Following some strange migratory pattern of its own design, and emitting a plaintive call-song that is never answered, a solitary whale roams the depths of the northeastern Pacific Ocean.
The call-song has been tracked through NOAA’s underwater, sound surveillance system since 1989, when a research team out of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, including marine mammal acoustics pioneer William Watkins, noticed “whale-like” sounds occurring in the 51.75 Hertz band of the radio spectrum. The calls came in groups of 2 to 6 and lasted from 5 to 7 seconds each.
Amongst the scientists who have faithfully tracked the song, the mystery whale is known as ’52 Hertz’, as this is the approximate electromagnetic frequency of the song it sings. Popularly, the whale is known as ‘Alice’ (and previously, as June, Kate, and Margaret), though the whale is most likely male, as it is males that tend to sing to attract a mate (if that is what it is doing)*. And each year, recordings of its song grow slightly deeper in pitch.
What makes 52 Hertz so compelling a study subject is that large baleen whales (like blue and fin) communicate at a frequency range that ends at less than half the 52 Hz range (typically 15 to 25 Hz) which explains why the whale’s calls go unanswered — no other whale (it seems) can hear it.
In 2000, Watkins et al identified the song as matching the pattern and form of a baleen (or mysticene) whale, though which kind has remained a mystery, as the whale has never been seen (note: adult baleen whales have no teeth, but develop baleen plates for filtering food from water).
Baleen plate from a mysticene whale (the original Greek word mystacoceti means “moustache”)
Scientists have two theories as to the true nature of ‘Alice’ (bowing to its popular naming): the first is that the whale is the hybrid off-spring of two species of baleen whales (one possibly being a blue whale) that developed some mutation that has altered its singing frequency. Such hybrids are being spotted more frequently in recent years (see my earlier post: ‘Grolar’ Bears & ‘Narluga’ Whales? – Arctic Warming May Promote Hybrid Animals).
In keeping with this first theory, a second theory is that Alice is quite literally that last of his kind, or, more likely, the only one of his kind. Thus, in either case, he cannot, and never will, find a mate (save perchance another hybrid with a similar mutation at last hears the song).
The story of 52 Hertz / Alice has touched a deep romantic “chord” in some followers (see the pathetically poetic piece at Gizmodo: ‘The Story of the Lonely Whale Will Break Your Heart‘) and the armchair cryptozoologist in others (check out the more thorough treatment by Oll Lewis, ‘Love Hertz‘).
It is a matter of great speculation as to how the whale came to be solitary, and for how long it has been so. But I must disagree with one blogger who says that “the cause of it’s solitude and distinct song does not matter….”
The explanation — the true one (if ever found) – does matter. It may matter to future whales, potentially, especially if we learn that 52 Hertz (‘Alice’, as in Cooper) got the way s/he did because of us, because of something we humans were/are doing. This is what science at its best is all about: figuring out the impacts of what we do, unthinkingly.
Most baleen whales that sing (continuously) are young, solitary males seeking mates; they are the bards of the seas. Young or “rogue” males are commonly barred from the pod, or leave on their own. A fertile female may respond with a welcoming reply, but not really a song. But, either sex has the capacity to call and respond.
But beyond the minor issue of the whale’s sex, my main point is that if this is a hybrid whale, and if the occurrences of such hybrids are due to population declines induced by human whaling, or disruption of migratory behavior from shipping activity or climate change, then there may be some possible intervention or remediation, someday. At the least, we can do more to protect such dwindling species.
As to the whale’s individual history, there are other possibilities. The whale may have developed a mental illness, at some point; the cetacean equivalent of depression. Whales are social, but they can also be rejecting of those members who are disabled, or who slow the pod down in some way. Alice could very well have been ostracized, not unlike what was done in most human societies in former times. This could explain her solitude (if in fact “it” is a “she”)
And it may be that the cause of the whale’s distinct tune (and migratory behavior) is organic (disease), and beyond our present ability to do anything about it…But, seeking to understand and appreciate the marvels of Nature, and its sometimes tragic outcomes, will always matter…somehow.
* Whales produce sounds called upcalls, sometimes called contact calls, when they are alone or in the process of joining with other whales. An upcall begins low and rises in pitch, and is the most frequent call produced by right whales (a highly endangered baleen whale).
Top photo: (Overhead view of a fin whale feeding; not ‘Alice’) NOAA
Baleen photo: Zeimusu (NOAA)
Whale song (.wav file): NOAA
Michael Ricciardi is a well-published writer of science/nature/technology articles and essays, poetry and short fiction. Michael has interviewed dozen of scientists from many scientific fields, including Brain Greene, Paul Steinhardt, and Nobel Laureate Ilya Progogine (deceased). Michael was trained as a naturalist and taught ecology and natural science on Cape Cod, Mass. from 1986-1991. His first arts grant was for production of the environmental (video) documentary 'The Jones River - A Natural History', 1987-88 (Kingston, Mass.). Michael is also an award winning, internationally screened video artist. Two of his more recent short videos; 'A Time of Water Bountiful' and 'My Name is HAM' (an "imagined memoir" about the first chimp in space), and several other short videos, can be viewed on his website (http://www.chaosmosis.net). Michael currently lives in Seattle, Washington.