CNF: The Loneliest Whale in the World

by Paul Crenshaw

There’s a whale swimming through the cold waters of the north Pacific who doesn’t belong to any pod. He has no family or friends because he sings at such a high frequency no other whales can hear him. This is a baleen whale—a blue or humpback or maybe a hybrid of both—so he has four heartchambers as big as our whole bodies, but no one to warm even one of them. If he’s a blue whale he’s the most massive mammal on earth, and think about that for a moment, how small he must feel when no one ever answers his call.

Every year from August to December recording devices in the Pacific pick up his song. He travels as far north as the Aleutian Islands and as far south as the California coast. Since his migration patterns don’t follow those of any other baleen whale, scientists have concluded he’s never come in contact with any other of his species, and here I must take a moment to think about these scientists in an observatory listening late at night, searching the soundwaves to see where he might be in all that vast, empty ocean.

Imagine, then, listening to the repeating ping of sonar or the white static of the speakers day after day, hoping for a brief moment of song. Imagine always waiting for a reply in an endless sea of silence, a call going out but none ever answering back. How often have we hoped for the phone to ring, for the closeness of a voice over vast distances? How many connections have we missed in a lifetime? We wake in water, suspended in the serous fluid of the amniotic sac, and these same scientists say we can hear our own mothers and fathers through the thin skin, which makes me wonder how they feel when, just for a moment, they hear the whale’s song at the right soundwave and know he’s still searching for someone who will sing back.

This story reminds me of an endless black ocean, all of us trying to stay afloat. And I’ve done enough writing and raising my voice to know there should be some moral here, which means I should say something about the misfits among us, the square pegs in round holes, or only the loneliness we often feel we are drowning in. But there’s no moral: I just wanted you to hear, and be sad alongside me for a moment.

Paul Crenshaw’s stories and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Best American Essays, Best American Nonrequired Reading, The Pushcart Prize, anthologies by W.W. Norton and Houghton Mifflin, Glimmer Train, Ecotone, North American Review and Brevity, among others. He teaches writing and literature at Elon University.

What surprising, fascinating stuff can you tell us about the origin, drafting, and/or final version of “The Loneliest Whale in the World”?

    Occasionally I’ll read an article or watch a nature show and realize I have to write about the subject. I’ve written essays about the Japanese giant hornet and the assassin bug in this way, and now the loneliest whale in the world. I read about it and knew I would write something, but didn’t know what it was going to be until I was halfway through, which is often my writing process with essays—start, then figure out where it’s going and what it’s about. In this case I realized the writer, like the whale, is often just casting his voice about in the dark, hoping for a response. Or all of us are.
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