Much like the needle-in-a-haystack search that propels this unexpectedly endearing documentary film, The Loneliest Whale: The Search For 52 – executive produced by Leonardo DiCaprio, who donated $50k to the project’s Kickstarter fund – begins as one thing and, by the end, has evolved into something altogether more meaningful.
After trawling the internet in the early 2010s, director Joshua Zeman became fixated on the mystery of what academics have dubbed the ‘52 Hertz Whale’. It’s a story that could have been lifted from the pages of some unmade Cold War-era B-movie screenplay: in 1989 the US Navy’s submarine surveillance system detected an unidentifiable signal in the Pacific Ocean, reverberating through the deep at 52 hertz.
Perplexed, they turned to marine scientists who deduced that the sound was that of a whale, but one whose call was at a frequency different to any other in its species. They believe the enigmatic creature has spent its entire life alone, scouring the sea in solitude while yearning for companionship. Unsurprisingly, its story has garnered a swirl of social media attention in recent years: an outpouring of online support that, somewhat inevitably, led to the whale getting its very own twitter account in 2013.
And so to Zeman and a team of researchers who in 2015, more than a decade since the whale was last heard, set out on an ambitious expedition to find the ocean giant and, in turn, the truth behind the mystery. Seven years on, in an era of connectivity more recently defined by isolation and loneliness, the film’s release is serendipitous timing. But there’s a timeless quality to the story of 52, one anchored by, and indeed borne out of, a profound sense of connection.
Calling to mind the similarly surprising charm of 2021 Oscar winner My Octopus Teacher, Zeman’s film poignantly unfurls as something greater than the sum of its parts. It is intimate and hopeful; educational yet elegant. It is both a literal and thematic deep-dive, where impressive footage of humpback, fin and blue whales accompany musings on the history of whaling, contemporary threats, and the plunge to more existential depths.
And it’s through the latter that the film harbours much of its power. If Zeman’s pensive voiceover occasionally revels too much in the wider relevance of its subject matter, it’s rather beautifully offset by the film’s celebration of the transcendental lure of these great leviathans and their haunting, symphonic song. It asks questions that transcend both species and language: sentience, feelings and the shared desire to belong. The Loneliest Whale might just be the nature film we didn’t know we needed.
Dir: Joshua Zeman (PG, 96 mins)
Out on digital download from Mon 4 Apr
words GEORGE NASH
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