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April 20, 2015

Whatever happened to ‘The World’s Loneliest Whale?’

Chuck Bednar for redOrbit.com - @BednarChuck

It’s calls were first detected by US Navy hydrophones in the Pacific Ocean in 1989, and experts are unclear whether or not it’s a new species or even if it’s a male or a female. So what happened to the mysterious creature dubbed “the loneliest whale in the world?”

The creature, which has a significantly higher-pitched song that blue whales or fin whales, hasn’t been heard from since 2004. In fact, it might not even still be alive, according to BBC Earth. But that’s not keeping filmmakers, whale researchers, and others from continuing the search.

Discovering and tracking the mysterious creature

When the Navy’s SOSUS hydrophone array first picked up the whale songs, they were described as being similar in nature to blue whales, which sing between 10Hz and 40Hz. However, some of the song’s notes were at a frequency of 52Hz, equivalent to a low bass note to human ears but far higher in pitch than both blue whales and fin whales (which sing as 20Hz).

One of the experts most involved in trying to track down the creature was William Watkins, a marine mammal researcher at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. Watkins passed away at the age of 78 in 2004, but prior to his death, he published his findings in the journal Deep Sea Research Part I: Oceanographic Research Papers.

“A unique whale call with 50-52 Hz emphasis from a single source has been tracked over 12 years in the central and eastern North Pacific,” Watkins wrote in his paper. “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 species producing these calls is unknown,” he added. The creature’s tracks varied from one year to another, varied in length from 708km to 11,062km and ranged in speed from 0.7 km/h to 3.8 km/h. It “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.”

Filmmaker’s search for the elusive “lonely whale”

Based largely on Watkins’ description of the creature as a unique whale species, the mass media began portraying the creature as a lonely animal, BBC Earth said. But was it, really? That’s what US filmmaker Josh Zeman and actor Adrian Grenier are apparently trying to find out, as the duo is planning to produce a new crowd sourced documentary about the whale.

According to the project’s Kickstarter page, Zeman and Grenier are planning to team up with a team of scientists to track down the creature during an expedition this fall in which they can find and film the mysterious creature. They have successfully raised over $400,000 towards a goal of just $300,000, thanks to the support of environmental groups and actor Leonardo DiCaprio.

The filmmakers said that they are hoping to study the creature, which they call a hybrid whale, and others like it by tagging them with high-tech, non-invasive sound technologies to collect data on the whale they’re calling ‘52 Hz.’ To accomplish this, they and a team of oceanographers and bio-acousticians plan to launch on a 20-day expedition 400 miles off the California coast.

However, some, including Christopher W. Clark. Director of the Cornell University Bioacoustics Research Program (BRP), are criticizing the filmmakers’ approach. Clark, who recorded the 52 Hz whale in 1993, explained that previous studies have uncovered dialects in some groups of whales, and that the creature is “not completely mind-bogglingly unique,” and rejects the notion that it’s call cannot be heard or understood by regular blue whales.

Whales are going through puberty

In addition, John Hildebrand of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in California told BBC Earth that the whale no longer actually calls at 52 Hz, and in fact has not for several years. The creature’s song has grown deeper gradually, and while it has been a few years since it has been caught on tape, it is believed to be closer to 47 Hz today, the website explained.

In 2009, Hildebrand published a study that indicates that other whales have also been part of this growing trend. Since the 1960s, the pitches of blue whale songs have been growing increasingly deeper. While experts aren’t certain why the whales are changing their calls, it does indicate that there is a possible link between the 52Hz whale and blue whales, and that the “world’s loneliest whale” could be a hybrid species – meaning it might not be so lonely after all.

In addition to Zeman and Grenier, researchers at WHOI are also picking up where Watkins left off, trying to track down the 52 Hz whale for the first time in more than a decade. Until then, we are left to wonder exactly what type of creature it is, whether or not it is actually a hybrid, if it’s even still alive, and whether or not it really is “the world’s loneliest whale.”

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