Right now, somewhere, the loneliest whale in the world is calling for a mate.
There is a baleen whale that scientists have been tracking for more than 20 years. They first heard his call off the coast of Alaska on the old microphones that the Americans embedded in the sea-floor to to listen for Russian submarines during the Cold War, and they’ve tracked him across the northern hemisphere ever since. We don’t know much about Whale 52 – we have never seen him so we’re not sure precisely what species he is, or where he is right now or where he’s going, since he doesn’t follow the migratory routes of other baleen whales. We don’t know how big he is or what he looks like or even whether he’s really a he at all; all we know is that he has never been recorded in the company of any other whale.
He’s always all alone, because Whale 52 sends out his sad whale songs at a frequency of 52 Hertz, and all other baleen whales sing at a much lower frequency, somewhere between 15 and 20 Hertz. Month after month, year after year, Whale 52 swims the world in solitude, calling out in a language no other creature on Earth can understand.
At this time of the year, when the whales start coming back to the Cape, I like to imagine that one of them might be Whale 52, trying his luck down in the southern hemisphere where maybe the other whales are friendlier.
I love whales. Every whale season I go down to the Sea Point promenade and scan the sea. When I spot a puff of breath or the roll of a dark back I look around eagerly to see if anyone else has seen it.
I always want to point excitedly and say to the nearest person, “There! Look! A whale!”, but I’m a little too shy, so I content myself with an exaggerated pantomime show of squinching up my eyes and using my hand as a sunshield as I peer out into the water. My intention is that the other passersby will notice me noticing something in the sea and will look where I’m looking, and then they’ll see the whales too.
I do this especially if I think they’re tourists. Imagine going on holiday and taking a stroll beside the sea and then, just like that, seeing a whale. If that happened to me somewhere, I’d think that place is the greatest place on Earth. I’d be so glad to be there; I’d think, “Yup, I sure made the right holiday decision this time.” I’d envy the locals who get to live there and see whales for free every summer.
But not everyone is as impressed as I am. I drove down to Hermanus and walked along the cliff path, looking at the whales flopping around like an invasion of overweight aliens. I came up the path from one of the coves and in the parking lot was a rented car, containing several people from another country that I shan’t name for fear of cultural stereoytyping. It was a bright sunny day but they all sat inside peering out through the windscreen.
As I walked past, the passenger-side window rolled down and the lady in the passenger seat waggled her fingernails.
“Have you seen any whales?” she asked.
“Sure!” I said, eager as a labrador. I pointed to the sea, and they quickly swiveled to look, as though this wasnew information.
“See that patch of white? There – just past the rocks?”
They all looked, and kind of nodded, as though I was telling them the first part of a joke.
“That,” I explained, “is a whale.”
They looked again. It’s tail raised and flapped. It was maybe 100 metres away, all alone, rolling in the shallow water just beyond the breakers. For all I know, it might have been Whale 52.
I expected them to gasp and applaud, but they just looked at the sea like old people in a restaurant who have finished their soup and found an earbud at the bottom of the bowl.
“Is that it?” said the woman.
“It doesn’t look very big,” said the man.
“That’s not all of it,” I said. “Most of it is under the water.”
“Oh,” said the woman.
“You’ll see it better if you get out the car,” I said.
They all looked at the sea again. The man crossed his arms and frowned.
“Have you seen any closer ones?” the woman asked.
I wanted to say: Lady, if that whale gets any closer to shore, he’ll need flipflops.
“No,” I said. “That one’s probably the closest.”
“Okay,” she said. “Thanks.” She rolled up the window. The guy at the wheel yawned. She started checking her phone for messages.
I walked on, and thought about Whale 52, all alone out there somewhere in the salty sea, feeling sad because he can’t speak to others of his species, and for the first time I thought, “Count your blessings, Whale 52.”
Darrel Bristow-Bovey is a columnist, screenwriter, travel writer, author - follow him on Twitter!