Her voice was first heard in 1989. Oceanographers have been following her songs for two decades. It all indicates that she’s a baleen whale, a subspecies that includes the great Blue, the Fin and the Humpback whales. But there’s something very sad about this creature.
Unlike any other in the ocean, she (or he, no one knows its gender) sings at a 51.75Hz frequency, way above the 12 to 25Hz range of every other whale. It’s a frequency her kind can’t hear and as she ages, her songs are getting lower and lower in pitch too. For comparison, 52Hz is just above the lowest note on a tuba.
A study in 2004 determined that the sounds come from a single animal whose movements ‘appear to be unrelated to the presence of other whale species.’ In other words, she’s always alone and even the migration paths that she follows year after year are unique.
And yet she sings. Her elaborate songs come in groups of two to six calls, lasting for five to six seconds each. But it’s unlikely that this whale will ever mate, which is tragic since cetaceans have such a rich and complex social life.
Some insist that there must be something wrong with this whale, called 52 Hertz, in the cold, unsentimental dialect spoken by most scientists. Others blame sound pollution of the oceans, for many, the main reason why large groups of marine mammals beach themselves to death.
In our flawed taste for anthropomorphizing animal behavior, we just feel for this creature, however misplaced the sentiment may be. Of course, we imagine ourselves out there, in the vast ocean with no one to love, talk to, play with, and we feel like crying. Really.
Which would be completely silly and self serving. Still we hope, without any basis on reality, that things are not that bad for this individual who, if life runs its course, still has at least some 20 years left of solitude.
We should always be careful when observing non-human species, though. The sheer brain size of whales, for example, may not add any rationality to their world but certainly gives pause to those quick (and shallow) assumptions about animals.
In terms of species, no other is more solitary than ours. We can’t even imagine a different world without using some hard-wired empathy mechanisms to analyze it. So here’s to the sad songs of an unique marine creature and to the even sadder state of the human condition.
* Originally published in March 2011.