Anyone who’s been misunderstood or posted something on the internet to precisely zero response can probably relate to the legend of the “world’s loneliest whale.” First identified by marine mammal bioacoustics research pioneer William Watkins in 1989, the whale’s story—that is, one which humans have imposed on it—became a kind of viral lore in the internet age. The ballad of the loneliest whale goes something like this: A whale that resides in Pacific waters sings in a unique frequency—52 hz—outside of that which other whales communicate. The idea that the whale—most likely a male—is out there calling to no answer or comprehension from other whales is, in the view of documentary director Joshua Zeman, a reflection of our own discontent.
“This is the existential human crisis mirrored right back at [us],” he told Jezebel via Zoom recently. “Calling out into the darkness and never receiving a response. None of us want to die alone.”
In 2015, Zeman embarked on a voyage to find the loneliest whale, often referred to as just 52, and his quest is documented in the new documentary The Loneliest Whale. From his early days of stop-and-go investigation (at one point, the whale was feared dead when he hadn’t been detected in years) to an open-ocean search, The Loneliest Whale constituted for Zeman an “emotional journey for a filmmaker, like rip your heart out and like put it back in and rip it out again.”
It was about 10 years ago that the director (whose previous credits include the 2009 urban legend doc Cropsey) started looking into 52—in the time since, he’s completed projects like A&E’s The Killing Season and The Sons of Sam for Netflix. It was not an easy process. Zeman said he pitched his idea to go looking for 52 in the Pacific to a variety of producers, including Harvey Weinstein (before his sexual abuse allegations surfaced), who wanted assurance that Zeman’s search would prove fruitful. Zeman refused to promise that he’d actually capture 52 on film—how could he? (Alongside co-producer Adrian Grenier, Zeman raised about $400,000 for the production on Kickstarter.) The U.S. Navy initially seemed like it would help participate in the search, at least by providing data, but pulled out to attend to more pressing matters when Russia attacked Ukraine in 2014.
Additionally, the very premise of Zeman’s expedition was criticized by Cornell’s Chris Clark, a bioacoustics researcher, who suggested in a 2015 BBC article that 52 was merely idiosyncratic, “not completely mind-bogglingly unique,” and further, wasn’t necessarily going unheard by his cetacean peers. “The animal’s singing with a lot of the same features of a typical blue whale song,” said Clark. “Blue whales, fin whales, and humpback whales: all these whales can hear this guy, they’re not deaf. He’s just odd.”
Clark, however, ended up appearing in Zeman’s movie, as a result of an “existential conversation” that lasted four hours, in Zeman’s recollection. Zeman said he had to assuage Clark’s fears that his movie would anthropomorphize the whale to the point of fiction.
“He didn’t realize how deep we were going with the metaphor,” said Zeman. “I was like, ‘We want to put up the mirror because that’s the only way we can understand it.’ You know, our whole fascination with this whale is not about the whale. It’s with us. That really informs our relationship with the ocean and with the environment.”
Indeed, in one of The Loneliest Whale’s several fascinating narrative tangents, Zeman traces humankind’s relationship with whales back to bio-acoustician Roger Payne’s discovery in the ‘60s that whales’ sounds were actually repeating and more akin to songs. The ensuing release of the 1970 album Songs of the Humpback Whale gave way to Save the Whales conservation efforts and an overall environmental consciousness that is at the foundation of today’s green movement.
“We hear whale calls and we suddenly realize, ‘Oh my God, a creature that makes something so beautiful must be worth saving,’” said Zeman. “In our small brain, the whale now must be worth saving. You could make a specific line from hearing something out in nature that blows our minds and then suddenly we realize, holy shit, nature is so unbelievably beautiful, connected, and spiritual in ways that I can’t even fathom. And that leads to our appreciation and our necessity of appreciation today.”
Zeman’s film also dips back into the history of whaling, as well as the notion of noise pollution from giant cargo ships, which interrupts whales’ communication to a potentially disorienting degree. But the heart of The Loneliest Whale is the actual search for 52 in the Pacific waters. One expert says that finding a needle in a haystack is an “odds-on favorite” compared to finding a whale in the vast ocean, some 90 percent of which remains uncharted. With an experienced team of bioacoustics experts and whale researchers, and an intricate interplay of technology that included drones and sonobuoys, Zeman set out in 2015 on the open ocean to hopefully spot the elusive creature.
“I had this real pollyanna idea that, like, this whale that had taught us so much about humankind would somehow find a way to break through the noise, and the story would somehow find it,” said Zeman. “We were like, ‘We’re going to do it.’”
You can probably see where this is going, but in case you can’t, what follows is a bit of a spoiler (which Zeman spoke about openly and at length): He didn’t find 52.
“I believe it would have been different if we had 14 [days],” he said. “We were so close. Would we have stayed in the area and kind of swam around, I think we would have we would have seen it again or heard it again.” He pointed out that it was on Day 6 that the crew finally got the hang of triangulation of sound and picture and encountered a large group of whales. But the camera didn’t watch the blue-fin whale hybrid that 52 is suspected to be.
Zeman was ambivalent about his unrealized goal—there is a final reveal in the movie that gives some sense of closure and points to a resolution of the loneliest whale storyline, but it’s not quite a substitute for footage of a living, breathing legend. But as Zeman says via voice-over in his film, “Every story has an ending even if it isn’t the one you expected.”
“My big discussion was scientists need to be better storytellers and we need creatures like the loneliest whale to make people care,” he said. “Have that be the metaphor. We needed that in the climate change fight early in the game, we needed a much better story. We had to rely on fucking Al Gore. No wonder we’re losing that battle. Al Gore, he’s great. But that’s not what’s going to have people crying, you know?”