Looking for the world’s loneliest whale

Joshua Zeman’s documentary revolves around his search for a renowned but unseen whale that can’t be understood by other whales.

By Richard Ades

As someone who cares about the environment and about those majestic creatures known as whales, I looked forward to watching The Loneliest Whale: The Search for 52.

The documentary has a fascinating premise: Aided by a group of oceanographers and other scientists, filmmaker Joshua Zeman sets out to find the mysterious whale that’s been dubbed “52,” so named because he sings his song at a frequency of 52 hertz. This separates him from other whales, who sing at various frequencies depending on their species, but never at 52 hertz.   

Whales, especially the males, sing to communicate with other whales that may be many miles away. However, 52’s unique pitch means he’s unable to communicate with anyone, as a result of which he’s been called the loneliest whale in the world.

The beginning of the documentary explains that 52’s existence was discovered years ago with the help of underwater listening devices originally deployed by the U.S. Navy to keep track of potentially hostile submarines. The unseen whale quickly became a source of fascination to people the world over, maybe because he symbolized the isolation many feel in modern society.

Apparently, one of those people was Zeman. So, after spending four years looking into the possibility of finding the illusive 52, he finally gathers a team and sets out to sea to do just that.

It’s at this point that all the film’s exposition begins to pay off—to an extent. Unfortunately, Zeman dilutes the excitement of the resulting “hunt” with more exposition. That is, he intersperses footage of the search for 52 with history lessons on the ways humans have made whales’ lives difficult down through the centuries.

From hunting them to the edge of extinction to polluting the ocean with mechanical noise that frustrates their attempts to communicate, we have not been good neighbors to our fellow mammals. If all this comes as news to you, then these digressions might seem worthwhile. Otherwise, you might wish Zeman had taken a more personal approach to his subject.

For one thing, what drives him to spend years of his life searching for a beast no one has ever seen? And what drives the scientists on his team to devote their entire careers to the ocean? Such topics are left largely unexplored.

At least the documentary satisfies our curiosity about the whale itself by answering questions such as: “Why is he so different from other whales?” And, “Is he really alone?” Before the film is over, we’re even treated to a surprise that wouldn’t be possible in, say, a flick about the Loch Ness Monster.

It’s a welcome moment, even if it doesn’t quite make up for all the lectures that preceded it.

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)

The Loneliest Whale: The Search for 52 (rated PG) opened July 9 at Columbus’s Gateway Film Center. It will be available digitally beginning July 16.

Author: Richard Ades

Richard Ades was the arts editor of The Other Paper, a weekly news-and-entertainment publication, from 2008 until it was shut down on Jan. 31, 2013. He also served as TOP's theater critic throughout its 22-year existence.

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