Just Trying to Figure out How to Be Apart.
In December of 1992, Joe George was working as a technician at the Naval Base on Whidbey Island, just off the coast of Lynnwood, north of Seattle. His job was to sit at a terminal and listen to a vast array of hydrophones; listening devices that dotted the floor of the Pacific and recorded sounds that came out as wiggles and lines on a roll of paper or computer monitor. In a way, it was a lot like that scene from The Matrix where the character Cypher explains that he can see through the code for what things were. What would appear as dripping lines of nonsense characters, he could pick out people, faces, the color of their hair. That’s what Joe did, but the wiggles and lines on his monitors were marine life, boats, underwater explosions. Originally, they were really looking for Soviet Submarines. As the Cold War came to an end, they needed to find a way to justify the existence and cost of the hydrophones. That led to a partnership between the Navy and researchers, trying to make sense of the vastness of the ocean.
Joe did this for over a decade, along with a team of other technicians who all monitored the same arrays. Working with the researchers, they were able to start identifying all sorts of marine life just by the squiggles their sounds made on the monitor. Some of the technicians didn’t really buy into the work, but Joe and another technician, Velma Ronquille, they bought in. They went from hunting sharks made of metal to exploring things that most people might never see in their entire lives. It was something meaningful they could do, and were able to learn from the researchers that came to the base.
So, in December of 1992, Velma and Joe pick up the song of what they thought was a large species of whale – a blue whale or a finback. The issue was, its song was recorded at 52 hertz, more than 30 hertz higher than what it should be. Joe called some of the researchers at the base and went over their discovery. The whale was broadcasting all the right signals and pitches that matched a blue whale, but it wasn’t supposed to be this high in frequency. Presented with a unique opportunity, scientists would start tracking this one whale. They would name it 52 Hertz, for the frequency of its calls. It didn’t take long for them to realize that there were other things that were off.
Whales are social creatures and they travel between feeding grounds and the places where they raise their young in pods. It’s a pretty consistent pattern and they follow predictable paths over the course of their lives. It’s what’s expected. When they get separated, they can call to each other up to 10,000 miles away, only staying silent if they feel like they’re in danger. 52 Hertz though, it’s never in the places where a whale should be. It roams significantly far off of the migratory path for all the known whales, calling out into the ocean, and never receiving a response.
There are a lot of theories about why we never seem to find 52 Hertz with other whales. Maybe other whales can’t hear him. Their songs are subsonic, below the range of normal human hearing. If his frequency is higher, it simply doesn’t register to the other whales. Or maybe, they could hear him, but they were afraid because of his unusual frequency, so they just don’t call back. Whales do that when they feel danger; they stay silent.
When I first heard about 52 Hertz, it sparked an oddly human connection with the feelings that occur in our troubled relationships. Whether it’s a divorce, watching children or a partner leave, or just the way we feel distance from other people; we walk around, dizzy in our own isolation while we broadcast signals that no one else seems to hear or understand. Signals that we may not even hear or understand.
The type of loneliness that we feel as the result of a ruined relationship or marriage has its own peculiar signal. It’s actually common for people in their own relationships to not be receptive to it. People can often be afraid of what it means, uncertain about whether or not they might have to confront those same signals in their own relationships. So, they stay silent to avoid danger. Or, they just may not hear it because it’s operating on a different frequency from them – the circumstances that bound your relationships ended, and the relationship moved on.
I like to think loneliness is something we can get better at by reintroducing that type of control back into our lives. That loneliness is largely a symptom of the way that we anchored our unfulfilled needs onto the body or emotions of another person. In doing so, we built a life and world around the necessity of someone else; gave them the control of our personal fulfillment. If we can get better at finding some kind of acceptance and satisfaction in our own self, we can get somewhere more true. That the fundamental salve to our loneliness is not making someone else our entire world, but inviting them to be a part of ours in a way that enriches.
It’s hard to figure out how to get back to that point, where we find peace in our solitude. There are a lot of negative connotations with the word isolation, but when we have a choice, when we can control the conditions of it, it becomes something different. We can be present with our grief to get through it and look towards the road ahead. By accepting that we might be traveling a new path that’s away from the where we’re expected to be, our signals will reach new communities of people who share our own experiences. And there, we can be vulnerable again; we can be heard.
At some point in the 20 years after they first started tracking 52 Hertz, researchers noticed that his songs had dropped in frequency, more like 45 or 46 hertz. It’s theorized that it’s the result of age. Growth that pulled his vocals to lower frequencies like people experience in puberty. We can’t really be certain without actually seeing the whale in person. There’s something almost romantic about that idea though; this notion that 52 Hertz no longer matches its own history. Whatever signals that defined him no longer exist, and the only way we can find him again is to look for what he could become.