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A Lone Voice Crying in the Watery Wilderness

A Lone Voice Crying in the Watery Wilderness

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And speaking of whales, here is a story of whales speaking—or more precisely,
one whale, with its own, distinctive 52-hertz voice.

In 1989, a team of WHOI biologists first detected an
unusual sound in the North Pacific Ocean. It had all the
repetitive, low-frequency earmarks of a whale call, but
at a unique frequency—52 hertz—far higher than
the normal 15-to-25-hertz range of blue or fin whales.
They recorded it again in 1990 and 1991.

With the end of the Cold War, the U.S. Navy partially
declassified its Sound Surveillance System (SOSUS), a hydrophone
network built to monitor Soviet submarines. Using SOSUS,
the WHOI team picked up the lone call of the same 52-hertz
whale and have tracked it every year since, as it roamed
widely through the North Pacific, from offshore California
to the Aleutian Islands off Alaska.

“It is perhaps difficult to accept that if this
was a whale, that there could have been only one of this
kind in this large oceanic expanse, yet in spite of comprehensive,
careful monitoring year-round, only one call with these
characteristics has been found anywhere, and there has
been only one source each season,” the scientists
wrote in their study, published in Deep-Sea
Research.
The
research was conducted by Mary Ann Daher, Joseph George,
David Rodriquez, and William Watkins, who pioneered the
field of marine mammal acoustics with William Schevill
at WHOI in the 1950s, and who died in September.

The 52-hertz call may be due to a malformation, or the
whale may be a hybrid of two species, the scientists speculated,
but whatever the cause, it “has provided an unusual
opportunity to document the seasonal activities of what
we believe to be an individual whale.”

Every year over the 12-year span, the WHOI team has picked
up the 52-hertz call sometime between August and December
and monitored it until the whale swam out of range, always
within a few weeks in January or early February. Traveling
31 to 69 kilometers per day, it was tracked over a low
of 708 kilometers one season and a high of 11,062 kilometers
in 2002-03.

“The usual tracking for an individual whales last
hours at best,” the scientists said.

Over the years, the research has been supported by a
variety of Navy sources, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers,
the Department of Defense, and the National Marine Fisheries
Services. “WHOI maintained the continuity of the
program between increments of formal support,” the
scientists said.

— Lonny Lippsett

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