By Elias Savada.
A fascinating tale about a undiscovered, single beast that emitted a sound, one that other whales did not comprehend. No one has ever answered his call…. Zeeman casts this project as something akin to the old Leonard Nemoy television series In Search of….”
There are plenty of underwater critter documentaries in the cinematic seas of 2021. This year’s Academy Award winner My Octopus Teacher is available on Netflix, which is also home to Seaspiracy, while Fathom, recently part of the roster at AFI Docs, is now playing on AppleTV+. In turn entertaining, conspiratorial, and informative, the newest in this seafaring family to hit the streaming waters (including Amazon and Apple platforms), after a one week theatrical prelude, is The Loneliest Whale: The Search for 52. This years-in-the-making mystery caper actually dates back to 1989, when the U.S. Navy, then listening for Cold War enemy submarines in the Pacific Ocean, picked up an unidentifiable 52 hertz frequency signal.
It was a whale that no human had ever seen. It was nicknamed 52.
Josh Zeman, the film’s on-screen narrator, director, co-writer (with Lisa Schiller), and one of the producers, is also our tour guide…and a detective of sorts. He spins a fascinating tale about a single beast that emitted this sound, one that other whales did not comprehend. No one has ever answered his call. At one point, there’s a blurry photograph that might be the elusive Goliath, evoking a flashback to those awkward Sasquatch/Bigfoot snapshots that caught the public’s attention back in the 1970s. Zeeman casts this project as something akin to the old Leonard Nemoy television series In Search of….
Supposedly a global phenomenon (news to me, speaking from my cave), Zeman frames a good portion of his film with a colorful array of scientists and knowledgeable specialists. The evidence is real, but tracking down the protagonist might help put this Kong on a proper stage.
Taking the stand first is Joseph George, a retired naval officer with the Integrated Undersea Surveillance System. Other talking heads follow, including Christopher W. Clark, a senior scientist with Cornell University (which has Dr. Michelle Fournet, with that institution’s Center for Conservation Bioacoustics, as one of the lead researchers in Fathom). Some archival footage of Dr. William Watkins, an oceanographer who cataloged the first of this whale’s vocalizations 30+ years ago, adds some general understanding to this “fish” story. Watkins died in September 2004, months before an article appeared in The New York Times to spin a “Song of the Sea, a Cappella and Unanswered.”
The physical search was called off for 52 in 2003. Too big a sea to look for a single whale, sight unseen, when only a sound print and the tape recordings were available. No phone number; no forwarding address. Obviously, it became a legendary myth that has now peaked with the creation and release of The Loneliest Whale.
Zeeman, ever a curious fellow, started that search anew. Heck, while the average age of these mammals is 60-70 years, it could be dead by now. The U.S. Navy wants nothing to do with his quest, so Zeeman and his fans ask for help from the next best thing, Bob Dziak, an acoustics program manager studying underwater volcanoes for NOAA who uses SOSUS (the Sound Surveillance System used by the Navy back in the 1950s).
Some luck allows 52‘s possible habitat to shrink to the Santa Barbara Channel off the coast of California. Zeeman’s mission is funded on a shoestring for a 7-day search (and the onscreen titles emphatically let you know that), which sets sail aboard a boat named Truth as the film approaches the half-hour mark. Armed with folks who know everything about whales, the expedition goes to sea on a longshot challenge, but with a slim notion of possible success. “Yep, we’re in the right time and the right place” opines John Hildebrand, a Distinguished Professor at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Zeeman rightly lets the smart people explain what’s going on, and that keeps it enlightening, while the team of sound designers, and a score by Alex Lasarenko and David Little, provide a tonal edge to the proceedings.
The camera captures plenty of neat stuff. Watch the bioacoustics teams deploy some real advanced drones, dozens of sonobuoys, and newfangled tracking devices. I wonder if James Cameron will make a fictional version of this story, with all the cutting-edge technology? Other members give chase and tag dozens of whales, hoping the technology will help find the elusive ghost.
Interspersed are some descriptive graphics that explain how well sound waves travel in water. Answer: Very Far. Other asides in the film cover the dreadful era that sustained the old tradition of whale killing. As an offset, there’s a delightful recollection by bio-acoustician Roger Payne, whose casual suggestion in 1970 to have some whale sounds be released on an 33⅓ album became the runaway hit Songs of the Humpback Whale. Those intonations pushed the United Nations to craft a global moratorium on commercial whaling. Another buoyant side trip spotlights musician/actress Kate Micucci, who warbles her ditty Doreen the Whale for us. There’s also musician/philosopher David Rothenberg playing his clarinet and jamming with the whales. These all round out the film (some viewers foolishly may say they pad it) and adds to your appreciation of the larger picture.
There are setbacks, big ones, especially as huge container ships noisily plow the shipping lanes, and explosions from offshore oil and gas drilling rigs, all threatening to dash the search.
By the end credits you’re exhausted from a briny anticlimax, but a postscript buoys your spirits, and then some. This water ride has been well worth it.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the horror film German Angst and the documentary Nuts! He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (a revised edition will be published by Centipede Press).