Sunday, 9 August 2015

The Myth of 52 Blue | And Our Own Loneliness

If you're like me, you crave stories and articles that teach you, that show you something new and different. I stumbled across a story the other week that does this.
Although I'd heard the story of 52 Blue before, it wasn't until last week that I considered it something worth sharing.

For those of you who haven't heard it, or considering the countless re-telling of the story, don't know the full myth, here it is.
52 Blue is a whale of unidentified species who calls out at the very unusual frequency of 52 Hertz (Hz).

His (because it is presumed to be a male for reasons I shall explain below) call was first detected in 1989, then again in 1990 and 1991, and then spotted every year until 2004. What's so unusual is that the noises this whale makes are of a much higher frequency than that of any other whale species. They're solitary. They're lonely.

Male blue whales sing during mating season, leading many to assume 52 Blue is a male blue whale considering he (or she) does follow typical blue whale migratory patterns.
The other whale species with migration patterns that most closely resemble this whale's are the Blue Whale who sings at 10–39 Hz or the Fin Whale  who sings at 20 Hz. Basically, 52 Blue is unique.

A WANDERING WHALE—WHOI scientists have tracked a lone whale with a distinctive 52-hertz frequency call every year over a12-year span—and over thousands of kilometers—using the Navy's hydrophone network built to monitor submarines. (Credit: Jayne Doucette)
"Scientists are not even certain what type of whale he is or whether he might be an unknown species on a futile quest for an equally elusive mate. His calls are shorter but more frequent than other whales, as if he speaks a language that is all his own."

Some hypotheses suggest 52 Blue is a whale hybrid, or some other as-of-yet undiscovered species, or he's deaf, deformed, or as more recent data suggests, a whole pod of hybrid whales.
Interestingly, the whale also no longer sings in 52 HZ either; a gradual deepening over the years means the recording is now closer to 47 HZ.

A crowd funded campaign (supported by actors Leonardo DiCaprio and Adrian Grenier) are mounting an expedition to finally uncover the whale this autumn according to the BBC. They'll have to contend with quite a few problems, such as where on earth is the whale? and opposition from a lot of scientists. But it's the metaphor behind 52 Blue that's most interesting.

He's become known as The Loneliest Whale on the Planet. Despite the fact that some argue whales cannot feel loneliness (But anyone who's seen Blackfish will agree with me that dolphins at least can).

It was in this search for the true story of 52 Blue that I came across an article by Leslie Jamison.

Rather than another retelling of the whale(s), the discovery of it's sounds etc. Jamison looked at the impact those 52 Hz noises have made.
For hundreds of people around the world, maybe more, 52 Blue has come to be a symbol. They not only sympathise with what they perceive as his loss, his loneliness, his quest for love, but they also relate to it.
Loneliness seeks out metaphors not just for definition but for the companionship of resonance, the promise of kinship in comparison. Jamison

 People have been projecting their fears and longings onto other people, their pets, even on inanimate objects, It's not a new phenomenon. But with 52 Blue coinciding with the advances of digital networks and social media, the story has taken on a shape of it's own.

'Juliana was a 19-year-old English major at the University of Toronto. For her, she explained, 52 Blue was “the epitome of every person who’s ever felt too weird to love.”' Jamison
And with it, this whale become one of us. He felt the same loss that we had. Without any proof I may add, but that didn't matter. 

Do whales feel loneliness? No one cared anymore.

One interviewee told Jamison she had a sense that her grief was nothing anyone else could understand. Until she heard the story of the whale. 52 Blue gave a shape to what she’d already felt, but couldn't describe. It was something she couldn't relate to with other people. But with an unknown species? It finally made sense.

Jamison describes this seeking of comparison as follows:
"Loneliness seeks out metaphors not just for definition but for the companionship of resonance, the promise of kinship in comparison." 
Maybe we feel less alone knowing that others feel the same? Maybe it helps even more if loneliness transcends the bounds of 'human'?

But maybe we also do this wrongly? Putting emotions where there are none. Turning a scientific discovery into an embellished mythology.

Jamison also points out that sometimes this projection is wrong:
"In 1894, a wealthy amateur astronomer named Percival Lowell built a telescope in Flagstaff, Arizona. He spent the next 20 years looking through it and finding things no one else could see: a series of canals extending from the poles of Mars, a network of spokes radiating from a hub on Venus. He took both as signs of extraterrestrial civilization. He was mocked. He kept seeing the canals, kept seeing the spokes. He kept insisting. Years later an optometrist solved the puzzle: The settings on Lowell’s telescope—its magnification and narrow aperture—meant that it was essentially projecting the interior of his eye onto the planets he was watching. The spokes of Venus were the shadows of his blood vessels, swollen from hypertension. He wasn’t seeing other life; he was seeing the imprint of his own gaze."
Whether whales feel loneliness or not has become irrelevant. What matters is that we perceive loneliness in places outside of ourselves. We see loneliness as one of world's hardest struggles. And the impact of the story proves that 52 Blue is NOT alone. None of us are.
And it they find him this Autumn, and he is not alone or lonely, or even a he, it won't matter. Because for a moment, one fleeting moment he made someone else feel less alone.

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