Imagine your only contact with other people was a cell phone that solely allowed you to place calls to another country where no one spoke your language. With no way to correspond with others life would become very lonely. Now, imagine you’re a whale who communicates at a frequency of 52 hertz while all other aquatic mammals vocalize with each other on a different frequency. You can’t say hello, harmonize with the pod, or serenade a potential mate. You’ve become a pariah in the undersea universe. Joshua Zeman’s enchanting documentary isn’t as bleak as it sounds. In fact, “The Loneliest Whale: The Search for 52” is quite invigorating as a group of marine scientists set out to find the mysterious cetacean to see if he still exists, so they can give him a great big hug. Okay, I made that last part up. You’re whalecome.
52’s story began in 1989 when the U.S. Navy misinterpreted the whale call as something mechanical, possibly a Russian submarine. Eventually, they realized the sound was coming from a solitary whale who was vocalizing on a unique frequency, unlike any other undersea mammal. Was this a new species? Maybe a hybrid? Oceanographer William A. Watkins, a pioneer in marine mammal bioacoustics studies, began tracking the 52 Hz-whale in 1992 using in part the same hydrophone equipment used by The Navy — Sound Surveillance System (SOSUS) — that first picked up the signal a few years earlier. In 2004 Dr. Watkins passed away and 52 vanished without anyone to keep tabs on the unique leviathan.
Whales are intelligent and social animals that have been known to hunt together, watch out for one another, and help raise the calves of other whales. They are very much like humans and so many experts have pondered the question, “Is 52 lonely?” No other aquatic mammal has been captured answering 52’s call. To them, he speaks a foreign language. Filmmaker Joshua Zeman (“The Sons of Sam: A Descent into Darkness,” “Cropsey”) became obsessed with the story, and with limited funds and a group of enthusiastic scientists, he documented a 7-day expedition along the coast of California, where the 52 Hz frequency was caught on sonar, hoping to spot the unique crooner.
Beautifully shot and featuring striking drone shots as well as up-close footage as the team tags a few of these magnificent creatures, “The Loneliest Whale” is exhilarating at times, somber at others especially watching the archival footage of these gentle giants being harvested for their precious oil in the 60s. The film shows how the 1970 album “Songs of the Humpback Whale” which featured the soothing vocalizations of Humpbacks, changed the public’s attitude after it became the bestselling environmental record of all time. It helped launch a movement (“Save the Whales”) and in 1979 National Geographic included a flexi disc recording of the whale sounds in its magazine which went out to over 10 million subscribers.
I’m not going to lie, the documentary got me all up in my feels while watching Zeman and his motley crew of experts passionately search for 52. It’s a whale of a story!
Now showing at the Angelika Film Center Plano and available to rent On-demand