For three decades he has crooned his way around the Pacific, his songs drifting into the depths, unheard and unrequited.
Known to scientists simply as “52”, he is nicknamed the loneliest whale in the world, swimming in solitude and emitting his calls at a frequency of 52 Hertz — a pitch no other whale can understand.
Now a $300,000 expedition is being planned to seek out 52, to not only bring a better understanding of his mysterious plight but to turn a spotlight on the wider issue of ocean noise pollution and the threat that it poses to marine life.
Josh Zeman, an American film-maker, who has teamed up with marine biologists and bio-acousticians to mount the expedition, said: “52 means so many things to so many different people . . . For one person he’s a rare hybrid, for others he’s a metaphor for loneliness. To some he’s a spiritual guide or to others a symbol of our noisy oceans.”
“Despite the tragic nature of 52 and the cautionary tale found in his plight, our quest reveals a message of hope that shows how one lone whale can teach human beings about the true meaning of connection.”
The whale’s signal was first detected by the US Navy in 1989 while monitoring secret deep-sea microphones used to eavesdrop on Soviet submarines during the Cold War.
Likened to “the ghostly howls of a drowned tuba player”, it was not until three years later that it was identified as whale song by the late Dr William Watkins, a pioneer in marine mammal acoustics at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) in Massachusetts.
The whale’s movements range from the Aleutian Islands off Alaska to an area 400 miles off California. Though often heard, 52 has never been seen and it is not known what species he is, as his signal matches no regular whale.
“The fact that he is not being understood and he’s a social being and that nobody is responding to him; absolutely, without a doubt, this whale is lonely — and that’s not being anthropomorphic,” said Dr Vint Virga, a former veterinary liaison to the US Congress and author of The Soul of All Living Creatures.
He is among a number of experts who have teamed up with Mr Zeman and Adrian Grenier, an actor, to launch a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter, to fund a 20-day expedition to search for 52. Also involved are biologists from the Scripps Institute of Oceanography in California, Oregon State University, and WHOI.
Among the expedition’s aims is to highlight the scourge of noise pollution. Sonar blasts used by the US military, and seismic blasts caused by the oil exploration industry are known to cause deafness, tissue damage and mass strandings among whales and dolphins.