This whale frequents the North Pacific and emits a range of unusual frequencies which are believed to isolate it from other large whale species which are unable to communicate with it. The media and artists alike have been moved by the notion of solitude surrounding this animal that has been heard but never seen. Motivated by a search for meaning, documentary filmmakers are preparing an expedition to locate it. But scientists are now making clarifications: this now legendary whale appears to be less of a loner than meets the eye.

Everything we know about this whale comes from recordings of its vocalizations made over a span of a dozen or so years when the US Navy was listening in on the oceans in order to detect Soviet submarines. At 52 hertz, the sound frequencies emitted by Whale 52 are higher than the range of the blue whale, which lies between 15 and 20 hertz. According to initial scientific commentary picked up by the media, this whale had been described as solitary due to the fact that it seemed to go unheard by other great cetaceans who consequently could not answer it. It seems to move around within the North Pacific and even migrate. Otherwise, little is known about this individual.

Our existential questions find echo in artists

For the past four years, the mystery surrounding this whale has sparked both interest and fascination in the popular media and in the artistic community. As such, artists have come to explore the notions of solitude and sadness that they associate with this individual. In this regard, a play, news features, a children’s book with audio CD, a short comical and satirical documentary, and a Twitter account have been been created in the United States and Europe.

In early 2015, two American documentarians, Adrian Grenier and Josh Zeman, spearheaded a crowdfunding campaign to obtain the necessary resources to produce a documentary and conduct a scientific expedition: they hope to set out in search of No. 52, locate it, identify its species and fit it with a telemetry transmitter to track its movements. Their campaign finally reached its target in March with a substantial last minute donation from the actor Leonardo DiCaprio.

These documentary makers are driven by a quest: a search for meaning that each and every one of us harbours, they explain. For them, the fate of this whale resonates with the existential questions of mankind that revolve around isolation, solitude and being misunderstood by others. “The loneliest of whales needs friends” is the slogan used in their financing campaign. As they are well aware that they might have to travel countless nautical miles in the vast ocean waters without locating Whale 52, they have stated that they will also be focusing their efforts on maritime noise generated by human activities in order to help reduce this form of pollution that impacts the lives of marine mammals. Their expedition is due to set sail in the fall of 2015.

Scientific clarification puts things back into perspective

It was last April that a critical remark made by scientist Christopher Clark of Cornell University in New York was published in a BBC news report. This specialist in marine mammal acoustics recorded vocalizations of Whale 52 in 1993 and affirms that, despite their appearance, they are not so abnormal. According to studies, groups of whales living in particular regions use dialects, and numerous idiosyncratic vocalizations exist (vocalizations emitted by individuals reacting and adapting to ambient noise, for instance).

Christopher Clark and other scientists dismiss the hypothesis according to which No. 52 cannot be heard by blue whales that emit lower frequency sounds. According to them, No. 52’s vocalization patterns closely resemble those of blue whales. Not only can these patterns be heard by blue whales, but also by fin and humpback whales. These whales are not all deaf, it’s just that No. 52 is a bit odd, explains the researcher.

According to scientists who closely monitor its recordings, Whale 52 has not been heard since 2012. They also mention that its vocalizations have gradually become lower in pitch and might nowadays be closer to 47 hertz. Such is the case in blue whales off the coasts of California that emit tonalities one third lower than those in the 1960s, according to a 2009 study.

Although scientists agree that Whale 52 might be a blue whale based on its vocalizations and its movement patterns in the ocean, they cannot rule out the hypothesis that it could be a blue whale / fin whale hybrid. Although such hybrids have been observed and photographed, their vocalizations have never been recorded. Yet another enigma to fuel the quest?


On the New York Times website:

Filmmakers Set Sights on ’52’, the World’s Loneliest Whale

On the BBC website:

The World’s loneliest whale may not be alone after all

To learn more

On the Huffington Post website:

Adrian Grenier’s Kickstarter To Find The ‘Loneliest Whale In The World’ Gets Saved At The Last Minute By Leonardo DiCaprio

On the Smithsonian Magazine website:

Maybe the World’s Loneliest Whale Isn’t So Isolated, After All

On the Inter-Research website: Endangered Species Research:

Worldwide decline in tonal frequencies of blue whale songs

News - 28/4/2015

Christine Gilliet

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