IN 1989, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts detected an unknown sonic presence at 52 hertz. It was initially thought to be from a submarine, but marine biologist William Watkins later determined that it was the sonar signature of a whale, which he gave the nickname “52”.
It is an unusually high frequency for whale vocalisations, and Watkins was intrigued enough to search for 52 until his death in 2004. But despite picking up 52’s call every year, Watkins never found the mysterious whale.
In The Loneliest Whale: The Search for 52, US film-maker Joshua Zeman picks up the search where Watkins left off, and sets out to find a whale that has since taken on almost mythical proportions.
Why 52 calls at this frequency is also a mystery – the whale’s species hasn’t been confirmed, and it is possible that it is the only one of its kind in the ocean. The one thing we do know is that 52 is almost certainly a he: male whales do the singing.
The reason for 52’s presumed loneliness has nothing to do with the fact that he has always been detected swimming alone. Instead, it is because the unique frequency of his call means that other whales can’t understand to respond. With 52’s unique call as the only lead, Zeman launches a seven-day search mission with bioacoustics specialist John Hildebrand and research biologist John Calambokidis.
They begin in the waters off California, at the Port of Los Angeles – the busiest container port in the western hemisphere. Their initial hopes aren’t high: the Pacific Ocean is deep and wide and the chances of finding 52 seem roughly the same as those of 52 finding a mate.
Zeman’s documentary has a strong sense of exploration and ambition: he believes he can locate 52, who has become the Moby Dick to Zeman’s Ahab. Although there is an underlying sense of excitement as to whether 52 can finally be found, there is a human aspect to the search and a personal story behind Zeman’s fascination.
In our increasingly connected world where contact and interaction is only the click of a button away, the fact that so many people still report feeling lonely makes it easy to identify with 52’s situation. There is something deeply affecting about a creature as intelligent and social as we know whales to be, swimming the vast ocean, year after year, never having any proper contact with another of its kind.
This, combined with a growing awareness of the harm that human activity has caused whales, has made 52 something of a focal point for whale conservation, with articles, poems and even a song by the K-pop band BTS about his plight.
Yet this is a story that goes deeper than just one whale. Whale populations are still under threat from hunting, pollution, climate change and collisions with ships. Even if they avoid these perils, the noise of shipping can drown out a whale’s calls, regardless of the frequency it may use. Arguably, Zeman’s quest says more about our collective guilt about this state of affairs than it does about our desire to solve the scientific mysteries surrounding 52.
Finding him is never a foregone conclusion. In fact, as 52 has never been seen or even definitively proven to exist, some within the scientific community are sceptical there is even a 52 to find.
Zeman’s attempt to create a sense of thrill and adventure as he embarks on his quest is hit-and-miss. Exciting footage of the search is punctuated with evocative images of the oceans, which makes the documentary’s tone feel inconsistent. At times, there isn’t enough to elevate the film above being a group of people spending time in a boat. At least not until the closing moments, when it appears that the team’s efforts may not have been in vain.
Overall, The Loneliest Whale: The Search for 52 offers a moving insight into a legendary whale and Zeman’s curiosity is infectious. Frustratingly, though, there isn’t enough discussion and explanation of the science behind whale communication, which leaves viewers, much like Zeman, wondering if they might have missed something important along the way.
More on these topics: