Singing Against the Tide

I’m sure I am not the only one who is missing Camila’s Monday blog posts on the exploits of the animals at Buin Zoo. So for me, and any nostalgic readers out there, here is a little animal anecdote to fill the void.

This is the story of the loneliest whale in the world. This whale doesn’t appear to have been given a name, so we will call her Sergeant Pepper because:

  1. She is a ‘lonely heart’, unable to attract any male attention.
  2. Recordings of her whale songs are something of an international (scientific) hit.

Guaranteed to raise a smile – Sergeant Pepper.

Sergeant Pepper is believed to be a Baleen whale, although she has never been visually identified; only her songs have been recorded. The first recording of Sergeant Pepper’s song was taken in 1989 and she has been tracked by scientists since 1992. The NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) has been using classified hydrophones to record Sergeant Pepper’s calls, technology usually used by the US Navy to monitor enemy submarines.

Every species of whale uses ‘echolocation’, a kind of sonar, as a form of communication and an orientation tool in deep waters where only a maximum of 1% of surface light can reach. ‘Echolocation’ involves the production of short clicking noises which reflect off obstacles in the surrounding environment and are then detected by a fat pad between the mandible and inner ear of the whale, allowing them to visualize the obstacles that may lie in their path.

As well as this, many species use ‘whale song’ as a means of attracting members of the opposite sex. The song of the male whale can be up to thirty minutes in length, consisting of shorter ‘themes’ of about 2 to 3 minutes. Males may have to repeat these songs for many hours or even days to successfully woo distant females who communicate their interest by singing back. These mating calls travel through the water at speeds of up to four times faster than they would on land allowing these flirtatious serenades to happen across large distances. However, all whales struggle to be heard because of increases in human marine noise pollution and dwindling whale populations. So if you are a human and think you have a hard time flirting just be glad you’re not a whale. If you are a whale and think you have a hard time flirting, just be glad you’re not Sergeant Pepper.

Sergeant Pepper is failing to attract male attention for one very simple reason: she sings at the wrong frequency. Since 1989 recordings have shown her to be singing at a frequency of 51.75Hz, much higher than the songs of other Baleen whales which are commonly between 15 and 25 Hz in frequency. Other Baleen whales can not hear her cries for company as the frequency is far too high.  On top of this, Sergeant Pepper seems to be using a different migration route to all other known extant species of Baleen whales and so it doesn’t seem likely that her calls will ever be answered. Dr. Kate Stafford, a researcher at the National Marine Mammal Laboratory in Seattle has surmised Sergeant Pepper’s plight into a very moving phrase: “Hey, I’m out here but nobody is phoning home!”

Though a very sad tale for Sergeant Pepper, having such a distinct voice has enabled scientists to accurately track her and begin to understand whale communication and how a whale’s voice changes over time, with much more accuracy. For example, tracking Sergeant Pepper has revealed how a whale’s voice deepens as the whale gets older.

This might have put a downer on your Saturday but don’t panic, there is something you can do to help. Follow this link and listen to Sergeant Pepper’s calls. That way, at least we know that someone is listening.

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