The Loneliest Whale | ★★★ | In Theaters July 9 & On Demand July 16

Several decades ago, right after the end of the Cold War, the perfect metaphor for loneliness was recorded by the U.S. Navy in the deep North Pacific.

At first, the recordings, which resisted easy designation as either biological or mechanical, were classified.

In the early 90s, though, pioneering marine mammal researcher Bill Watkins determined them to be those of a whale whose sonic signature fell at 52 hertz—a lonely frequency that registers just above the auditory range of other cetacean creatures. In short: for decades, the whale was speaking, but it seemed no one could understand him.

This new explanation made the whale, commonly known as 52, suddenly the most popular whale in the world—not that he knew it. People saw themselves in his lone-cowboy plight, and in a frustrating inability to communicate.

This makes sense: loneliness is acute enough in the United States that it was classified as an epidemic years ago, long before the pandemic ever even sunk its teeth into our heightened social isolation. Tattoos, songs, fan clubs, foundations, essays, and poetry emerged all over the globe, all made in tribute to 52.

Now the whale finds himself at the center of the new feature-length documentary The Loneliest Whale. Produced by Adrian Grenier and Leonardo DiCaprio and originally slated for a 2018 release, the documentary paints the fullest portrait of 52 yet.

It begins, as other famous whaling stories have, with a quest: Writer-director-narrator Joshua Zeman wants to find 52, an animal that has never before been seen.

At the start of the film, a fresh audio footprint emerges, locating 52 somewhere off the shore of Southern California. Zeman sets off on a one-week voyage, accompanied by a crew of scientists and mariners who, while acknowledging many times that the search is a “needle in a haystack,” still believe it is one worth undertaking.

And if the whale is truly lonely, as one animal psychologist confirms (“Absolutely, without a doubt, this whale is lonely”), at least the crew—sun-weathered and kind-faced—doesn’t seem to be. On the boat, they listen to soft rock, grip coffee mugs as the boat bobs, and respectfully finish each other’s sentences. (Watching, I kept thinking: Should I switch careers and go become a whale-chaser?)

The crew gaze out at the ocean and wonder aloud if their questions about 52 will be answered.

Though what questions, exactly? In this regard, the documentary falls a little short, and abruptly drops off. Zeman is an elegiac narrator, weaving in bits of history about our changing cultural relationship with whales, but I found myself wanting more of a roadmap for this voyage. What were the filmmakers looking for—was it confirmation that 52 was alive? Happy, lonely? Still singing? Was there a mystery that could even really be solved, or fully articulated, in this story?

Not all of these queries are fully answered, but a plot twist at the end does offer an answer to at least one question, changing the nature of the metaphor in the process. As can be expected with most art, the beauty is found in the act of searching, and this is true here.

There have been countless studies and articles addressing loneliness this past year; watching this film, it did seem that, as thorough and truthful as any of those were, somehow none could capture the emotional impact of isolation quite like this enormous whale, swimming and singing for years—and possibly alone, in a vast, open sea.

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