Travelling on an aptly named boat “Truth,” The Loneliest Whale: The Search for 52 filmmaker Joshua Zeman is on a quest to find the “52 Hertz Whale” in the Leonardo DiCaprio and Adrian Grenier backed documentary.
Throughout the course of the film, Zeman partners up with a number of scientists to track down the infamous whale dubbed “52,” first detected in 1989 by the U.S. Navy through a Cold War-era undersea surveillance system in the Pacific Ocean.
Dr. William Watkins analyzed the sound and determined it was the sound of a whale at a 52 hertz frequency instead of around 20 hertz like other whales. It was speculated by Watkins that the whale was unable to communicate with others due to the distinct frequency of its calls. Since Watkins' death in 2004, there had been no other recording of this whale.
You never forget your first time seeing a whale,” Zeman says in the film. I felt like I was in the presence of something greater than myself.The Loneliest Whale: The Search for 52 filmmaker Joshua Zeman
Zeman, known for mostly crime-related documentaries, isn’t one to shy away from a mystery. Is the 52 Hertz whale still alive? Is this a hybrid whale species? Where could we find the whale now? Is it really lonely? Those are all questions the filmmaker balances in this film.
The mission is often referenced as being similar to “finding a needle in a haystack,” laying out the science behind the reality of this legendary whale, while anthropomorphizing this particular creature.
At one point, the documentary turns your attention to the history of human relationships with whales. The 1960s was the peak for whale hunting but in 1970, when Roger Payne’s “Songs of the Humpback Whale” became a hit, the movement to save the whales was ignited.
The emotional impact of the movie largely comes from discussions around loneliness, the legend that there has been this lone whale crying out in the ocean that no other whale can understand, the concept that this whale has been othered for its entire life. Hearing the 52 hertz sound sped up 10 times almost sounds like a heartbreaking cry, even though we can’t interpret the meaning of the sound at all.
As Zeman talks about growing up finding connections to stories of the sea and the creatures who live within it, it makes you start to think about exploring this unique landscape and understanding whales. It also raises questions about whether whales can truly feel loneliness.
“The chances that we invented these emotions are basically somewhere between zero and minus one,” Payne says in the film.
From the Herman Melville novel “Moby Dick” to even the film Free Willy, Zeman isn’t the only person to feel a connection to whales, elevated by the legend of a whale who has possibly felt like an outcast.
This is all set with beautiful shots of the open water and whales in their natural habitat. As the expedition presses on, Zeman showcases his expertise in storytelling once again, while he takes you on this ocean adventure.
The Loneliest Whale: The Search for 52 is now available on demand