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Fact Check: Has The World's Loneliest Whale Finally Found A Friend?

In 1989, scientists heard a very unusual whale call, unlike anything that had been heard before or since.

James Felton

James Felton

Senior Staff Writer

clockOct 18 2022, 12:14 UTC
According to viral Internet posts, the whale has a new fren. Image credit: Igor Kruglikov/Shutterstock.com
According to viral Internet posts, the whale has a new fren. Image credit: Igor Kruglikov/Shutterstock.com

A few recent viral Internet posts have claimed that the "52 hertz whale", sometimes billed as the world's loneliest whale, has finally found a friend. But is there any truth to it?

What is the 52 hertz whale? 

For those uninitiated in the tale of the 52 hertz whale, in 1989 a team from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution heard a particularly unusual whale call, unlike anything that had been heard before or since. Picked up on sensors across the Pacific Ocean, the whale call came in at 52 hertz, far higher than any whale species known to follow its migration pattern. Its movement has similarities to that of blue whales, but blue whales have a frequency range of 10 to 39 Hz, with dominant frequencies of 16 to 28 Hz, according to the bioacoustics research program at Cornell University.

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"This sound source has been the only one with this call structure in the entire listening area," the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution wrote in a report on whale call data in 2000.  "We have been tracking this call since 1992 and have not identified the whale species," adding that "perhaps it is a hybrid".

The whale has been heard consistently over the years, suggesting that its unusual call (and perhaps, lonely life) has not had a detrimental impact on its survival despite its years of calling with no reply.

The lonely whale caught the world's imagination and inevitably it ended up as a Twitter parody account. Slighty less inevitably, it also inspired Korean superstars BTS's song Whalien 52.

Does the 52 hertz whale have a friend? 

According to recent Internet posts, however, there is good news in that the whale has a 52 hertz friend.

As nice as that sounds, there is no new evidence. It's likely referencing back in 2010, when widely separated sensors off the coast of California picked up whale song with a similar pattern to the 52 hertz whale, meaning potentially more than one animal was singing. Pretty inconclusive, though, even without further evidence of a whale friend showing up in the subsequent 12 years it's been documented.

Is the 52 hertz whale lonely?

However, there is good news in that the whale might not be as lonely as it has been portrayed. According to Christopher Clark, director of the Bioacoustics Research Program at Cornell, the whale can likely be "understood" or recognized by other blue whales. With whales in different areas having different dialects, Clark says that the whale may not even be that "mind-bogglingly unique".

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"The animal's singing with a lot of the same features of a typical blue whale song," Clark said in 2015. "Blue whales, fin whales and humpback whales: all these whales can hear this guy, they're not deaf. He's just odd."

In further possible good news, the 2021 documentary The Loneliest Whale: The Search for 52 documenting director Joshua Zeman's search for the elusive cetacean brought a tantalizing potential happy ending to the story of the "lonely" creature. Initially told the whale was probably dead as no one had heard him in years, not only did Zeman's team detect the unique song in a surprising place, off the west coast of Los Angeles, but – spoiler – the epilogue reveals a sighting of a potential blue-fin whale hybrid (rare but not unheard of) that could be the source of the 52 hertz calls. 

All “explainer” articles are confirmed by fact checkers to be correct at time of publishing. Text, images, and links may be edited, removed, or added to at a later date to keep information current.


natureNaturenatureanimals
  • tag
  • animals,

  • whales,

  • blue whales,

  • fin whales,

  • whale song,

  • 52 hertz whale

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