Echolocation and Whale 52

By Safiya Aldris

Researching creatures that survive in the deepest depths of the ocean, an environment which is harder for humans to survive in than space, is still difficult despite technological advances. The upside of whales, however, is the fact they are mammals; all whales rely on coming to the surface for air, despite their practice of deep diving to depths of up to 2,900m below surface level (Schorr et al., 2014). This has enabled scientists to tag them and record their behaviour, specifically the way they communicate with each other and their environment.

Echolocation is the production of sonar sounds or clicks that reflect back to the emitter once they hit an object, providing specific information about what it is they hit. It is predominantly used by creatures who live in darkness, such as deep-sea creatures or bats, to enable them to interact with their surrounding environment. Though not used to the same extent, blind people may also learn echolocation to gauge information about their surroundings, most notably Daniel Kish (Thaler et al., 2017). Daniel Kish developed his own method of generating vocal clicks, and he uses their echoes to identify his surroundings and move about. 

Within whales, the mechanism used to produce the sonar sounds to echolocate involves the blowhole. A whale’s blowhole functions similarly to our nostrils; before air can exit the whale, it passes through the ‘phonic lips’, situated around the tube leading to the blowhole. Here, the phonic lips will tighten around the tube, causing air to build up and create a click sound (Amundin et al., 1983). This ‘clicked air’ builds up, and once it has been used for echolocation, will be recycled by sucking it backwards through the phonic lips into the lungs. A mechanism that enables the whales to conserve oxygen and stay submerged for longer. Another factor influencing the ability to create powerful sonar sounds is the pressure of the ocean at such immense depths; air is compressed and, as a result, a smaller volume of air can be used to create a more powerful sound. 

While echolocation is predominantly talked about in regard to hunting for prey, it is also used by whales to communicate with each other over long distances and is known as whale song, or vocalisation. Each species of whale has its own frequency range within which they communicate, as well as having regional dialects and individual whales having their own unique tones. However, Whale 52, dubbed “The World’s Loneliest Whale”, is seemingly too unique. 

Whale 52 is the name given to a whale that has been heard, but never seen; its calls were picked up by the U.S. Navy’s Sound Surveillance System, originally intended for detection of Soviet submarines. Its calls have been monitored and tracked since 1992, and no other whale calls on record match both the vocal patterns, as well as the migration patterns, of this whale. It is only known that the whale is a baleen whale, but the specific species within this, as well as the whale’s sex, is undiscovered. Within this group are blue whales, which vocalise at 10 to 39 Hz, and fin whales which vocalise at 20 Hz (Copley, 2004); the whale has been dubbed ‘Whale 52’ because it vocalises at 52 Hz, noticeably higher than the two species it seems to closely match. 

It was believed that this whale was completely alone, due to its unique call pattern leaving it unable to find a mate or even a pod. Critics have come forward, arguing that this is not the case. Cristopher Willes Clark rejected the idea that the whale cannot be understood or heard by ‘normal’ blue whales, and instead posited that Whale 52 is somewhat understood by blue whales – “[baleen whales] are not deaf. [Whale 52] is just odd” (Baraniuk, 2015). While it communicates differently, its call frequency is still within the hearing range of other whales.

There is speculation around the cause for this higher frequency, with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) believing that the whale may be due to a malformation, or that the whale is a hybrid of two different species. Various deaf organisations reached out the WHOI believing the whale could be deaf, but there has not been much expansion on this.

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