The Loneliest Whale – The Search for 52

In 1992 a top secret program by the US navy discovered an unusual sound at a frequency of 52 hertz. A marine biologist William Watkins said the sound was coming from a solitary whale, but this frequency was unlike any other. The mysterious whale has been dubbed the Loneliest Whale and has never been found, until now.

After an article in the New York Times about “52”, people began talking about the whale on the internet creating a global phenomenon. People connected all around the world over the whale’s lonely plight and director Joshua Zeman, captivated by the story, made it his personal mission to find the whale. 

He begins by speaking with retired US Navy Chief, Joseph George, to find out what he knows about “52”, the frequency discovered by the US navy’s sound surveillance system S.O.S.U.S., developed to keep ahead of the Russians. The system found the unusual sound frequency but unfortunately the only revealing thing about the interview was seeing the chief slightly squirm in his seat when asked about what the US navy actually thought the strange sound frequency was that they had been tracking around the west coast of Californian.

The frequency is unique not least amongst whales – Blue Whales resonate at a sound of 100 hz, Fin Whales at 20 hz. This was clearly a mystery and so the marine biologist Bill Watkins was brought in to investigate but sadly after he passed away more than a decade ago the case was left unresolved.

With access to the navy S.O.N.U.S data classified Josh turns to Bob Dziak a scientist using the S.O.N.U.S technology to study underwater volcanoes but again gets little encouragement in his quest, except for getting to see an audio speaker reverberate at the mysterious 52 hz. Undeterred Josh continues with his search and finally gets a good lead from the California Institute of Oceanography who have discovered a series of recorded sites of “52” off the West Coast of California in Santa Barbara over the past couple of years.

Josh needs no further invitation and heads up a team of experts to go on a 1 week expedition to find “52”. Professor John Hildebrand from the California Institute of Oceanography is put in charge of the acoustic tracking and marine biologist John Calabokidis is leading the whale boat team as they head out to sea with their cargo of borrowed Navy sonar equipment (that looks very similar to your old TV antenna) and other hi-tech tracking devices.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        

During the ship’s expedition the story introduces some other interesting subplots like a quick history of whaling from the romantic stories of Ahab and his search for Moby Dick to the atrocities of whaling on an industrial scale. Oddly enough the documentary credits the first recordings of whale sounds on sale in record shops as the catalyst that began to change the public’s opinion towards whales, leading to their protection – along with activist groups like Greenpeace. But even odder is the guy brought on the expedition to play his clarinet and ‘jam’ with the sounds of the whales underwater.

This epic journey to find a whale is intriguing but slightly mystifying in itself. As a homage to a lonely whale it seems an extravagant wild goose chase that despite all the science seems quite unscientific. All the experts have given up looking but Josh thinks the journey is still worth making regardless of its success or failure because the world needs to have mysteries and endeavour. Add to this the overarching message about the world’s loneliest whale, one that most people can relate to in their lives of feeling lost, feeling alone and feeling unheard, which conveniently makes the search for this whale an allegory about life – even though we don’t know if this whale is dead, alive or even exists.

Executive produced by Leonardo DiCaprio through a kickstarter campaign you expect a documentary with a degree of planetary significance and even though the investigative search doesn’t quite hit the dramatic peaks you’re being shown, there is a warm intelligent picture immersed here and whilst director Josh Zeman doesn’t quite have the same on screen charisma as his more famous exec producer counterpart he does have an uncanny acoustic resemblance. 

Available on digital download and DVD from 11th April here.

Film: The Loneliest Whale

Director: Joshua Zeman, Joseph George & David Rosenberg

Genre: Documentary

Stars: Joshua Zeman, John Hildebrand, John Calambokidis

Run time: 1hr 36min

Rated: PG

Rating: 3/5

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