A lonely whale of unknown species has been swimming the Earth’s seas for years, ostracized from its own kind thanks to an inability to communicate. Not that it doesn’t try. It does. But the whale sings in a sound frequency that is so high, no other whales will respond. In the language of whales, it’s like speaking Klingon anywhere on Earth outside a Star Trek convention.
The loneliest whale, a filter feeder like the whale in Finding Nemo, has roamed the oceans possibly looking for friends but instead caught the attention of the U.S. Navy in 1989 when their instruments picked up its odd frequency. Calling away at 52 Hertz (the unit of frequency), the unknown whale stood out because other filter feeders call between 15 and 25 Hertz. Its filter-feeding brethren, like the blue whale, use frequencies like those of the lowest notes on a piano, while this whale uses a frequency that’s about eight notes higher. As you can hear at the linked recordings, the 52-Hertz whale also calls in a distinctly more rapid rhythm compared to the deeper and more languid blue whale song.
Listen to a blue whale.
Listen to the 52-Hertz whale.
These recordings of whale song are sped up, so they sound much higher than the real-life sounds. For an idea of what 52 Hertz frequency really sounds like, watch this video:
Not only is the 52-Hertz whale off frequency, it’s off track. Scientists, easily able to follow its movements for years thanks to its unique call, can’t match the whale’s migration path to that of any known filter-feeding whales.
No one knows why the loneliest whale in the world has this communication and navigational disability. It could be a hybrid of two different filter-feeding species, forging a unique song and path that no whale has used before. A cryptozoologist has suggested that the 52-Hertz whale could even be lonelier than we realize, the last survivor of an unidentified species, plying the oceans in a doomed search for another of its kind, singing its broken song.
Dr. Emily Willingham came to EarthSky from The Biology Files. Her background includes a PhD in biological sciences, a bachelor's degree in English, and a published book: The Complete Idiot's Guide to College Biology. She is a scientist, writer, editor, teacher, autism & ADHD parent, and "all around opinionator." Says Emily: "Got an English BA & biology PhD, & I'm not afraid to use them, often together."