What we can hear is often more powerful than what we can see.
With an “it’s the friends we met along the way” type of mantra, documentarian Joshua Zeman uses his latest film The Loneliest Whale: The Search for 52 to take audiences on a quest towards the unknown … or, at least, the misunderstood. He knows his endeavor is a fool’s errand. Everyone he asks to estimate the feasibility of finding a whale nobody has ever seen before and that hasn’t even been tracked in a decade to know whether it’s still alive tells him that he’d have greater odds “finding a needle in a haystack.” But after four years of preparation and fundraising, Zeman recruits a team to try it anyway. With state-of-the-art equipment and a general idea of where it’s hypothetically swimming, they embark on a seven-day hunt.
More than simply showing the events upon their vessel, however, Zeman also does an effective job explaining why this mystery matters. The so-called 52 Hertz Whale is the stuff of legends after all. We only know it exists because the United States Navy’s Sound Surveillance System (SOSUS) picked up its call during the Cold War and had to dig into it to discern whether it was a machine. You may assume this would be an easy query to answer, but some whales have songs with a rhythm too methodically precise to know on first blush. Couple that potential with the fact that no other species was using that wavelength to speak (ostensibly proving that this beast was talking to no one) and its existence became a ubiquitous phenomenon.
He takes us back in history to explain how dangerously close we came to making these marine mammals extinct due to murdering around thirty thousand a year for their oil. He lets Roger Payne discuss the time he recorded humpback whales singing and almost single-handedly changed how the world viewed these giant creatures immortalized through literature whether by Jonah in the Bible or Ahab in Moby Dick. And we even get to hear the differences between each call, how playing music at them can impact their melodies, and that capitalism has all but made them “blind” by creating enough noise in shipping channels to drown everything else out underwater. It’s a wonder scientists like Dr. John A. Hildebrand and John Calambokidis can get any work done.
Thankfully they have the 52 Hz song Dr. William Watkins discovered and recorded to guide them and new, military-grade technology to steer the wheel. Fate and bad luck make their lives difficult, but even a small victory like filming a whale as it calls by pairing tracker microphones and drone cameras make the effort worthwhile. Because what is it that truly helps these missions find answers in the long run? Trial, error, and an excess of data. If the numbers Zeman’s Kickstarter-funded (with help from the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio and Adrien Grenier) crew collects aren’t enough to pick their needle out of the ocean, pairing it with other markers reported miles away and years prior just might. This isn’t therefore an endgame. It’s one chapter amongst many.
This reality makes the film a bit anti-climactic in the end. There’s no way around it. Where its success lies is its ability to invest you in the “why” rather than the “now.” Some of you may not get there. Some of you may get to the credits and feel cheated—enough so that the tease of something big via a mid-credits sequence won’t compensate. But that merely means you weren’t paying attention to the larger issue at-hand. While 52 got all these people together, it stops being the sole purpose of their trip as soon as they affix their first tracker. The fact that it isn’t the only thing we don’t know about the ocean means fresh, adjacent discoveries are being made with or without its appearance.
More than 52, this adventure also becomes about Zeman’s affinity for whales since childhood. Unlike his expertly researched Netflix series “The Sons of Sam: A Descent into Darkness”, this movie is extremely personal in the way he and co-writer Lisa Schiller present its footage and narration. It’s ultimately Zeman’s voice that we hear throughout. It’s his ambitions and his excitement that propel the narrative forward through the historically relevant interludes and the numerous setbacks that can’t help but leave everyone involved with a frown of frustration. 52 is quite literally his “white whale” and he truly believes he might be the one to find it and thus allow for marine biologists to discover its secrets. Just like the whales themselves, however, Zeman might find more answers by listening.
There are allusions to what that means in the grand scheme of life with humanity using social media and technology meant to connect as an unintentional mechanism to isolate instead, but they evaporate almost as soon as they appear. It’s a missed opportunity to officially repackage the events on-screen away from their target and back onto themselves. Why do people call 52 “the loneliest whale” and why does that label speak to their own sense of longing? Why does the discovery that whales have emotion and sociably communicative tendencies make humanity think better of killing them without remorse like cows and chicken? It’s an interesting psychological thesis floating just out of reach that Zeman acknowledges enough to pique interest, but never fully embraces. I wish he did.
courtesy of Bleecker Street Media