You can listen to the lonely whale at the NOAA. Its call is at 52 hertz, which is roughly that of a low note on a Tuba.
The New Scientist informs us that blue whales call out at 15-20 hertz. Fin whales at 20 hertz. Humpbacks sing at much higher frequencies.
All of these whales are types of baleen whale. These large whales do not make noises to echo-locate, but instead for purposes of courtship and kinship, maintaining pod formation. The noises are also of very low frequency—infrasonic—which also means the vocalizations travel for very long distances on the order of hundred of kilometers. Here are some samples.
The strange 52 hertz deep sea noise is not only from a whale, but, based on the noise's characteristics, is most definitely from a kind of baleen whale, says Mary Ann Daher, who recently cowrote a research paper on the subject in the journal Deep Sea Research:
The calls were noticed first in 1989, and have been detected and tracked since 1992. No other calls with similar characteristics have been identified in the acoustic data from any hydrophone system in the North Pacific basin. Only one series of these 52-Hz calls has been recorded at a time, with no call overlap, suggesting that a single whale produced the calls. The calls were recorded from August to February with most in December and January. The species producing these calls is unknown. The tracks of the 52-Hz whale were different each year, and varied in length from 708 to 11,062 km with travel speeds ranging from 0.7 to 3.8 km/h. Tracks included (A) meandering over short ranges, (B) predominantly west-to-east movement, and (C) mostly north-to-south travel. These tracks consistently appeared to be unrelated to the presence or movement of other whale species (blue, fin and humpback) monitored year-round with the same hydrophones.
The research that discovered the strange whale is the brainchild of William Watkins of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, a pioneer in studying marine mammals via acoustics. Unfortunately, he passed away recently in September 2004, but his work continues at the WHOI.
Enter the US Navy and their SOSUS program, whose purpose during the Cold War was the identification of submarines via deep sea microphones, or hydrophones, sunken to the ocean floor. Declassified recordings from the program have been a blessing for studying whales and other deep sea animals who make acoustic calls. At the same time, the US Navy recently got in trouble when its SURTASS LFA program to saturate the deep with infrasonic sound for active rather than passive detection of enemy subs threatened to deafen and kill marine animals, especially mammals.
The mystery of the solitary whale has captured the imagination. Hypotheses as to its identity include the possibility that the whale is deaf, that it is a hybrid of two species, or that it is sick or malformed (although unlikely, since it has survived for more than 12 years).
Or perhaps, if you want to get weird, you can note for fun that this story matches the plot of a Star Trek Movie. But Leonard Nimoy did not pen this story; it is for real.
Whatever the identity of this strange unidentified alien whale, it is, for now, the very definition of poetic, existential loneliness, in both time and space. The whale is somewhere wandering the Northeast Pacific, right now, in a rudderless, aimless track. And right now the lonely beast could be calling out for others of its kind, and finding none, for over 12 years and counting.
Weird and fascinating.