“What we can hear in the ocean is much more powerful than what we can see.”
Dr. William Watkins
Human beings are generally understood to be social creatures. We make personal connections, relationships, families, and even communities to feel a part of something. To feel essential, to give ourselves meaning. Without that, what are we? That’s the existential question at the heart of Joshua Zeman’s new documentary, The Loneliest Whale: The Search for 52, which deals with a different mammal entirely.
Among the scientific community and beyond, the whale known only as “52” has become a true legend. For the past 30 years, maritime researchers, scientists, and even the U.S. Navy have been hearing, but never seeing, a solitary creature that calls out at a frequency that no other whale uses.
The discovery of this unusual creature can, somewhat oddly, be traced back to the Cold War. As a part of their secretive system, the U.S. set up a series of underwater listening devices (S.O.S.U.S.) to track any approaching Soviet submarines. In 1989, the equipment picked up an odd sound at the frequency of 52 hertz. First thought to be mechanical in nature, Dr. William “Bill” Watkins was able to study and confirm the sound as biologic. He also noted that the sound bore a striking similarity to the calls of both blue and fin whales but was much, much higher—a discovery which led to years of research to find and identify the source. The investigation was made all the more difficult by the fact no one had seen the whale, so the species was undetermined.
Sight and smell are, for obvious reasons, less reliable senses for marine mammals as a whole and most rely on sound to communicate and feed. “52” is thought to be male, as only male whales of certain species use “song” as a regular form of vocalization. Despite the lack of tangible information, Watkins continued his search for years—mostly in the Gulf of Alaska and North Pacific—but unfortunately passed away in 2004, leaving the case unsolved.
A Mighty Mystery
Could other whales hear “52”? Was he plaintively and regularly calling out but never getting a response? Did he feel isolated? Could he feel loneliness? Eleven years after Watkins’ death, the nautical puzzle had attained mythical status but most had resigned themselves to the fact there would always be more questions about “52” than answers. But what they lacked in answers, Zeman notes, people more than made up for in enthusiasm. Poems, songs, more songs, and even a Twitter account popped up—spreading the tale to an even wider audience.
Who can blame them? Not the director of our film for one, as he clearly shares their fascination. And in an ever-fragmenting society, and after nearly two years of forced isolation due to the pandemic, it’s hard not to feel a wave of attachment and empathy for this loneliest of creatures. The film even features one musician who felt such a strong kinship with the nomadic loner that he composed a whole album of music inspired by the curious whale.
The Search Begins
But what if this particular marine mystery was solvable? Zeman thinks it is. After securing the funding for a 7-day expedition, and a team of experts to work with, the director picks up Watkins’ metaphoric baton and runs with it, hoping the latest in technology will help them find this oceanic needle in a haystack. Actually, as Bruce Mate of the Marine Mammal Institute notes wryly, finding a needle in a haystack would be much easier than what Zeman proposes here.
What starts out as a bit of a slow expository piece, with an impressively large side of lonely whale PR, quickly becomes an engrossing journey of discovery. Not put off by tales of the whale’s death—he hadn’t been heard for years at this stage—Zeman’s unwavering belief is quickly rewarded as “52” is tracked once more, this time off the coast of California. Our director-cum-narrator pledges that as long as the whale keeps calling, and refuses to stop trying to connect to the world, Zeman would continue to listen and to seek answers.
The documentarian’s search and study team includes John Hildrebrand, expedition leader and Professor of Bioacoustics at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, John Calambokidis, a blue whale specialist from the Cascadia Research Collective, and Oceanographers Ana Sivoc and David Cade. Of particular note Is Calambokidis, a researcher who came across a hybrid blue and fin whale in 2004 that he believes could’ve been the elusive whale.
As the team sets out, on a research vessel un-ironically named “Truth,” they discuss the latest tracking information and conclude that not only is “52” coming into shallower waters, but he seems to be less isolated than originally thought. They also come to the conclusion that it’s not that fellow whales can’t hear him, it’s that they can’t understand him. If isolation itself wasn’t relatable, that bit surely is.
Unsurprisingly, the biggest impediment to their search comes in the form of humanity or, more specifically, the ships we use and the noise they make. The coastal areas in California, frequented by the fin and blue whales that Zeman and his team are hoping to study, are smack in the middle of some of the busiest shipping lanes in the world. The large container vessels actually manage to drown out all biological marine sound for up to 200 miles, creating a kind of underwater acoustic smog. It’s incredibly disorienting for species that relies on sound for communication and it deprives whales particularly of any real ability to preserve their social systems. And in a cinematic quest to find one particular whale, whose call is the only way to identify him, it’s an almost insurmountable obstacle.
It’s a very sobering revelation, realizing just how much our selfishness as a species continues to harm other life on earth. And Zeman is wise to treat these moments with the gravity they deserve, refraining from overly-preachy or heavy-handed delivery. Cinematic packaging is not required here. Cold, hard facts provide all the drama necessary and the director wisely restrains himself, allowing science to speak for itself.
Trials and Tribulations
At the same time, the constantly changing variables facing the team provide viewers with a fascinating look into the frustrating and fluid nature of scientific research. There’s no simple, linear storytelling here. There is one step forward, then two steps back; one giant leap forward, then no movement at all. It clearly requires a specific type of tenacity and patience of which most of us could only dream.
It also gives some insight into how essential evolving technology is to solving enigmas of any kind. Like the “sonobuoys” the team launches into coastal waters. Looking more like something out of 2001: A Space Odyssey than a contemporary lab, the floating microphones are key to picking up the underwater sound of nearby marine life. Alongside the buoys and the ever-present drones, the team also look to attach modified tags to any blue or fin whales they find, in hopes the tagged whales will lead the researchers to a larger pod that might include “52.”
It’s the Journey, Not the Destination
What follows is a watery week at sea, full of ups and downs of acoustic discovery and disappointment. It should feel dry and overly long but somehow it doesn’t. Zeman’s personal quest is oddly captivating and as an audience, you can’t help but cross your fingers and hope for the best despite the odds being so thoroughly stacked against him.
It’s fair to say that the tension and anticipation of possible advances and discoveries go a long way to keeping the 96-minute feature well afloat. It also helps that myriad featured experts—oceanographers, historians, musicians, and the like—all feel approachable and incredibly knowledgeable. Their enthusiasm for the subject matter is truly infectious. You want them to be successful because of what it means to them, but also because of what the whale at the centre of this mystery represents for us: connection, community, and hope.
If this is your first introduction to the story of “52,” the film is bound to capture your imagination. But if you, like Executive Producers Leonardo DiCaprio and Adrian Grenier, are familiar with the legend, you’re still likely to walk away with new and interesting information—armed now with far more facts than fiction.
But can “52” (or any other whale) really feel alone? The Loneliest Whale wisely doesn’t try to posit an answer. There are some animal psychologists who believe it is possible, based on physiological data, but as Zeman points out, it hardly matters because it’s what the whale represents to so many that’s important. It’s also what makes the outcome of the search basically immaterial. Here it’s truly the journey that matters and The Loneliest Whale is one well worth undertaking.