52 Blue, Where are You?

The phrase 52 Blue sounds like a card game or the name of jazz tune by Miles Davis. But the story of 52 Blue is a fascinating one even though many people who hear it are saddened and wonder why somebody doesn’t do something. It is a story that the popular press resurrects every couple of years because of its emotional appeal. For those who are unfamiliar with 52 Blue, read on. Or you can watch Josh Zeman’s movie. It is an anthropomorphic tale that is a test of our humanity, compassion, and ability to think scientifically. 52 Blue is the name assigned to a sound first picked up by the US Navy in 1989. It is a song… a whale song to be more precise. And it belongs to what has been dubbed by the media as the loneliest whale in the ocean.

Simply told, the song belongs to a blue whale who sings its song at 52 hertz. That it belongs to a blue whale, is predicated on the migratory pattern associated with it. Like all whale songs, it is distinctive and that’s where the anthropomorphizing comes in. Blue whales commonly communicate at a much lower frequency (15-39 Hz) than 52 Hz. They also vary their song when other whales respond to them. 52 Blue sings the same song over and over as though no one hears it. The speculation is that the other whales don’t respond to 52 Blue because they can’t hear that frequency. It’s like a dog whistle or the special ring tone that teenagers use on their phones that adults can’t hear. Even for a blue whale, the ocean is a very big place. A whale can swim its whole life without ever running into another whale hence the title of loneliest whale in the ocean.

This is a great story albeit a sad one. From an evolutionary standpoint it makes sense. Whales, like elephants, use very low frequencies to communicate because those frequencies travel best over long distances. And animals are often born with slight genetic variations which could include a higher or lower frequency of their voice. That is, after all, how evolution works. The low frequencies of whales and elephants travel great distances but are extraordinarily difficult to trace back to a source. It is both possible and likely that 52 Blue can hear other whales but they can’t hear it. A whale who is born using a different frequency than other whales is like a three legged cheetah. It’s a genetic variation doomed to extinction. The whale can never communicate with other whales. And since whales are intelligent social creatures, this elicits a strong sympathy response in humans who hear about this unfortunate animal. The deaf community, in particular, has responded with great sympathy. Add in the context that we humans have slaughtered whales almost to extinction and the capacity for liberal guilt grows exponentially.

But science urges a level of caution here. Putting aside our emotions, Exhibit A is that we must admit that we don’t know for sure that other whales can’t hear 52 Blue. Maybe, he/she is so obnoxious or ugly that other whales are purposely ignoring it. Or maybe the song is a leviathan version of avant-garde jazz to them and they just don’t like it. In fact, since no one has seen the animal, we can’t even be sure it’s a blue whale. Acoustical analysis tells scientists that the song could be from a fin whale or even a hybrid. Such hybrids have been observed before in the ocean. And though one scientist, Bill Watkins, spent several years searching before his death, no one has located 52 Blue. Worse, the last time anyone heard its song was in 2010.

Critics of the popular story point out that we don’t have enough information about whales in general, their songs, the existence of whale emotions, or of this particular whale to make any solid conclusions about its circumstances. There has also emerged some evidence that 52 Blue’s voice is changing and that there may even be other whales now singing in the same frequency range. This is one reason why some people don’t like scientists. They take a perfectly great story and mess it up by insisting on facts and reproducible evidence. It’s like the kid who uses a calculator to prove Santa can’t possibly visit that many houses in one night. No matter how much we want to believe, the numbers just don’t add up. Guess we’ll have to find something else to feel guilty about. A new story to stir up indignation in generations raised on a Disnified natural world. BBQ panda anyone?