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Filmmaker Prepares for Quest to Find the 'Loneliest Whale in the World'

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Jul 17, 2013 01:40 PM EDT
Fin whale surfacing in Greenland.
The US government says that Iceland's whaling program is undermining international regulations on protecting endangered species and expressed the possibility of opening sanctions against the Nordic nation. (Photo : Aqqa Rosing-Asvid / Flickr)

Scientists and documentary filmmakers are planning to take to the seas in search of what they are calling "the loneliest whale in the world," though finding it may be a challenge as they do not know what it looks like.

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Researchers have identified the whale by its abnormally high-pitched song, which they have been listening to for more than two decades. But no one has ever been able to see the creature for themselves. That high-pitched song may contribute to the whale's loneliness, as it appears to be at a frequency unused by any other whale in the North Pacific Ocean.

Data recordings of whale songs were picked up by the U.S. Navy, which captured the whale songs while trying to listen for submarines in the North Pacific. In the late 1980s, the Navy began passing the whale song recordings on to scientists.

After William Watkins of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution began sorting through the sound data in 1989, he noticed that one whale's pitch was higher than the others. He became fascinated by the strange song and studied it for years. Watkins, a pioneer of marine mammal bioacoustics, died of myeloma in 2004 before the publication of a paper about the peculiarities surrounding "the loneliest whale in the world," but curiosity about the lone whale lived on.

The whale's unique vocalizations - at a frequency of 52 Hz - made it easier to plot out the creature's movements when listening to the acoustic data.

But little else is understood about the lonely whale.

"We never had a visual," Mary-Ann Daher, who assisted Watkins with the research, told Discovery News. "We don't know what species it is. We don't know if it has a malformation. Obviously, it's healthy. It's been alive all these years. Is he alone? I don't know. People like to imagine this creature just out there swimming by his lonesome, just singing away and nobody's listening. But I can't say that."

Joshua Zeman, the filmmaker planning to document the search for the lonely whale this autumn, conceded to Discovery News that "to many scientists out there, the story is kind of annoying. It over-anthropomorphizes the whale. Yet ... whales are incredibly social creatures, so how could it not be lonely?"

The story of the lonely whale has resonated with countless people, many of whom feel empathy for the whale. Daher told Discovery News that she was contacted by many women wondering what could be done to find the whale and how it could be helped.

"We as humans, we are very soft-hearted, caring creatures. It's mostly females who write to me -- not always; I also get males -- but there are a lot of females who identify, feeling they're not part of a pack. I'm no psychologist but boy, what a fascinating case study."

Zeman added that he's encountered an number of people who've been touched by the story as well, including one who wrote a play about the lonely whale.

As captivating as the story sounds, whale expert Bruce Mate, who will lead the scientific team in the documentary endeavor, suspects to find the whale amid other whales and accounts for the unique 52 Hz whale song as the equivalent of an animal lisp, which sounds different, but can still be understood by other whales.

"From my standpoint, while I understand that there are some people who are passionate about this whale, who have very strong emotions about the loneliest whale in the world, when we go out and find this animal, I expect to find it in the midst of other whales," Mate told Discovery News. "I'm going to guess they'll be mostly fin whales. My expectation is that we're going to tag 15 to 20 whales in its vicinity; in the process of getting satellite tag monitors on them, we will also take biopsies, and we will know the genetic pedigree, so to speak, of all the animals we can."

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