The Loneliest Whale in the World

Mike Metz PhD

Every once in a while, we all should wax poetic.  Lessen the stress.  Rekindle the fires.  Think different thoughts.  Hope for the best.

Somewhere in the North Pacific Ocean there is a whale. There are, of course, many whales, if rather fewer than there were a couple of hundred years ago. But this whale is different. It is a male and vocalizes during mating season in a way that only male whales do. Its species, however, is uncertain. It may be a fin whale, or perhaps a blue whale, the largest whale of them all. It may even be a hybrid — an unusual but not unheard-of scenario.

…William Watkins of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, one of the pioneers in the field of marine mammal bioacoustics …discovered a unique and unexpected signal in the North Pacific in 1989. The signal was of a whale traveling in much the same way and area as blue and fin whales in the region, but this one was vocalizing on an entirely different frequency: 52 hertz (Hz), still profoundly deep by human standards but far higher than the 15-to-25-Hz range of most blues and fins.

This excerpt is taken from an article published in the Washington Post Magazine ( on January 29, 2017, written by Kieren Mulvaney and titled “The loneliest whale in the world?”.

Since the discovery in 1989, this whale has appeared several times on hydrophones but has never been spotted by anyone. The call appears to be unique and since it reappears at mating season, Mr. Mulvaney adds:

Nobody is certain because nobody has claimed to have seen it. But several people have heard it. And many more have heard of it. And what this latter group has heard about it has turned the whale into an unwitting celebrity, a cultural icon and a cypher for the feelings of many unconnected people around the globe. It is, allegedly, the Loneliest Whale in the World.

Artistic Interpretation, Megan Lynn Kott

One cannot help but wonder about this tale of a whale.  Is he the last of his kind, doomed to wander the oceans without ever being seen or, worse, without finding another of his species?  It’s easy to see the anthropomorphic fascination such a situation might hold for many, and to appreciate the empathy many people have for this fellow.

This story perhaps represents a wish of many people to return to a former time that was less threatening and more predictable.  A wish for the “good old days” if you will.  Doesn’t it foster a hope that such a creature will find a mate and survive extinction–a hope that all will be well?  Or, maybe such a story represents simply an example of a changing world and survival.

One message such a tale should also hold is that it’s important to understand the “why” and the “so what”.  How did circumstances result in such a lonely creature?  What are the reasons he is without a mate?  Is there anything that can be done?  What are the possible or probable endings to his call?


Audiologists’ World


As I read this article, I could not help but see the parallels between this story and many other issues facing my world.  I have no doubt that many could feel the same thing when reading the article.  Whether you see implications to global warming, energy policy, medicine, species preservation, politics, PSAPs or audiology, you cannot argue that knowing more about the whale—if there really is one out there— would not only help in understanding that situation, but also might yield predictive insight.

Changes are coming.  Some changes are evident and, with a few considerations of the times, many seem to be almost inevitable.  Still other outcomes are less predictable.  It may be difficult or even impossible to keep some changes from occurring.  But, unlike the loneliest whale, audiologists may have some influences over some things that are likely coming at them.

I recently spoke to an AuD class at a local university.  I was impressed by the students and by a number of their comments.  Most of these graduate students had some undergraduate classes in the “hard” sciences.  Many spoke of working in hospitals or with children.  One student wished to work in philanthropic situations with hearing impaired children.  Only a couple had considered private practice.  In many unexpected ways, this class surprised even an old cynic like me.  There is hope.

interpretation Claire Chalmers

Audiologists should be concerned about the future of the field.  Perhaps there will be an additional increase in those areas of research that add to the investigations that should take place in clinical evaluations.  Perhaps future graduates will have the necessary educational background to participate more in patient care than at present.  More of the “why” and “so what”.

I hope those student didn’t just tell me what I wanted to hear.  And, I hope the oceanographers figure out the “what and why”. 


Mike Metz, PhD, has been a practicing audiologist for over 45 years, having taught in several university settings and, in partnership with Bob Sandlin, providing continuing education for audiology and dispensing in California for over 3 decades. Mike owned and operated a private practice in Southern California for over 30 years. He has been professionally active in such areas as electric response testing, hearing conservation, hearing aid dispensing, and legal/ethical issues. He continues to practice in a limited manner in Irvine, California.

images from Washington Post and Express

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