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The Loneliest Whale in the World

Posted by Josh Rothman  February 25, 2011 09:24 PM

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If you're looking forward to a busy, social weekend (or, for that matter, dreading one), here's a story for you: right now, in the North Pacific, the world's loneliest whale is roaming the ocean all alone, because his high-pitched voice drives all other whales away.

He's nicknamed "the 52 hertz whale" because that's the frequency at which he sings his whale songs (most whales sing at between 15 and 25 hertz). His weird voices seems to have alienated all the other whales; the only people who listen to him are Navy sonar engineers, who have tracked his movements since 1992 using a classified system of submarine-detecting hydrophones. No one has ever seen the 52 hertz whale, and so no one knows why his voice is so high. Scientists speculate that he could be malformed, a "hybrid" between two species of whale, or simply deaf.

In an ironic twist, the story of the lonely whale has resurfaced in the most social of human contexts. The novelist Karen Russell, who must have read this article in the New York Times several years ago, shared it on a podcast called "The Dinner Party Download" ("the show that helps you win the dinner party"). Since then, it's been 'reblogged' around the internet (I found it via Nicola Twilley at Good). If only the lonely whale could know that he's being talked about everywhere!

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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