Small Talk

The Lonely Whale: No Myth

On our last episode, “Swamplandia!” author Karen Russell told us about a lonely whale with vocal problems whose love song supposedly chases lady whales away. Neither we nor Karen could verify the story’s authenticity at the time… but it turns out it’s true (sort of)(sadly).

According to a New York Times article from 2004, scientists have been sonically tracking the whale since 1992 due to its strange song. Nicknamed “The 52 Hertz Whale,” the creature sings at such a high frequency that other whales apparently don’t respond to it. Not just female whales — *any* whales. So it’s been moping around the ocean for years, all by itself. Says researcher Kate Stafford of The National Marine Mammal Lab: “He’s saying, ‘Hey I’m out here.’ Well, nobody is phoning home.”

Here’s another article about the lonely misfit whale. Apparently not only is its song indecipherable to other whales, it also doesn’t follow the typical migration pattern of its species, making it even *less* likely to make any buddies. The good news for science, though, is that because this one whale’s song is totally different than any other whale’s, it’s easy to track it and hear how its voice changes over time. So now we know, for instance, that a whale’s voice gets deeper as it ages. Fat lot of good that does for the sad, sad whale, though, who would probably give anything for just one hug. 🙁
(Thanks to listener Ron Strelecki for the research)

  • Ron Strelecki

    It’s actually a “squeaky” voice as the other males are in the 20hz region for this type of song. This whale is about an octave and a fifth higher.

  • Rico

    Ah! I just assumed since the Times described the misfit whale’s song as “basso profundo” that that was the case in comparison to other whales’ songs too. I’ve amended the post, and hope the whale finds a friend who thinks high squeaky voices are endearing.

  • Kitten

    I’d point out that now we know (from the evidence in this case, solely) that *this* whale’s voice gets deeper with age. Since it’s so different from other whales, I don’t think it’s reasonable to say that we can draw conclusions about other whales based on what happens to this one.
    The poor guy.

  • Rico

    So Kitten, you’re saying even this one small possible upside to the whole sorry tale… is actually *not* an upside? I can’t take it.

  • larae byam

    Oh my god , its my soulmate finally where is he? I must meet this subspecies. no one hears my song either or calls, lol!!!

  • larae byam

    Rico, I feel ya!

  • vivzizi

    On Facebook no ones knows you are a whale with a high pitched voice.

  • Sallie Ann

    Just listened to your podcast and was going to send this link – Such a sad story.

  • Wendy


  • Amanda

    LOL good stuff

  • Charles Furer

    There are 10 of these whales on every corner of the Earth. Let’s say “hello” more often.

  • Krysta

    Has no one ever tries to attach a sound box to this animal that emits a normal frequency whale call? Has no one tried anything to help this animal? Sad story, so glad I now know about another sad thin gin the world. Geez.

  • Rico

    That’s a lovely idea, Krysta, but I’m not sure anyone has actually ever *seen* this whale. They use special equipment from far away to hear its voice, and since it’s at such an odd frequency it’s easy to single it out among other whale’s songs. But I’m not sure they’ve ever pinpointed its exact position, though since they have some idea of its migration patterns they must have a *general* idea of its location…

  • jade

    so they have never even SEEN the whale? that makes it all the more sad!!!

  • sarahbrown

    “Just imagine that massive mammal, floating alone and singing—too big to connect with most of the beings it passes, feeling paradoxically small in the vast stretches of empty, open ocean.”

  • Mohamed

    Does it have a name??

  • Rico

    Well, researchers apparently call it “The 52 Hertz Whale,” but if he were my whale I would name him Oliver.

  • Bell Gallagher

    This seems like a mission for National Geographic, or a similar scientific/nature organization. There must be a Cousteau Society affiliate out there who would bring this fellow Earth-traveler to a safe place for him to become part of a kindred community of ocean-dwellers? Charles, there are at least 2of these lovely beings in my classes each year.

  • Anon

    It “sounds” like the whale is not able to propagate his call by using the SOFAR Channel. It would be an interesting experiment to find the whale and then send out a typical whale song at the correct frequency. If other whales come and stay then you would know the whale was isolated because other whales were out of range of its song. If whales leave then perhaps they do select their mates based on the frequency of the whale song. It wouldn’t be that hard to do and it might help us to understand the SOFAR channel.