We’re all Blue 52

2014-09-10 00:00

I’D like to think the loneliest whale in the world might have come to Durban, but in all my years of growing up on the Bluff I never saw a whale.

I was a lonely boy who spent a lot of time looking out at the wide sea spotted with its red-hulled tankers and white-sided freighters, daydreaming about where they were going and where they’d been and where one day I might be, but back then there were no whales out there.

The Bluff whaling station closed only in 1975 and by that time the whale catchers had already taken to cruising as far as Antarctica and using spotter planes to find their catch; all the locals had long since been harpooned, flensed and boiled down to soap.

He wouldn’t have lasted had he come here, but in any case the Indian Ocean would have been too warm and anyway no one has ever seen the loneliest whale in the world. We’ve only ever heard him.

The loneliest whale is known as Blue 52, because he might be some kind of unique Blue Whale, or perhaps some kind of hybrid of a Blue and a Fin whale. He might also be the only whale of his kind, or the last of a species we’ve never known.

The hydrographic listening system in Puget Sound off the coast of Seattle has been listening to him since the eighties through an array of underwater microphones designed to track the movements of Russian submarines.

They know it’s him because no one else sounds like him: his keening, moaning whale songs are in the 52 Hz frequency, easily audible to human ears. Other whales sing at 15 to 20 Hz — they sound to us like a low rumble, a distant buzz just at the edge of our hearing.

But Blue 52 has been swimming his yearly cycle between Alaska and Mexico for at least 30 years, calling and calling, crying out for a reply, and no one has ever called back.

It’s a heartbreaking thought: the last survivor of a noble line, doomed to wander the watery world mateless and alone, each day sending out hopeful messages the way the Seti institute (search for extraterrestrial intelligence) sends radiowaves into space, hoping to find someone who speaks his language.

I say “his” language, because I’m a man. Most of the 52-Herzers around the world would probably disagree.

There are fan clubs and chat rooms dedicated to Blue 52, populated by lonely women convinced he’s a heartsore female, teenagers who believe he’s just too shy to find a mate, deaf people convinced he’s deaf, terminal patients who see him as their personal totem at the brink of extinction, survivors of childhood abuse who swear he was hunted in the north and driven mad by trauma.

Blue 52 has inspired Twitter accounts and Facebook profiles, poems and paintings. An American in Albuquerque, dissatisfied with his IT job, has written an entire portfolio of songs about him; someone has written a stage-play from Blue 52’s perspective. The photo editor of Poland’s biggest tabloid had a portrait of him tattooed on his back after his six-year relationship ended. No one knows what he looks like, so he chose an image of a white sperm whale, Moby Dick, with the murky shadow of Blue 52 lurking behind him. A film-maker named Josh Zeman is currently preparing a research vessel with sonar and eight scientists for a 50-day search along the migratory routes of the north Pacific to find and film him.

For me, he’s a lost son adrift through a planet filled with strangers, looking for his family, looking for his father, wishing he had a home.

That’s what we do, we humans. We project ourselves onto the impersonal features of the world. We see what we look for, and we look for ourselves. The chances are overwhelmingly high that Blue 52 is a perfectly normal whale with a slight speech impediment that sometimes makes his voice warble, that he lives a normal whale life, neither solitary nor misunderstood. Scientists strongly believe that whenever they find him he’ll probably just be the noisiest whale in the pod.

But in a way, in a world where we’re all becoming ever more alone, hunched over screens in our own silent worlds, sending out despairing messages into the electronic ocean, hoping ever more forlornly for contact, we’re all Blue 52.

He’s a myth for a new age. I hope he’s fine and I hope he’s healthy, but I hope they never find Blue 52.

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