'The Loneliest Whale' Might Actually Not Be So Lonely, According to a New Documentary

The elusive whale nicknamed 52 has been a creature of fascination for years, and 'The Loneliest Whale: The Search for 52' sets out to find him.

loneliest whale
Bleecker Street

In 1989, the United States Navy's underwater sonar surveillance system SOSUS, built in the 1950s and used to pinpoint Soviet submarines during the Cold War, picked up a highly unusual sound off the coast at 52 Hertz, a pitch or two higher than the lowest note on a tuba. It was definitely not a sub, the rhythmic thrum of the oceanic bellow suggesting this strange tone was coming from a sea creature. In short, this is how an elusive whale, nicknamed 52, was first found.

One scientist in particular, William A. Watkins, heeded the call of 52, whose frequency doesn't match that of any other known whale vocalizations. Watkins and his team tracked 52 underwater for years, but never once seeing it for themselves. In 2004, the New York Times published a story on Watkins' findings from 12 years of research, turning 52 into the most viral cetacean this side of the depressed orca Tilikum and immediately crowning it as the loneliest whale in the world, singing out into the ocean's void and never receiving a response. 

Filmmaker Joshua Zeman (Cropsey, Sons of Sam) heard about the Watkins whale and, as a teenage midshipman on a 19th century schooner that hosted whale watching tours, was taken by him. (And 52 is most likely a he—it's widely theorized, though their purpose is still a mystery, that whale songs are mating calls.) In researching further, he found entrenched communities, Twitter accounts, and other stories—Buzzfeed blurb-bombed it, Leslie Jamison penned a deeply thoughtful piece for The Atavist—obsessed with 52's solitude. So, in a self-admitted Ahabian move, Zeman decided to see if he could find it for himself, a four-year quest resulting in the new documentary The Loneliest Whale: The Search for 52, out in theaters and, this week, on VOD.

"We're trying to find this whale, but that existential human crisis is in the form of this whale," Zeman says over Zoom ahead of the film's release. "What is it that makes this idea that this is the loneliest whale? And what makes it such a powerful metaphor for us?"

the loneliest whale search for 52
Bleecker Street

The Loneliest Whale toggles between the science behind Zeman's expedition, funded through a Kickstarter campaign and supported by executive producers Adrian Grenier and Leonardo DiCaprio, and loftier philosophical inquiries about exactly those questions, tracing a practically spiritual obsession with whales back to the '60s when their songs were first heard by the public.

"The minute people heard the songs of the humpback whale, they were blown away. It was a mystical experience," Zeman says. "They were suddenly like, 'Oh, my God, a creature that makes such a beautiful sound has to be more than a dumb animal.' We never wanted to save whales until we heard them sing. You can actually make this very interesting direct line from whale song to the green movement of today."

It's that wide-eyed optimism that Zeman credits to sustaining him during the yearslong quest, with so little information to go off of, to find 52, if it was even still alive. After begging the Navy to grant access to the SOSUS system—which is still used to this day over fears of a new submarine warfare because of the melting polar ice caps and, thus, classified—Zeman was finally able to access bits of data and sent it to marine scientists to evaluate the audio for any blips of a 52 Hz tone. "The scientists call us up and they're like, 'Look, we just went through all eight years worth of data, and we haven't heard him and we think he's dead,'" Zeman recalls. "At that point, I was just like, 'Oh, my God, I'm gonna be a laughingstock of the Kickstarter world.' It was a real up and down kind of travesty. But I guess that's the point. Right? That's the journey."

Watching The Loneliest Whale, it's hard not to feel Zeman's frustration after hitting roadblock after roadblock while trying to find the needle in a haystack. "I'm like, 'this motherfucking whale.' So many times," Zeman says. "We would sit there and be like, this fucking whale, just making it so hard."

Even getting access to a boat to get out to sea wasn't a straightforward process. (Zeman shares that the crew got the OK to use Google CEO Eric Schmidt's yacht for the expedition, but rescinded the offer when he ended up using it to vacation with Bill Gates and Reed Hastings.) As the 22-person crew makes it out to sea on a tiny diving boat to trawl off the coast of Santa Barbara in the film, I was crossing my fingers and toes that they'd find literally anything—if not, what did I just watch? "That is the whole thing of this expedition," Zeman says. "It is a gamble."

His game of chance—miraculously, euphorically—pays off in the end. Throughout the film, it's speculated that 52 is actually a hybrid of a fin whale and blue whale, a few of which are spotted via drone footage. It's a bit later, when Zeman and crew returns to shore, that he gets news from audio taken from the expedition: They didn't pick up a single 52 Hz call; there were two. "I was so fucking blown away," Zeman says. "Whether [one of them] is the Watkins whale, it could be, but who knows?"

Suddenly, I felt less bad for the alleged loneliest whale in the world. He's been playing us, messing with our inherent compulsion for connection. If there are two of these hybrid whales, surely there must be more, which is what the scientists are trying to suss out now with collected audio. "This isn't your—we call them 'Chicken Little science stories,' where it's like, the corals are bleaching," Zeman says. "Yes, that's important, no doubt. But we wanted to do something slightly different."

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Leanne Butkovic is an entertainment editor at Thrillist, on Twitter @leanbutk.