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The loneliest whale in the world?

  • Author: Kieran Mulvaney, Special to The Washington Post
  • Updated: January 26, 2017
  • Published January 26, 2017

(Phil Borst for The Washington Post)

Somewhere in the North Pacific Ocean there is a whale.

There are, of course, many whales, if rather fewer than there were a couple of hundred years ago. But this whale is different. It is a male and vocalizes during mating season in a way that only male whales do. Its species, however, is uncertain. It may be a fin whale, or perhaps a blue whale, the largest whale of them all. It may even be a hybrid – an unusual but not unheard-of scenario.

Nobody is certain because nobody has claimed to have seen it. But several people have heard it. And many more have heard of it. And what this latter group has heard about it has turned the whale into an unwitting celebrity, a cultural icon and a cypher for the feelings of many unconnected people around the globe. It is, allegedly, the Loneliest Whale in the World.

While we may think of the underwater world as relatively tranquil, it is dominated by sound. Most famous of all those sounds are the melodic "songs" of humpback whales, which, after being popularized on an eponymous record album in 1970, proved a catalyst for the early "Save the Whales" movement. The late astronomer Carl Sagan considered humpbacks' songs so beautiful that he included them on the "Sounds of Earth" recordings that, even now, are heading far into space onboard the Voyager spacecrafts. And while no other whale song has traveled so far, the vocalizations of other whale species can travel great distances: the low, powerful rumblings of a blue whale, for example, have been picked up on hydrophones 700 miles away.

The first time I heard a blue whale vocalization was when scientist Roger Payne played a recording at a conference in Monterey, California, in the late 1980s. Normally, these rumblings are at a frequency that is too deep for the human ear or, at best, at the very fringes of a person's hearing, but Payne had sped up his recording so that it was easily audible. Even in a form broadly equivalent to Placido Domingo impersonating Mickey Mouse, the vocalizations reverberated through the conference room, rattling the windows and jarring the bones with their low, relentless thunder.

The fact that we were able to listen to such sounds was due in large part to the Pentagon, which had established a network of low-frequency hydrophones (underwater microphones) throughout the world's oceans in the 1950s. Their target was Soviet submarines, but as an unexpected bonus they were able to eavesdrop on some whales, which operated on a similar frequency to communist submariners. As the Cold War began to thaw, the military opened up access to its listening buoys to scientific institutions, which were suddenly able to track the movements of whales around the world.

Among those who made the most of the opportunity was William Watkins of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. One of the pioneers in the field of marine mammal bioacoustics, he discovered a unique and unexpected signal in the North Pacific in 1989. The signal was of a whale traveling in much the same way and area as blue and fin whales in the region, but this one was vocalizing on an entirely different frequency: 52 hertz (Hz). Still profoundly deep by human standards but far higher than the 15-to-25-Hz range of most blues and fins.

Watkins and his team recorded the whale again in 1990 and 1991, and every year over a 12-year span, each time picking it up sometime in August or September and following it until it swam out of range sometime in January or early February.

Watkins's team's findings were published in the journal Deep Sea Research in 2004, shortly after Watkins died. To the team's great surprise, the study was picked up in the general media, and the repeated theme was: If the whale was communicating at a different frequency than others of its kind, then could others even hear it? Was this whale swimming across the North Pacific, calling into a void and hearing nothing back in return? Was it … lonely?

"CNN was on my case, the BBC, BBC Scotland," said Mary Ann Daher of Woods Hole, when I first contacted her a few years ago. She became the corresponding author after Watkins' death. "And they were hounding me."

While she chuckled at the memory, the chuckles were interspersed with sighs; it was clear the experience had been vexing. "I'm very uncomfortable talking about someone else's research," she continued. "I was a research assistant in that lab. I know Dr. Watkins would never have done interviews or gone on camera or done anything like that. He was an incredibly careful, conservative researcher. He must be rolling in his grave."

When New York Times science writer Andy Revkin reached out to her, Daher agreed to an interview "because I thought it would put things to rest. But it didn't. … It was the New York Times, for crying out loud – it only brought more attention to the story."

Eight years after the paper's publication, and six years after she left that specific field of work within Woods Hole, Daher said of the whale that, "Obviously, he's able to eat and live and cruise around. Is he successful reproductively? I haven't the vaguest idea. Nobody can answer those questions. Is he lonely? I hate to attach human emotions like that. Do whales get lonely? I don't know. I don't even want to touch that topic."

For all her scientific unease with the whole media circus, Daher admitted to me that, "It's interesting, isn't it, that people appear to identify with this whale?"

There was a pattern to those who reached out to her, as if she could somehow help. "It's amazing. I get all sorts of emails, some of them very touching, genuinely. It just breaks your heart to read some of them – asking why I can't go out there and help this animal. We as humans, we are very soft-hearted, caring creatures. It's mostly females who write to me – not always; I also get males – but there are a lot of females who identify, feeling they're not part of a pack."

My interview with her, in 2012, was the last she gave on the subject. She told me that she would henceforth be referring all calls to the Woods Hole media office. Daher had had enough of the lonely whale she had helped discover, and she wanted to be left alone.

(Phil Borst for The Washington Post)

In a story for the Atavist Magazine published in 2014, author Leslie Jamison chronicles a sampling of those who have been moved by the 52 Hz whale: "A … singer in Michigan wrote a kids' song about the whale's plight; an artist in upstate New York made a sculpture out of old plastic bottles and called it 52 Hertz."A 19-year-old English major at the University of Toronto thought 52 Blue was "the epitome of every person who's ever felt too weird to love." A 26-year-old photo editor in Poland "decided to get the outline of 52 Blue tattooed across his back after a bad breakup, the end of a six-year relationship."

There was a short-lived parody Twitter account (of course), the curator of which tweeted out a few messages such as "Hellooooooo?! Yooohoooooo! Is anyone out there? #SadLife" before apparently tiring of the conceit. There are plays and books about the whale and music videos that use it as inspiration. The whale makes a guest appearance in an episode of an animated children's show about animals that explore the ocean under the command of an anthropomorphized polar bear with a British accent. The whale's story has been used to sell cellphones in Ireland.

In 2007, Mike Ambs was filming his first feature-length film, "For Thousands of Miles," based on a 4,200-mile bicycle trip he had taken as a 21-year-old. Things were not going well.

"I was on the road for two months," he recalls. "Everything around me was going really badly in terms of budget. I used to lie on top of this van, and I used to imagine a whale swimming around in the ocean, just drifting along, and it was the only thing that calmed me down. I don't know where it came from, but I started to think about it a lot, and I used to use it to keep myself grounded."

His movie was finally finished in 2013; sometime during the post-production process he came across the story of the 52 Hz whale. He became obsessed with hearing just how the whale sounded. (There are a few excerpts of audio recordings of the whale available online, but they are almost all sped up between five and 10 times, simply because most computer speakers are unable to play a sound as deep as the whale's actual vocalizations.)

"I got really obsessed with tracking down the original version, which didn't exist," he says, "so I slowed it down myself and I tried to clean up the audio. And once I heard the sound at the actual speed, it was the most calming, interesting sound." After his wife heard it and agreed with his assessment, he decided he "wanted to share the real sounds of the whale song."

Ever since, he has spent his spare time finding old cassette tapes, overdubbing them with the deep monotone of the 52 Hz whale and making them available for a nominal cost. He has recorded and sent out hundreds and in the process has made contact with people around the world who also find beauty in the sound or the story. He estimates that about 25 to 30 percent of those who procure his tapes contact him afterward with a "pretty thoughtful response." Some tell him that they, like him, find themselves almost obsessed with the idea of a whale singing into the void and thereby connecting strangers around the world.

A few years after Ambs was lying on the roof of a van and staring into space, Andy Othling was "sitting in my office at a job that I did not enjoy and basically stumbled across an article about the whale on a tech blog, of all places." The New Mexico resident has "lived in the middle of the desert my whole life, but I do have this connection with the ocean." It was his personal and professional circumstances, however, more than any aquatic appreciation, that caused the Loneliest Whale to resonate with him.

"I was at a national laboratory doing computer science work," he explains, "and I was unable to tell anyone at home what I was working on because of clearance issues, and when I was at work, I didn't feel like connecting with anyone on a personal level, so I didn't talk about my personal life. So there was a kind of loneliness."

A musician by vocation, Othling was halfway through writing and recording an instrumental album at the time he discovered the Loneliest Whale, and as soon as he contemplated the notion of, as he puts it, a whale singing but not being heard because "there was nobody there to hear him," he thought, "Yes! That's what I'm feeling." The album became a tribute to and reflection of the 52 Hz whale: "It allows people to engage in it, whereas if I'd just made it about, 'Hey, this album is about how I hate my job,' that's kind of boring."

Othling continues to scan the Internet for news about 52 Hz; so does Ambs, who with his wife is working on a movie inspired by the tale and who yearns to one day create a life-size whale, constructed from mirrors and hanging from the ceiling of a darkened warehouse while the lonely calls play on a loop in the background.

"You happen across something one day and it really can shift the direction of your interests," Ambs reflects. "Not my entire life, but certainly a significant aspect of my life, has shifted in a direction it wouldn't otherwise have taken. I think for a lot of people [the whale]'s done that."

"It's not physically the whale," says documentary maker Joshua Zeman. "The whale itself – honestly, if you talk to scientists, they will tell you that it's not lonely. Other whales can probably hear it. Other whales can probably understand it. But my next question is: Why do we prescribe that emotion, and why does that emotion affect us as human beings?"

Zeman was writing a screenplay at an artists' retreat in 2012 when he read about the whale in the galleys of a book by animal psychologist Vint Virga. While he was there, he discussed the story with some of his fellow residents; about a week after he returned home, one of them called to let him know that, "Hey, I wrote a short one-act play about that whale," and about one week after that, a sculptor emailed to say that she had created a piece about it. Zeman, who most recently created the documentary series "The Killing Season" on A&E, found himself poring online through the multitudinous emails, letters, poems, songs and other paeans to the whale. As he did so, he saw a story in the creators and the reasons for their inspiration.

In an age where, as Zeman argues, "we eschew real interpersonal face-to-face relationships in favor of 140-character anecdotal relationships," it is not the whale that is the lonely one. "Humans are lonely. I think that people are transferring their own loneliness onto this creature."

For close to four years now, Zeman has been working on a documentary about the whale and the surrounding phenomenon, which he hopes to release, perhaps at a movie festival, later this year. But while its focus is on the human response to the 52 Hz whale, it does not ignore the whale itself. Which is why, in October 2015, Zeman and a team of scientists set out in search of it.

"When we first approached scientists with the idea of trying to find this whale, everyone scratched their heads and said, 'Hmm, I wonder if we can do that.' And so we used these sonar buoys that had been repurposed from the U.S. Navy to try and zone in on the signal from this whale, and at the same time had these visual surveyors who were going out on rigid hulled inflatables to try and locate it.

"It's a crazy idea to go out and try to find one whale in the entire ocean," he explained over the phone from his New York office. "It's kinda like Moby Dick in a number of ways. And I came to realize that everyone in the film has their own Ahabian quest. Whether it's the bioacoustician who wants to find something, whether it's the whale tagger who wants to find something, whether it's the person at home who hopes we find it, whether it's the other person at home who hopes we don't find it."

Zeman isn't saying whether they succeeded in their quest – he didn't want to give away his film's ending. But he insists that finding the Holy Grail was incidental to undertaking the quest.

"I will tell you: When we pitched the story, some places were like, 'Oh yeah, that's great; I love the story. But can you produce the whale?' They would finance it if we knew we were going to find the whale. But what happens when we find the whale? What are we going to do? Are we going to hug it? The power is in the metaphor. The power is in the motif. The power is in all these people coming together over an idea."

(Phil Borst for The Washington Post)

As the lonely-whale myth spread, many of those who studied whales for a living gnashed their teeth. Christopher Clark of Cornell University, one of the world's foremost authorities on whale vocalization who recorded the 52 Hz whale in 1999, told the BBC in 2015 that, "The animal's singing with a lot of the same features of a typical blue whale song. Blue whales, fin whales and humpback whales: All these whales can hear this guy; they're not deaf. He's just odd." Adding to critics' ammunition was that the whale was clearly proving pretty successful at being a whale: It had been first recorded in 1989, after all, and it was still going strong in 2015. The voices of whales, like those of humans, deepen as the animals age and grow, and the Loneliest Whale was no exception; initially recorded at 52 Hz, it now vocalizes closer to 46 Hz.

While this particular whale's particular differences may not have prevented it from communicating with its peers, whales around the world are indeed finding it harder to make themselves heard above the noise of shipping traffic, oil and gas exploration, dredging and other human activities.

These can often be complex issues to comprehend; the idea of a whale being lonely, however, is not.

"Sometimes, you need a story that people can grasp on to," says actor Adrian Grenier. "And that's what Lonely Whale has done for me: allow me to tell stories that people can relate to and understand. Not just the loneliness connection but also the disconnect story. The fact that the whale has a disconnect from his species: Well, I think we do, too. Are we making the true spiritual, empathic connections with one another that will enable us to reach the shared goals for ourselves? I really think the unified goal is a safe home and planet for us to live on."

It's a beautiful, sunny Southern California morning. Just down the hill, the Pacific Ocean gleams blue and inviting. The previous day Grenier and I had been out on those same waters, looking for whales, along with a small group: social marketers from New York, a designer of sports stadiums, a few others who had contributed to the funding of Zeman's documentary or won a whale-watching trip with a Hollywood star. Unusually warm currents along the coast pushed most whales farther offshore than our boat could take us, but we had been entertained by a pod of dolphins and had taken the opportunity to leap into the ocean for a brief swim. The experience would repeat itself later that morning, but in the meantime, over breakfast in a hilltop courtyard, Grenier – best known for starring as Vincent Chase in "Entourage," the HBO series that was a paean to celebrity culture – shares the story of the first time he saw a whale.

"I was on jet skis, shooting a scene for 'Entourage' in Hawaii," he recalls. "We're shooting a scene where I have two girls on the back of my jet ski. Jerry [Ferrara, who played Turtle, Chase's friend and driver] is on another jet ski with another girl, and we're having the best life ever. And the guy who is guiding us says, 'Turn off your engines.' So we turned them off, and we were just floating there, and this family of whales swam right beneath us. It was incredible.

"I couldn't help but clock the irony: Here I am on a show that's promoting conspicuous consumption, indulgence, escapism, consumerism, and here we are, floating on the surface above these creatures that have so much to tell us. I've always been struggling to reconcile what I did to make consumption so sexy, and, ironically, that's what's given me the power to do what I do."

What he is doing is undergoing something of a career transformation, from leading man to passionate advocate for ocean conservation, as the face of the Lonely Whale Foundation, which he founded shortly after agreeing to co-produce Zeman's documentary. The foundation describes itself as "dedicated to bringing people closer to the world's oceans through education and awareness, inspiring empathy and action for ocean health and the wellbeing of marine wildlife."

In some ways, it makes that possible by providing a platform for Grenier to do things that few other people can: swimming across Italy's Strait of Messina with Richard Branson, or appearing on "The Daily Show" to explain that 500 millionplastic drinking straws are discarded every day. But it is also a means by which he can use his fame and ability to connect with donors to help others: The foundation explicitly seeks out solution-oriented ocean conservation projects to support.

While the story of the Loneliest Whale helped inspire its namesake foundation, the latter now exists without need of the former. At the same time, the story remains compelling, even as Grenier is aware of the importance of not allowing it to get ahead of the science.

"I've had this conversation with several scientists, especially those we're trying to work with," he says. "Scientists are a special breed; they're scientists because they have a certain discipline to uphold a standard, and they are held to a different standard, and rightfully so. You don't want a bunch of storytellers making stuff up and calling it science. … But I think in a lot of ways, these scientists are little lonely whales themselves. Their lifestyle is often isolated, they're unable to connect with others, they speak another language. I think in a lot of ways what we're trying to do is become a translator. We're trying to translate the wisdom of the whale and the knowledge of the scientists in a way that's understandable to humans. The reality is, that's how we understand things: with simple stories that are relatable."

Would the whale's story, or the perception of its story, have such resonance if it weren't, well, a whale? Perhaps. Consider, for example, the overwhelming responses to the killings of a lion named Cecil by a Minnesota dentist in 2015 and a gorilla called Harambe at the Cincinnati Zoo last year. But there is also something undeniably powerful and totemic about whales: Their very nature suggests an element of distance and isolation, of otherness.

Andy Othling, for example, finds himself moved by the notion of a "massive animal all alone in an equally massive place." Mike Ambs automatically reaches for the same adjective as he muses about "what it must be like to be a massive creature like that drifting in the open ocean for decades at a time."

It's a question that, in a way, Ambs would be happy to see remain unresolved.

"I like to believe that the whale will never be found," he says. "I like that open-ended kind of story."

It's a position that Zeman says he understands and has encountered from others. "In a lot of ways, you don't want to demystify the magic that is nature," he acknowledges.

But when he and his team set out to find the whale, he says, "We had been looking for this whale for a number of years. So it was peaks and valleys of emotion. One year, we thought we knew where he was, and then we couldn't hear him; we thought maybe he'd died. And then somebody would come in and say, 'I think we heard him.' So I was just happy to be able to get out and even try to find him. In a lot of ways, it wasn't about the results of the expedition; it was the fact that all these people had come together because of this one idea. That to me was the success."

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