‘The Loneliest Whale: The Search for 52’ Review

The old adage goes, “there’s someone for everyone.” Even for outsiders and misfits. But what if there is only one? First heard by the U.S. Navy in 1989, “the loneliest whale in the world” has been named “52” due to his unique 52-hertz call.

He has never been seen and his song was last heard in 2003…so there is no guarantee he’s still alive. Director Joshua Zemen has long been fascinated by the legend of 52 – a majestic creature assumed to be living in isolation since no other whales can hear his call.

It’s a sad story and one that caused a social frenzy as so many related their own stories of loneliness, proving yet again how humans connect with the animal kingdom. Whales have long played a role in the Bible (Jonah) and in literature, Moby Dick, but 52’s unusual call was picked up thanks to the Navy’s Sound Surveillance System (SOSUS) which had been developed to track submarines during wartime. It took the late Oceanographer Bill Watkins to recognize the call as biological, creating the origin of the legend and mystery. Watkins claimed we can hear more than we see in the ocean, and there’s much to learn from those sounds.

When the 52-hertz call was once again heard, Zemen secured funding for a 7-day excursion off the Santa Barbara coast with the goal of locating the whale. He assembled a team of oceanographers, biologists, and researchers – each knowledgeable and passionate. Zemen is the outsider of this group, and the film’s only flaw is that he allows himself to be the focus a bit too often. Interspersed within the mission are history lessons regarding the hunting of whales, once commonplace. All of that changed with the 1970 best-selling record entitled, “Songs of the Humpback Whales”. Hearing their calls and singing led directly to the “Save the Whales” movement – and the hunting and slaughtering was cut by 99%.

Director Zemen is having quite the year, as his excellent docuseries, The Sons of Sam: A Descent into Darkness was recently released. Here he works hard at instilling some entertainment into the science project by including the captain’s 52 Lost Love music tape featuring Pablo Cruise, and a quick segment with the quirky and brilliant Kate Micucci…plus a humorous moment informing us that single bunks are for one person. The film doesn’t get the “tied up with a bow” ending Zemen and the researchers might hope for, but the mystery shifts a bit, and we realize how much we’ve enjoyed spending time with these smart, caring folks. Leonardo DiCaprio donated $50,000 to the project and is listed as an Executive Producer for the film that offers some close-ups and details that are likely new to many of us.

Bleeker Street will release The Loneliest Whale in theaters nationwide on July 9 and on Digital on July 16.