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52-hertz whale (wikipedia.org)
299 points by iso-8859-1 on Feb 27, 2016 | hide | past | favorite | 89 comments

Somehow this reminded me of the old `sound()` help file from Borland C++ 3.1. I think it was in dos.h.


  /* Emits a 7-Hz tone for 10 seconds.

        True story: 7 Hz is the resonant
        frequency of a chicken's skull cavity.
        This was determined empirically in
        Australia, where a new factory
        generating 7-Hz tones was located too
        close to a chicken ranch: When the
        factory started up, all the chickens

        Your PC may not be able to emit a 7-Hz tone. */

Great little anecdote, although I guess you'd call it a hoax? The volume would have to be so loud that any human in the area would be in a great deal of discomfort before it killed nearby chickens.

Birds are weird, basically totally nuts when kept in groups indoors. A little stress could see them all stop eating or peck everyone to death. A less-than-lethal volume could do real damage. A strobelight cannot kill a horse. But set one up in a barn full of horses and they will probably kill themselves. Horses are also nuts.

Have you tried setting up a strobe in a locked room full of people?

That's called a rave. Usually the people involved pay for the privilege of being locked up, as well.

Some people die in that too. People are nuts.

Usually the people are also free to leave whenever, which is not so much the case for the animals.

Why wouldn't the people be free to leave the animals?

Yes, this experiment has been performed many times. It's called a “rave” and people will die from the exhaustion of dancing without eating or drinking anything for days...

Wait, really?

Must be a big chicken, per


the wavelength in water (brain matter) of a 7 Hz tone is somewhat over 200 meters. So probably not the skull cavity unless its some kind of chicken themed Godzilla movie.

The problem is likely not the skull but the neck and tendons and stuff oscillating like a bridge.

I guess you could argue that Godzilla is basically a big chicken, or at least a cousin thereof.

[1] http://godzilla.wikia.com/wiki/Godzillasaurus

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theropoda

Why would there be a factory for 7Hz tones?

Large equipment like fans could generate such frequencies. As they've been linked to ghost sightings in humans, I wouldn't be surprised if chickens got spooked by a similar effect:


To sell to Borland!

Since I was curious, I took the recording from Wikipedia, which is sped up 10×, and slowed it down 10×: http://vocaroo.com/i/s0dMCeANPrbX (No affiliation, just the first no-reg audio host I found.)

Edit: you may need to turn up your volume. Much of it (including the first ten seconds) is pretty quiet.

Edit²: I confirm hearing nothing at all using a laptop's built-in speakers; you'll need headphones or external audio.

Wow, that is so cool! I've been listening to whale recordings wrong this whole time.

Is this chart right that the whale calls are up to 180db? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whale_vocalization#Sound_level... That's enough to blow human ears up.

The acoustic impedance of water is 3500 that of air: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Acoustic_impedance so the intensity of that sound will be 3500 times less than it would be in air. Also, the impedance match between the water and the air in your ear canal is terrible (think of how little sound you hear under water if someone above water tries to talk to you, that pressure wave has to pass through that barrier twice, the sound from the whale once).

Yeah, but what if it made a noise while it was out of the water, checking out a boat or something?

Also, wow, whales are amazing

Remember that it is rare to be close enough to a whale to experience the full pressure

Interesting, except on my macbook I can't hear anything. I wonder what the low frequency cutoff is.

Even on 8cm speakers you typically have a -3dB point between 100 and 150Hz. For the tiny speakers in notebooks and smartphones it should be even higher. That means they maybe could reproduce 100Hz, but at an extremely low volume. And 50Hz is well out of scope.

That'll just be the speakers.

Sennheiser HD 600 plugged into my MBP comes in loud and clear (or loud and eerily wobbling bass noise)

Increase the volume. It's very low pitch track.

With the volume at maximum on my 2015 MBP I get sound... of some description, at least. It just doesn't sound much like it does through headphones. It sounds like speakers trying to reproduce something that's beyond them ;)

My computer is connected to an average HiFi and speakers (£300 / $500 worth) with an on-board soundcard. I didn't need to adjust the volume to hear the whale.

It reminds me most of waiting on the platform of a very deep metro line, and hearing the rumbling of a different metro train, some way above.

That, or the (apparently reasonably authentic) sounds played in a Sea Life centre.

The MBP's sound hardware might not have a problem with it, but I was using the MBP's built in speakers ;)

They're generally pretty good on the newer models, I think, as laptop speakers go. My 3-word review might be "better than functional". So having heard them make a tolerable go of music and games I was interested to see how they'd manage 52Hz. The answer: badly.

Yeah that is strange and kind of disturbing too. Thanks for sharing!

Definetily need headphones for this one.

I don't hear a single sound.

It's probably your speakers. A human can certainly hear 52Hz, mains hum is 50Hz (or 60Hz if you're in North America) and clearly audible.

Quite true. It's also not uncommon to end up with harmonics of mains hum (at 120 Hz), which is more noticeable to human hearing than 60 Hz.

Sounds (and even feels!) pretty impressive on my active speakers.

The door in my room started trembling. Cool!

But, why presume it's lonely? Maybe it can also "chat" on the normal "whale channel" and it's conducting a SETI experiment on it's own via 52hz?

so much ethno- ego- centric decision making around animals ...

Maybe it time-traveled back from the future to save us from deadly attack by an alien probe, to give us a chance to get things right this time.

Or maybe it has had a wound or a disease that caused a frequency shift in the sound? (just a quick speculation)

The article mentions that the whale may be deaf.

There was that radio emission that was meant to contact aliens or some such.

Perhaps the aliens thought that some stupid deaf hunam sent it.

> They speculate that it could be malformed, or a hybrid of a blue whale and another species.

Are there whale species that have calls significantly higher than 50 Hz? Any ungulate experts here who can comment?

When you cross breed whales of two different frequencies, do you get a "beat" interference pattern in the offspring? :)

Sadly not.

Which is a shame. Because if you did, you could engineer Dubstep Whale[tm] after a suitably sophisticated breeding program of additive genetic synthesis.

I think you meant cetacean expert. Which I'm not, but I know a whale's not an ungulate :)

This is why I enjoy the HN comments. Although, I should probably be upset that you sent me down a Wikipedia rabbit hole (the theory is interesting!): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ungulate#Cetacean_evolution

This is a real TIL moment right there. Good job, HN. :)

Although, from Wikipedia:

> As a descriptive term, "ungulate" normally excludes cetaceans (whales, dolphins, porpoises), as they do not possess most of the typical morphological characteristics of ungulates, but recent discoveries indicate that they are descended from early artiodactyls.

What the what?! I stand corrected, though how I'm standing with my mind splattered across the ceiling, I'm not sure...

I don't think whales are considered ungulates, it is just that ungulate is no longer considered a monophyletic category (but cetartiodactyla is).

Are you proposing that this creature might be a hippo, or were you showing off your knowledge of recent re-orderization? Do non-cetacean ungulates call like cetaceans?

Orcas in the form of clicking sounds and humpback whales, who can sing in ranges as high as 8000Hz.

However, these calls are produced via an entirely different vocalization method.

Orca are not whales. Technically, they are really big dolphins. They are in the delphinidae family (dolphins) which explains why they look/act/sound/move so differently than other "whales".


See, specifically, the sub-heading on Odontocetes — literally, "toothed whale".

You appear to be operating with the category that "whale" is wholly and exhaustively synonymous with "baleen whale". You're wrong.

From the same wikipedia article...

"They [whales] are an informal grouping within the infraorder Cetacea, usually excluding dolphins and porpoises. "

They're still order cetacea though, which is then split into baleen whales and toothed whales, which is where dolphins and orcas are found.

But not all cetaceans are whales. If orca are whales, then so too are the other dolphins. "Whale" is really a lay term covering the really big aquatic mammals. A whale shark certainly isn't a whale, but the term is still used there in the common name because of the association with size. Flipper wasn't a whale.

That makes sense, thinking of the whale sharks.

Yeah, certainly orcas can make some pretty high-pitched squeaks. But I'm guessing they can't interbreed with blue whales.

I guess I find the blue whale + fin whale hypothesis a little odd (why would the hybrid have a call that's higher in frequency than either of the original species'?), but I don't have the expertise to comment on it.

Hybrids don't always get averaged traits. Take my dog, a mutt. She is bigger than both her pure-bred parents, taller by more than an inch. In big cats a tigon, a lion-tiger cross, is bigger than either. The principal even holds true for humans. Obama, of mixed race, is unsurprisingly taller than both parents. This is sometimes called hybrid vigour. My point is that a cross between two different animals doesn't always result in something in the middle. This crossed whale may be very different than either parent.

> In big cats a tigon, a lion-tiger cross, is bigger than either

I don't think this is right. The hybrid with a lion father and tiger mother is the huge one, but the father comes first in the name of the hybrid; tigons (male tiger / female lion) aren't so large.

The reason for the difference is that male lions brand their offspring's DNA with the urge to grow large, while female lions counter with the opposite urge. For a lion/lion pairing, this balances out, but tigers don't have the same war between the sexes going on, and the maternal tiger genetic contribution is defenseless against the paternal lion one.

Humans, by the way, do something similar: the same genetic defect causes "Prader-Willi syndrome" if it came from the father, and "Angelman syndrome" if it came from the mother.

And yet it survived, or at least the sound reoccurs every year for how long? I would think a malformation would doom its ability to communicate and feed correctly, no?

I see the map of this whale's migration pattern goes north and south along the north american coast. Is it following an alternating current?

If you mean the alternating directions of the Kremlin, maybe.

I read the citation given in the wiki but I can't figure out why exactly deaf people may think this whale may be deaf. It is not clear to me.

Because it vocalizes at an nonstandard pitch for its species, like deaf humans do.

And because it appears to be unable/unwilling to live in a pod with other whales, perhaps due to its inability to communicate with them vocally.

The worlds loneliest whale. How fascinating and sad!

I wonder if it's really a whale, or some sort of man-made source (possibly a classified military technology) that coincidentally happens to be particularly whale-like?

I thought of that, but if I were making some secret military sound I would try very hard to blend in exactly like other whales, not do something unique and identifiable.

But this is 52Hz, just around the 50Hz that a big part of the world uses as electrical standard. Some hidden generator somewhere could cause it.

I guess the hardest part to explain (in an artificial source) is how it migrates all the time, not the pitch.

Unlikely that broken electricity generator would be as loud as a whale, and survive 30years without repair.

Also, would someone choose to generate AC in a marine application?

Thw wikipedia article mentions that the US Navy partially declassified thoe orginal recordings after the Cold War, and made the array availble to researchers.

If there was a military tech involved (with the source), I highly doubt they would have declassified that or as a conspiracy theory, it is misdirection...

Makes sense. Trying to mask an acoustic signature around 50-60Hz, by using a sound that ressembles to a whale.

Maybe it's trying to find The Bloop.


My half-arsed guesses (apart from the ones given) 1. birth defect affecting the 'vocal' cords 2. autistic or similar 3. dwarfism

If we can track it, is it possible to locate the whale and observe it?

Looks like they've been trying to already.



I suspect the researchers would love to, but that would mean expenses regarding ship, crew, and all that comes along.

Try getting that past management when all you got is a weird plot on a spectrogram.

This is a project I wouldn't mind backing on kick starter! Have there been any successfully crowd-funded documentaries with a big budget at all? A quick google search didn't reveal much, all the ones I saw were relatively low budget.

In the age before "reality" TV, i guess one may have had a chance with Discovery or National Geographics...

That's sad though, because one day we'll lose that chance forever.

It doesn't appear to be as monotonous as the tiny spectrogram suggests, it's a sequence of subtly different tones: http://imgur.com/Z7S9Chq

Just notice that when I clicked to comment there were "52 comments" - interesting coincidence.

Is locating the source that difficult? Don't we have tons of listening/triangulating stuff out in the oceans now?

Whales roam the oceans. I expect in some deep devops cave in a military office somewhere, they have a monitor showing the real time location of this whale using their sub hunting tech for a laugh. I really hope that's true.

How hard is it to simply triangulate the signal and find the exact location of origin?

I think the issue is how quickly they identify the whales location. It seems like they have been able to track the movement fairly well. I imagine it takes a while to get a ship out to the identified location of the sound's origin, by which time the source has probably moved on.

This reminds me of Moby Dick

Reminds me of the plot of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home!

Free Willy.

Somehow this seems like the plot to the next Disney/Pixar film

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