Joshua Zeman’s The Loneliest Whale: The Search for 52 (2021) isn’t the first film about whale music, nor even the first about the 52-Hertz Whale—or “52” for short. An incomplete list of contemporaries includes: The Loneliest (2014), Sonic Sea (2016), My Name is Batlir, Not Butler (2018), The Phantom 52 (2019), and Fathom (2021). Zeman tries to set his film apart not just by thinking about 52, or even whale music broadly, but by actually finding 52. And this primary lure is also the film’s major weakness: a noncommittal approach toward both the film essay and the action-styled exploration documentary, neither of which crescendo.
If you don’t know already, 52 is a pitchy vocalist. Origins and species unclear, this individual cetacean “sings” at frequencies so high for a whale its size, experts speculate that its peers, even when they hear it loud and clear, have no clue what it’s on about. Even though it travels with other pods of large whales, its peculiar warbling appears to keep it out of communication—a dangerous situation for a creature so dependent on community sonic wayfinding. (You can listen to its strange calls and compare them to other large whales here.)
Ever since Roger Payne’s multi-platinum album Songs of the Humpback Whale was released in 1970, people across the world have been smitten with both the mathematics and seeming artistry of whale singing. It’s fascinating to think of their calls as “songs,” raising questions about the relegation of art to humans alone, or what counts as art in the first place. Is it music because they sing, or because we hear it? And, more to the point, is a song still a song if it only resonates with a single listener?
Curiosities like this will make Zeman’s project worth a watch for people interested in cetaceans, blue environmentalism, and industrial-military sonic pollution on the high seas. As a film, though, The Loneliest Whale functions best as an annotated bibliography for other, more compelling projects on whales and their strange arts.
Everybody Hertz, LLC
Even though marine bioacoustics expert William A. Watkins first began tracking the sounds of 52 in the early 1990s, the resulting cultural phenomenon of this so-called “lonely” whale didn’t ignite until the middle 2000s. Watkins published his reports on 52 in December 2004. Later that month, The New York Times repackaged those findings in the poetically titled article, “Song of the Sea, a Cappella and Unanswered.” 52’s international cultural capital ascended quickly and broadly.
As it usually goes, poets sculpted 52’s metaphorical potential early. In her 2010 collection, Toxic Flora, Kimiko Hahn wrote an “Ode to 52 Hz.” Her speaker draws an analogy between the lonely whale’s song and her own divorce from a fellow Japanese American, lamenting that relationships “don’t always work out according to kind.” Is the whale likewise desperately calling for creatures of a different kind, a poetry across lines of difference?
Of course I’m being a Romantic—
thinking the whale cared.
That it knew. That it cried out to a human
since no others listened.
That it knew no others listened—
or feared as much.
That we think so and can bear sentimentality.
That we listen for such opportunities. With frequency.
Corrie Williamson’s 2014 prose poem “52 Hertz” leans into the analogous, as well, blending human politics with the ecological. This speaker poses a rich question about the whale’s (dis)ability.
There are those who suggest the 52 Hertz whale is deaf. Mostly deaf people have suggested this. (Dear Cetologists: have you considered the possibility the whale is singing into silence, into a trembling in his own bones?)
52 glut neared critical mass when K-pop group BTS released “Whalien 52,” a musing on the travails of fame. And Taiwanese director Wei Te-sheng took this pop arc through what might’ve otherwise been its denouement by turning 52’s “story” into the musical comedy 52Hz, I Love You (a more enticing movie than The Loneliest Whale).
If I’m honest, my first thought when finding 52 on my own was how very queer this whale seems. I desired analogy just like everyone else. I wanted to use 52’s sonic discordance, a kind of failed attraction, for thinking about the disfavored, or “the perennial outsider,” as Zeman describes 52. This led me to wonder why gender and sex are attached so persistently, and perniciously, to this whale in particular. As when, for instance, comedian and musician Kate Micucci croons of “Doreen the Whale,” a feminine gendering of 52, who sings too “baritonely” to attract a mate (a performance of which is featured in Zeman’s film, by the way).
It’s simply too tempting to use some of our most powerful socio-cultural tools, like sex and gender, for making sense of this anomaly. This is a fascinating fetish which is helped in no small part by finding out that 52 is most likely a hybrid whale, a cross between a blue and a fin—meaning that 52 is itself the result of what we might consider dissident cross-species sex. Such a bummer, then, that the analogies skew almost universally toward cisheteronormativity.
“It’s not about science. It’s about ourselves, our own isolation,” Zeman says. This becomes the film’s broad admission at the end that 52 attention is fueled solely by human self-interest. To seek not the answers to mysteries, but instead their motivations: this is the compelling essay that Zeman teases but ultimately never delivers. Zeman presents viewers with a list of 52 hits, but never stops to really question their motivations. And because this information is so easy to find, it’s not enough to simply show that the 52 phenomenon has occurred, or that loneliness figures across these texts. (Where does loneliness not figure for humans?)
Why not focus more intently on the power and potential dangers of multi-species analogy? Or the possibility of thinking mental health outside the strictly human? Or the power of maritime masculinity to engulf and distort the subjectivity of all kinds of creatures? Or, I’d surely like to know, why everyone’s ideas about 52 inevitably begin and end with sex, gender, and the normatively imagined body?
An Everlasting Itch for Things Remote
Even when 52 is allowed to exist as a whale, rather than a metaphor, it serves as a jumping off point for traditional environmentalist concerns, like sonic and material pollution and the devastations of the whaling/fishing industries. When Zeman turns his film toward an explicitly environmentalist lecture, I’m reminded of when, many decades ago, Greenpeace activists once called whales “a nation of armless Buddhas.”1
The remote and pensive synths of an environmentalist moral high ground signal when The Loneliest Whale is ready to tackle environment. And it is in this long middle section of the film that the essay and the action documentary converge most frenetically, vying for screen time.
We get a media ecology of whaling. Mixed photographs, film clips, illustrations, and other texts ranging from Moby Dick to Greenpeace telling the quick and dirty story of the modern whale’s predicament, how they came to be so few and so confused. And sandwiching this History Channel-like teaching moment are high-energy sequences wherein Zeman’s crew try attaching various cameras and tracking agents onto potential 52s. It’s difficult to say whether Zeman makes any aesthetic or symbolic connections between the harpoon and his camera-attaching devices.
“A chance to do something epic,” as Zeman says, clearly requires lots of accoutrement. Cameras upon cameras. An intense, Discovery Channel score. Drone footage recording a cameraperson who is filming crew attaching yet more cameras to the actual whales. While Zeman does take an interest in making these meta-mechanics available to the viewer, he pulls back from making the film about those mechanics. Look to Leviathan (2012), instead, for an immersive documentary experience about the fishing industry.
As it is, though, the essay indeed cancels out the action documentary. Documenting the journey is subdued by incomplete musings on why the journey matters. Such that finding out that there is more than one 52-Hertz whale somehow becomes an anticlimax, rather than a reward. This discovery doesn’t fit the adventure’s narrative, and the film resigns itself to this fate by switching back to the essay and ruminations on human interest, back to “a whole ocean of lonely whales” and the lonely people who make it so.
There’s a lot to love about this movie—like the end credits track which mimics the sonar quality of whale music, or the intriguing metaphors used to describe the sheer scope of whale sound spanning the seas like great blasts of light. I imagine it works best for lovers of David Attenborough, or those who watch nature documentaries with the same detached pleasure they experience during a pristinely manicured Apple commercial. For me, 52 lives best as a metaphor, not in the overwrought nature picture.