[FoRK] The Loneliest Mystery of the Deep

Jeff Bone jbone at place.org
Tue Dec 21 15:48:21 PST 2004

I found this strangely affecting...


The Loneliest Mystery of the Deep (Science)
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By circletimessquare
Tue Dec 21st, 2004 at 05:53:38 AM EST

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  For the last 12 years, a single solitary whale whose vocalizations 
match no known living species has been tracked across the Northeast 
Pacific. Its wanderings match no known migratory patterns of any living 
whale species. Its vocalizations have also subtly deepened over the 
years, indicating that the whale is maturing and ageing. And, during 
the entire 12 year span that it has been tracked, it has been calling 
out for contact from others of its own kind.

  It has received no answer. Nor will it ever.

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You can listen to the lonely whale at the NOAA. Its call is at 52 
hertz, which is roughly that of a low note on a Tuba.

  The New Scientist informs us that blue whales call out at 15-20 hertz. 
Fin whales at 20 hertz. Humpbacks sing at much higher frequencies.

  All of these whales are types of baleen whale. These large whales do 
not make noises to echo-locate, but instead for purposes of courtship 
and kinship, maintaining pod formation. The noises are also of very low 
frequency?infrasonic?which also means the vocalizations travel for very 
long distances on the order of hundred of kilometers. Here are some 

  The strange 52 hertz deep sea noise is not only from a whale, but, 
based on the noise's characteristics, is most definitely from a kind of 
baleen whale, says Mary Ann Daher, who recently cowrote a research 
paper on the subject in the journal Deep Sea Research:

The calls were noticed first in 1989, and have been detected and 
tracked since 1992. 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. The calls were recorded from August to 
February with most in December and January. The species producing these 
calls is unknown. The tracks of the 52-Hz whale were different each 
year, and varied in length from 708 to 11,062 km with travel speeds 
ranging from 0.7 to 3.8 km/h. Tracks included (A) meandering over short 
ranges, (B) predominantly west-to-east movement, and (C) mostly 
north-to-south travel. 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.
  The research that discovered the strange whale is the brainchild of 
William Watkins of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, a pioneer 
in studying marine mammals via acoustics. Unfortunately, he passed away 
recently in September 2004, but his work continues at the WHOI.

  Enter the US Navy and their SOSUS program, whose purpose during the 
Cold War was the identification of submarines via deep sea microphones, 
or hydrophones, sunken to the ocean floor. Declassified recordings from 
the program have been a blessing for studying whales and other deep sea 
animals who make acoustic calls. At the same time, the US Navy recently 
got in trouble when its SURTASS LFA program to saturate the deep with 
infrasonic sound for active rather than passive detection of enemy subs 
threatened to deafen and kill marine animals, especially mammals.

  The mystery of the solitary whale has captured the imagination. 
Hypotheses as to its identity include the possibility that the whale is 
deaf, that it is a hybrid of two species, or that it is sick or 
malformed (although unlikely, since it has survived for more than 12 

  Or perhaps, if you want to get weird, you can note for fun that this 
story matches the plot of a Star Trek Movie. But Leonard Nimoy did not 
pen this story; it is for real.

  Whatever the identity of this strange unidentified alien whale, it is, 
for now, the very definition of poetic, existential loneliness, in both 
time and space. The whale is somewhere wandering the Northeast Pacific, 
right now, in a rudderless, aimless track. And right now the lonely 
beast could be calling out for others of its kind, and finding none, 
for over 12 years and counting.

  Weird and fascinating.

  Full discussion: http://www.kuro5hin.org/story/2004/12/20/184723/82

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