other Whales Can Hear and It’s Very Alone. It’s the Saddest Thing Ever, and Science Should Try to Talk to It.” There have been imaginative accounts of a solitary bachelor headed down to the Mexican Riviera to troll haplessly for the biggest mammal babes alive, “his musical mating calls ringing for hours through the darkness of the deepest seas, broadcasting a wide repertory of heartfelt tunes.”

A singer in New Mexico, unhappy at his day job in tech, wrote an entire album dedicated to 52; another singer in Michigan wrote a children’s song about the whale’s plight; an artist in upstate New York made a sculpture out of old plastic bottles and called it 52 Hertz. A music producer in Los Angeles started buying cassette tapes at garage sales and recording over them with 52’s song, the song that was quickly becoming a kind of sentimental seismograph suggesting multiple storylines: alienation and determination, autonomy and longing; not only a failure to communicate but also a dogged persistence in the face of this failure.

People have set up Twitter accounts to speak for him, like @52_Hz_Whale, who gets right to the point:

I started seeking out some of the people who’ve become obsessed by this whale over the years: a 19-year-old English major at the University of Toronto who thinks 52 Blue is “the epitome of every person who’s ever felt too weird to love.” A 26-year-old photo editor at the biggest daily tabloid in Poland, who decided to get the outline of 52 Blue tattooed across his back after the end of a six-year relationship:

i was deeply in love. but as it came out she was treating me like a second category person in relationship…i was devastadem mainy becose i have given her everything i could, and i thought she would do the same for me. [Because] of her i lost connection with important friends. View of the wasted time made me sad….Story of 52 hz whale made me happy. For me he is symbol of being alone in a positive way...He is like a steatement, that despite being alone he lives on.

I heard from Shorna, a 22-year-old in Kent, England, who relates to 52 Blue because he reminds her of how difficult it was for her to communicate with anyone after her brother was killed when she was 13: “I felt I couldn’t talk to no one. That no one understood or cared enough.”

I spoke to Sakina, a 28-year-old medical actor living in Michigan, who associates 52 with a different kind of loss—a more spiritual struggle. She says 52 immediately made her think of the prophet Yunus, or Jonas, who was swallowed by a whale. “It makes sense that the loneliest whale feels lonely,” she says. “Because he had a prophet with him, inside of him, and now he doesn’t.”

*  *  *

Illustration by Tim Jeffs

Illustration by Tim Jeffs

Hast thou seen the white whale? The hunt for an elusive whale is—of course—the most famous narrative in the history of American literature. The whiteness of Moby Dick is “a dumb blankness, full of meaning,” full of many meanings: divinity or its absence, primal power or its refusal, the possibility of revenge or the possibility of annihilation. “Of all these things the Albino whale was the symbol,” Ishmael explains. “Wonder ye then at the fiery hunt?”

No one has ever conducted a physical search for 52 Blue. An entrepreneur named Dietmar Petutschnig is currently prowling the South Pacific in a small sailboat, but his hunt for the whale seems more metaphorical, a kind of personal branding. Dietmar calls himself skipper and whalefinder and is joined by a co-captain and a chef, along with a little spaniel named Vienna Linz who is billed as security, angler, and crew morale officer. When I spoke to him on the phone while his boat was docked in Vanuatu, Dietmar was reluctant to do an interview but wanted to offer me a job working for him as a freelance editor. “We are still in the middle of our discovery,” he’d written earlier. “We do hope the whale will go out of fashion.”

If anyone actually finds 52, it will probably be Josh Zeman, a filmmaker currently working on a documentary called 52: The Search for the Loneliest Whale in the World. Zeman had been hoping to conduct his actual search this fall, planning to take a research vessel into the Pacific for 50 days, but his funding fell through two weeks after it was announced by his producer, actor Adrian Grenier, at the Cannes Film Festival in May.

Zeman first heard the story of 52 at an artists colony in the summer of 2012, and it struck him immediately. He was in the aftermath of a breakup. He’s been working on the project ever since; he described his relationship to the movie as “Ahabian.” But figuring out how to make the trip work “is fucking complicated,” he told me. The plan was to have a research vessel staffed with five scientists and three crew, using sonar and old migration routes to locate 52. The data was more than a decade old.

One of the themes of Zeman’s film is modern loneliness, that people are particularly responsive to the story of 52 in the digital era—when the Internet promises connectivity but can actually deliver us even deeper into isolation. Ironically enough, the film’s Facebook page has become an effective epicenter for the 52 Hertz community: It’s where people post their responses to the story of the whale, register their sympathy, report their desires. “This story touched me so deeply,” wrote a woman named Pamela. “I wish we could all help and play whale songs for him.” She wanted to know why “we can build laptops and smart phones but we cannot figure out a way to get this whale some companionship?”

Some posts struck a different chord. Catherine was actually a little sick of all the “mawkish sadness” at this “anthropomorphized meme,” and wasn’t afraid to say so, though another user responded immediately to her post. “52 Hertz isn’t a myth or a meme,” she shot back. “He’s real, and I think we’re all damn curious about him.”

Most of the posts converge on two themes: helping 52 and feeling bad for 52. A woman named Denise posted one message—“find 52 hertz”—over and over and over again one morning: at 8:09, 8:11, 8:14, 8:14 (a second time), and 8:16. A woman named Jen wrote, only once: “Just want to give it a hug.”

Leslie Jamison is the author of The Empathy Exams: Essays.

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