The Lonliest Whale: The Search for 52

Written & Directed by Joshua Zeman

Rating: 4 out of 5.

In parts of the abyss otherwise unexamined, a haunting, peculiar noise ripples through the bleakness of the unexplored. In 1989, whilst assigned to detect Russian submarines, US Navy marine surveillances detected the frequency of a whale’s singing at 52Hz, significantly higher than any other recorded song. The question of the loneliest whale, either the first or last of its kind, singing into the darkness, searching for another to share in its song took the world by storm in the mid-2010s.

In part produced by the curious minds and unsatiated appetites across the globe, The Loneliest Whale: The Search of 52 was in part crowdfunded by director Joshua Zeman with executive producer Leonardo DiCaprio and Adrian Grenier. It seems many of us are searching for answers to questions the documentary poses as it charters Zeman’s journey aboard the boat Truth and a team of oceanographers to perhaps unravel the decades-old mystery of 52. 

It’s no easy feat, as the audience has it blatantly told to them, as the hunt for the elusive denizen of the deep begins. It makes for a trudge of pacing, but where patience is rewarded in similar documentaries – The Loneliest Whale struggles to maintain the tantalising path to completion. Zeman’s film is strict within its respect for the biological world, with no interference even at the risk of losing viewers.

Uplifting the excitement somewhat, the array of technobabble and absolute joy of witnessing these scientists at work, taking in both the scenery and excitement of the biodiversity surrounding them is a joy to watch, and engaging enough to fend off the lack of any surfacing for the initial act. Their optimism makes up for the film’s more baseline historical segments, where the lack of effective storytellers becomes apparent.

With a lack of concise storytelling, the film filters into other aspects of the oceanographer’s journey and history. Touching on whaling, and the more contemporary issue of noise pollution from cargo freighters disturbing the resonance of the waters, creating more and more lonely whales whose songs are drowned out by the container ships.

Occasionally, this means the Zeman inserts himself into the narrative, often distracting from the principal points at hand, but an unsung brilliance in the reflection of the film becomes recognisable as Zeman and the crew discuss the various artworks, songs and infamy of the whale – as they begin to ponder is the behemoth is still alive, or even lonely, or if the fans of the idea of this eternally floating whale are outward projections and a manifestation of this digital-anxiety.

Despite the bleakness of a potential anti-climax, there’s a brightness to the film, an almost meditative state which appeals to a broad spectrum of viewers. But for those dedicated, the significance and determination of the film pay off. And though Zeman’s film is never one for smooth waters, the documentary offers a glimpse of the oceans and their inhabitants, an illustration of the sheer level of enigmatic hope and promise we place in these deep bubbling, briny waters.

The Loneliest Whale: The Search for 52 is available on Digital Download from now


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