Joshua Zeman has directed a newly released documentary, The Loneliest Whale — the Search for 52. It is a fascinating muddle of a film, well worth watching if you can overlook the mix of myth, legend, and social media sentimentality that overlay an otherwise intriguing tale.
To start with the story — during the Cold War, the US deployed a vast array of hydrophones to listen for Russian submarines. In 1989, they picked up a sound at 52 Hz, which was originally suspected to be a submarine by default, because no known whale called at that frequency. Blue and fin whales typically call out at 10-30 Hz. It also didn’t sound anything like a humpback whale, known for its long and wide-ranging songs from 40-800 Hz.
Nevertheless, it was a whale as determined in 1992 by Dr. William A. Watkins, a pioneer in marine mammal acoustics. It was just like no whale that he had ever heard before. He would spend the next twelve years tracking the unique whale’s calls in the North and Central Pacific until his death in 2004. He published a paper shortly before he died describing his research into the 52 Hz whale.
At this point, the story took on a life of its own. An article in the New York Times in 2004, A Song of Solitude, suggested that because the whale’s call was unique the “whale had been cruising the Pacific from central California to the Aleutians, calling out with a voice unlike any other whale’s, and getting no response. The call, possibly a mating signal, suggests that the animal lives in total, and undesired, isolation.”
Likewise, in 2005, Oceanus, the journal of the Wood’s Hole Oceanographic Institute took up a similar theme in the article, A Lone Voice Crying in the Watery Wilderness. They quote Dr. Watkin’s sturdy, “It is perhaps difficult to accept that if this was a whale, that there could have been only one of this kind in this large oceanic expanse, yet in spite of comprehensive, careful monitoring year-round, only one call with these characteristics has been found anywhere, and there has been only one source each season.”
The myth of the “loneliest whale” was born and immediately went viral. Countless articles and dozens of songs, animations, and short videos appeared in print and on the internet. There were accounts of lonely whale tattoos and merchandise. The idea of a solitary whale calling out and getting no response for years on end obviously resonated with many in our interconnected but all too isolated and too often lonely world.
In 2012, documentarian Joshua Zeman heard about the 52 Hz whale and became obsessed with finding it. At first, he had a hard time convincing anyone that there was any chance of locating a single, unique whale in the vast Pacific Ocean. Then he learned that Scripps Institute of Oceanography had recorded a 52 Mz call in 2010 close to the California shore. BBC quotes John Hildebrand of Scripps saying, “We found it on sensors no more than five or six miles from my office. So I think it’s accessible and we should be able to solve it.”
The core of the documentary is a seven-day search in 2015 for the 52 Hz whale. The hunt is engaging and dramatic. There is also footage provided for context of industrial whaling of the past as well as the problem of ship noise pollution and ship strikes in the present.
Unfortunately, the documentary also includes commentary on loneliness and whether whales can feel loneliness. A short song about a lonely whale without friends composed and sung by Kate Micucci is fine by feels completely out of place. The fact that the scientists hunt for 52 among other whales in the area makes it clear that the assumption of an isolated animal is misplaced. While 52 may or may not be unique, there is not necessarily evidence that it is lonely.
In an article by the Wahington Post, Zeman says as much.
It’s not physically the whale,” says documentary maker Joshua Zeman. “The whale itself — honestly, if you talk to scientists, they will tell you that it’s not lonely. Other whales can probably hear it. Other whales can probably understand it. But my next question is: Why do we prescribe that emotion, and why does that emotion affect us as human beings?”
What type of whale is 54? No one really knows, but the best guess is that it is a blue-fin whale hybrid. The first hybrid blue-fin whale was sighted in 1984 off the coast of Spain. DNA analysis revealed that the mother of the hybrid was a blue whale and the father a fin whale. 54 might just be the first hybrid whale to be captured on audio.
At the end of the documentary, scientists from Scripps reveal that based on their earlier recordings they captured two 52 Hz whale songs at almost exactly the same time from widely separated sensors, suggesting that there may be at least two 54 Mz whales in that part of the Pacific.
(This was also reported by the BBC in 2015, six years before the documentary’s release.) The BBC goes on to comment:
Conceivably Hildebrand’s team has found a group of hybrid whales, all singing at the same special pitch. The 52 Hz whale may be a member of this group that sometimes wanders off on its own. If that’s true, there is a happy ending to this story: the whale is not all that lonely after all.
My biggest problem with the documentary is that by pandering to the “loneliest whale” myth, the real story can get overshadowed. This significant shortcoming aside, the documentary is entertaining and thought-provoking.