The Loneliest Whale: The Search for 52

In 1989, a secret U.S. Navy project detected a mysterious 52 Hertz signal in the Pacific Ocean.  It was Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute researcher Bill Watkins who identified the sound as biological, not mechanical, attributing it to an unknown species of whale because of its higher frequency.  The mammal calling out to others that might not understand it caught the public’s imagination.  Director Joshua Zeman (“Cropsey”) sets out with a team to find it in “The Loneliest Whale: The Search for 52.”

Laura's Review: B

This is a frustrating piece of work, one whose very premise is like click-bait, the documentation of a Kickstarter funded 7-day attempt to ‘find a needle in a haystack,’ the phrase every scientist uses to describe Zeman’s supposed goal.  And yet, until it really begins to feel manufactured towards the end, the work is very informative, not only about 52, but about the whale songs that engaged human interest in their fates and the perils facing them in today’s oceans.  The filmmaker’s ‘hook’ may have been chosen based on the marketing of a pop culture phenomenon (not unlike earlier works), but his resulting film is worthwhile.

Zeman begins by introducing the legend of 52 and all the important players, then trying to determine if 52 has been heard from recently.  After discovering that it has, and that it appears to follow blue whales off the CA coast during certain months of the year, he sets off with a scientific team aboard Truth from Santa Barbara, CA.  They begin deploying old Naval equipment to detect him (I just loved one scientist’s definition of oceanographic equipment as something that is too heavy to lift, too expensive to lose but thrown in the ocean anyway).  Whale scientist John Calambokidis, who believes their target may be a hybrid of a blue and fin whales, sets off in an inflatable boat tagging animals that may lead them to 52.

Underwater photography of these whales (it’s not apparent when this footage was taken and it appears to be repeated) is breathtaking.  Zeman fills in his documentary with such notes of interest as a man who plays the clarinet to whales and is responded to, as well as documenting man’s history with these majestic mammals.  Hunted and killed in vast numbers well after it was necessary, the practice only began to be challenged when ‘Songs of the Humpback Whale’ was released on LP in 1970 (we also learn that National Geographic’s request for two million pressings is the largest ever).  Now whales face new challenges, like being struck in shipping lanes (there is very disturbing footage of one such incident).  Perhaps the most horrific thing is man’s noise pollution of the sea, depicted as something which could induce madness as well as being a factor working against Zeman’s team.

One would be naïve to think Zeman could solve a mystery that has existed for thirty years in one week, and he does appear to try to punch up his ending with some manufactured drama, but the documentary does hold a very uplifting surprise at its wrap, new information that should delight those who fear for 52.  “The Loneliest Whale: The Search for 52” is yet another reminder of the dire consequences of humankind’s behavior on the planet.

Robin's Review: B

Jason and the Argonauts searched for the Golden Fleece. Christian Crusaders sought the mythical Holy Grail. Lewis and Clarke explored the vast American landscape for the Northwest Passage. Now, a group of intrepid whale hunters (the good kind) are on the search for a unique and elusive whale song at a singular frequency (52-hertz) from “The Loneliest Whale: The Search for 52.”

Searching for a needle in a haystack times 1000 is about the level of the challenges faced by those intrepid hunters, which began with the first recording of the 52-hertz whale sound back in 1989. This intriguingly individual noise, previously unheard, led to the myth of “the loneliest whale,” singing a forlorn song that other whales cannot understand.

The myth has been reinforced over the years since, when the sound is heard again and again and it is always solitary. This spawned international interest from some of us human animals and, eventually, a fund-me campaign garnered $300000 (after Leonardo DiCaprio gave $50K) to finance a seven-day long “Search for 52.”

The hunt for 52 and the expedition to accomplish that daunting task is the meat of the documentary by Joshua Zemen. That task sounds simple; especially as we find that secret US Navy equipment was declassified and available for the researchers’ use. High tech should solve the mystery, right? Then, we learn the litany of obstacles that hinder the search for that elusive frequency – the massive amount of shipping noise in the search area, underwater exploratory explosions looking for oil and US Navy SONAR operation all hinder the team’s ability to “hear.”

I will not say that the researchers debunk the myth of the loneliest whale or find the physical evidence (like the actual whale) proving it actually exists in the flesh. They do give us some answers and, if you watch this fascinating document, you will be on the side of that solitary (or nor) cetacean.

Bleecker Street releases “The Loneliest Whale” in theaters on 7/9/2021 and on digital on 7/16/2021.