LVI: 52 Blue

The blue whale is the largest and heaviest creature ever to have existed, measuring an average of 98 feet long and weighing about 210 tons. Whales are famous for their song-like calls; blue whales in particular produce incredibly slow low-frequency calls at between 15 and 30 Hertz, at the very bottom of the range of human hearing ability. These unique sounds can be heard many miles away from their point of origin and typically last between ten and thirty seconds and are the loudest sounds on Earth, peaking at as much as 188 decibels — louder that a rock concert and well into the range that causes extreme pain to the human ear.

Luckily for anybody on a submarine, these calls are generally heard from several miles away, when they have dissipated slightly and are much quieter. Naval submarines regularly pick up whale and dolphin calls of all sorts, and engineers are taught to identify whale calls and differentiate them from more relevant sounds.

The National Marine Fisheries Service identifies six possible reasons why whales vocalize: 1) Locating other individuals; 2) Species and individual recognition; 3) Contextual information conveyance for feeding, alarm, or courtship; 4) Maintenance of social organization; 5) Location of topographical features or navigation; and 6) Location of prey. The fact that four of these six reasons relate to inter-individual communication speaks to the strong social organization of whale pods. Whales are almost never seen alone; a lone whale is likely in distress or lost. Whales and dolphins have social structures to their pods, and different pods from different regions of the world communicate differently.

That’s why 52 Blue, an adult male blue whale living off the west coast of the United States, is the loneliest whale in the world.

52 Blue was first picked up by Naval hydrophones in Puget Sound in December of 1992. Acoustic technicians had difficulty recognizing the 52-Hertz call at first, but when they viewed it on a spectrograph, they recognized it as the call of a blue whale coming in at a much higher pitch than a blue whale call ever should — 52 Hertz is the same pitch as a low note on your average tuba. What’s more, 52 Blue always seemed to be alone. No other whale calls were every recorded near him, and over the next twelve years, 52 Hz whale calls from all around the Pacific were determined to be produced by a single, solitary blue whale.

For those of you familiar with whale calls, recordings available to the public are typically sped up to ten times their original speed for the convenience of the listener. Compare this average blue whale call, at ten times its original speed, to a call from 52 Blue, also sped up to ten times its original speed, and you’ll hear the massive difference in pitch.

While some have postulated that 52 Blue is a hybrid or a member of an unidentified species, his vocalizations follow patterns unique to blue whales, leading experts to believe he is most likely a blue whale with a serious speech impediment, or possibly a whale that was born deaf. The fact that no other whales ever seem to be around him and that it’s likely other blue whales cannot even hear his high-frequency calls has lead 52 Blue to be dubbed “the loneliest whale in the world.”

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