Sunday, 2 November 2008

Anybody out there?

I first read the story of the Lonely Whale years ago in a science journal (I can’t remember which one) and my friend Johann reminded me of it at a dinner party the other night. I haven’t thought about it in ages but it’s an interesting story.

Although the Lonely Whale has never been seen, its existence is known from its call (akin, apparently, to a low note on a tuba), first noticed back in 1989 and recorded and tracked since 1992. No other similar ‘sonic signature’ has ever been heard.

First it was thought that the whale – whose home territory is the North Pacific – was a hybrid (resulting from a mating of two different species, one of them probably a blue whale) but scientist Mary Ann Daher established that the call’s characteristics identify it as a baleen whale. Problem is, most baleen whales call at a frequency of 15-20 hertz. The Lonely Whale calls at 52 hertz.

It gets more heart-rending. Baleen whales don’t make noises to echo-locate (in other words, to orientate themselves in their environments); rather, their very-low-frequency calls, which carry through the water for hundreds of kilometres, are purely for communication – for company and courtship. And if the call you’re making can’t be recognised by those of your own species, no-one’s going to answer, are they?

It’s been suggested that the Lonely Whale might be deaf – that, like humans with similarly impaired hearing, the sounds it makes are different from those of its own species (and therefore not recognised by them); and, more poignantly, that no matter how much it calls, it can’t hear any answers.

As the article I read ended, ‘Imagine roaming the world’s largest ocean year after year alone, calling out with the regularity of a metronome, and hearing no response. It must be so lonely.’

* Listen to the Lonely Whale at www.pmel.noaa.gov/vents/acoustics/spectrograms.html or www.pmel.noaa.gov/vents/acoustics/whales/sounds/sounds_52blue.html

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