Friday, June 26, 2020

"A Whale of a Tale: 52 Blue"

From The Atavist Magazine:
December 7, 1992: Whidbey Island, Puget Sound. The World Wars were over. The other wars were over: Korea, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf. The Cold War was finally over, too. The Whidbey Island Naval Air Station remained. So did the Pacific, its waters vast and fathomless beyond an airfield named for an airman whose body was never found: William Ault, who died in the Battle of the Coral Sea. This is how it goes: The ocean swallows human bodies whole and makes them immortal. William Ault became a runway that sends other men into the sky.

But at that Naval Air Station, on that day in December, the infinite Pacific appeared as something finite: audio data gathered by a network of hydrophones spread along the ocean floor. These hydrophones had turned the formless it of the ocean and its noises into something measurable: pages of printed graphs rolling out of a spectrograph machine. These hydrophones had been used to monitor Soviet subs until the Cold War ended; after their declassification, the Navy started listening for other noises—other kinds of it—instead.

On December 7, the it was a strange sound. The acoustic technicians thought they knew what it was, but then they realized they didn’t. Petty officer second class Velma Ronquille stretched it out on a different spectrogram so she could see it better. She couldn’t quite believe it. It was coming in at 52 hertz.

She beckoned one of the technicians. He needed to come back, she said. He needed to take another look.
The technician came back. He took another look. His name was Joe George.
Second Petty Officer Ronquille told him, “I think this is a whale.”

Joe thought, Holy cow. It hardly seemed possible. For a blue whale, which is what this one seemed to be, a frequency of 52 hertz was basically off the charts. Blue whales usually came in somewhere between 15 and 20—on the periphery of what the human ear can hear, an almost imperceptible rumble. But here it was, right in front of them, the audio signature of a creature moving through Pacific waters with a singularly high-pitched song.

Whales make calls for a number of reasons—to navigate, to find food, to communicate with each other—and for certain whales, like humpbacks and blues, songs also seem to play a role in sexual selection. Blue males sing louder than females, and the volume of their singing—at more than 180 decibels—makes them the loudest animals in the world. They click and grunt and trill and hum and moan. They sound like foghorns. Their calls can travel thousands of miles through the ocean.
The whale that Joe George and Velma Ronquille heard was an anomaly: His sound patterns were recognizable as those of a blue whale, but his frequency was unheard of. It was absolutely unprecedented. So they paid attention. They kept tracking him for years, every migration season, as he made his way south from Alaska to Mexico. His path wasn’t unusual, only his song—and the fact that they never detected any other whales around him. He always seemed to be alone.
So this whale was calling out high, and he was calling out to no one—or at least, no one seemed to be answering. The acoustic technicians would come to call him 52 Blue. A scientific report, published 12 years later, would describe his case like this:
No other calls with similar characteristics have been identified in the acoustic data from any hydrophone system in the North Pacific basin. Only one series of these 52-Hz calls has been recorded at a time, with no call overlap, suggesting that a single whale produced the calls. … These tracks consistently appeared to be unrelated to the presence or movement of other whale species (blue, fin and humpback) monitored year-round with the same hydrophones.
Much remained unknown, the report confessed, and difficult to explain:
We do not know the species of this whale, whether it was a hybrid or an anomalous whale that we have been tracking. It is perhaps difficult to accept that … there could have been only one of this kind in this large oceanic expanse.
The drive from Seattle to Whidbey Island, a little less than two hours north, took me through the plainspoken pageantry of Washington State industry: massive piles of raw logs and cut lumber, rivers clogged with tree trunks like fish trapped in pens. I passed stacks of candy-colored shipping containers near Skagit Port and a collection of dirty white silos near Deception Pass Bridge, its steel span looming majestically over Puget Sound—hard-sparkling water glinting with shards of sunlight nearly 200 feet below. Craggy cliffs rose on either side over the water, studded with crooked straggler pines clinging to the steep rock. In front of me on the two-lane highway, a biker wore a jacket full of skulls.

On the far side of the bridge, the island felt pastoral and otherworldly, almost defensive. “LITTER AND IT WILL HURT,” one sign read. Another said: “Space Heaters Need SPACE.” The lawns were full of goats and rabbit hutches.

Whidbey Island often calls itself the longest island in America, but this isn’t strictly true. “Whidbey is long,” the Seattle Times observed in 2000, “but let’s not stretch it.” It’s long enough to hold a kite festival, a mussel festival, an annual bike race (the Tour de Whidbey), four inland lakes, and an annual murder-mystery game that turns the entire town of Langley, population 1,035, into a crime scene. In 1984, the island was a refuge for a white supremacist named Robert Jay Mathews—leader of a militant group called the Order—whose home burned down around him when a pile of his own ammo caught fire during a shoot-out with the FBI. His body was found next to the charred remains of a bathtub. Every year, it’s rumored, his followers gather on the day he was killed, at the site where his home once stood, to commemorate his death.

The Naval Air Station, on the northern end of the island, specializes in electronic attack, which means manipulating the electromagnetic spectrum: sending out radio and radar frequencies to locate and neutralize enemy operations, or using these same techniques to defend against similar tactics. The station also monitors the intricate array of hydrophones known as the Sound Surveillance System (SOSUS), part of an undersea surveillance network that ranges across the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, from Nova Scotia to Hawaii, seafloor-mounted hydrophones connected by underwater cables to facilities that process the audio data onshore. SOSUS was initially built for one reason: to track Soviet subs. Its earliest hydrophone arrays were installed on the seafloor between Greenland, Iceland, and Britain—a naval-warfare choke point known as the GIUK Gap, the waters that Soviet subs would have to cross if they were heading west.

SOSUS tracked its first diesel sub in 1962, its first Victor- and Charlie-class subs six years later. The system was expanded through the 1960s and helped locate the only two U.S. nuclear submarines ever lost at sea.

But once the Cold War ended, operations were downsized, and much of the equipment was declassified. The hydrophone arrays still did military duty, but the Navy started looking for other uses for them, too....