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Do All Whales Sing the Same “Song”?

In 1989, oceanographers heard the unusual call of the "52-hertz whale" for the first time, thanks to an array of hydrophone sensors that had recently been declassified by the U.S. Navy. Thought to be a blue whale because of its migration patterns, this whale "sings" at a unique frequency -- 52 hertz. This is a much higher frequency than the call of a typical blue whale (10–39 Hz) or a fin whale (20 Hz). In the years since, the 52-hertz whale has been detected regularly in many locations around the Pacific Ocean. He or she appears to be the only whale emitting a call at this high frequency, earning the nickname “the world's loneliest whale.”

Over the years, this whale has regularly been heard in the Pacific Ocean between August and December, before migrating beyond the range of the hydrophones. The whale travels as far north as the Aleutian and Kodiak Islands, and as far south as the California coast.

The odd whale out?

  • At 52 hertz, this whale's sonic signature is just higher than the lowest note on a tuba. The calls have actually deepened slightly over the years and are now about 49 hertz, suggesting that the whale has grown or matured.
  • Scientists have been unable to identify the species. Some speculate that it could be malformed, or a hybrid of a blue whale and another species. Others think that the whale could be deaf.
  • Some critics reject the notion that the 52-hertz whale can't be understood by “normal” blue whales. “The animal's singing with a lot of the same features of a typical blue whale song,” says Christopher Willes Clark of Cornell University. “He's just odd.”
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