What the Loneliest Whale Documentary Tells Us About Ourselves

Anyone who has been misunderstood or posted something on the internet with a precisely zero response can probably relate to the legend of the ‘world’s loneliest whale’. First identified by pioneer of marine mammal bioacoustics research William Watkins in 1989, the history of the whale – that is, the one humans forced upon it – has become a sort of viral tradition. in the internet age. The Loneliest Whale’s Ballad looks like this: A whale that resides in Pacific waters sings at a unique frequency – 52 Hz – outside of that with which other whales communicate. The idea that the whale – most likely a male – calls for the lack of response or understanding from other whales is, according to documentary director Joshua Zeman, a reflection of our own discontent.

“It is the existential human crisis that is reflected [us]”he recently told Jezebel via Zoom.” Call in the dark and never get an answer. None of us want to die alone.

In 2015, Zeman embarked on a journey to find the loneliest whale, often referred to as 52, and his quest is documented in the new documentary. The Loneliest Whale. From its early days of stop-and-go investigation (at one point there were fears of the whale’s death when it had not been detected for years) to a search on the high seas, The Loneliest Whale was for Zeman an “emotional journey for a filmmaker, like tearing out the heart and putting it back and ripping it out again.”

About 10 years ago, the director (whose previous credits include the 2009 Urban Legend doc Cropsey) started looking at 52 – since then he has done projects like A&E The season of the killings and Sam’s sons for Netflix. It was not an easy process. Zeman said he pitched his idea of ​​going in search of 52 in the Pacific to various producers, including Harvey Weinstein (before his allegations of sexual abuse surfaced), who wanted reassurance that the Zeman’s search would prove fruitful. Zeman refused to promise he would capture 52 on film, how could he? (Alongside co-producer Adrian Grenier, Zeman raised around $ 400,000 for production on Kickstarter.) The US Navy initially appeared to help participate in the research, at least by providing data, but withdrew to deal with it. more pressing issues when Russia attacked Ukraine in 2014.

Moreover, the very premise of Zeman’s expedition was criticized by Chris Clark of Cornell, a bioacoustics researcher, who suggested in a BBC article in 2015 that 52 was simply idiosyncratic, “not completely mind-boggling unique,” and furthermore, didn’t necessarily go unnoticed by his cetacean peers. “The animal sings with many of the same characteristics as the typical song of a blue whale,” Clark said. “Blue whales, fin whales and humpback whales: all these whales can hear this guy, they are not deaf. He’s just weird.

Clark, however, did end up appearing in Zeman’s film, following an “existential conversation” that lasted four hours, in Zeman’s memory. Zeman said he needs to allay Clark’s fears that his film will anthropomorphize the whale to the point of becoming fictional.

“He didn’t realize how far we were going with the metaphor,” Zeman said. “I was like, ‘We want to put on the mirror because that’s the only way to understand it.’ You know, our whole fascination with this whale isn’t about the whale, it’s with us. It really sheds light on our relationship with the ocean and with the environment.

Indeed, in one of the The Loneliest WhaleThrough several fascinating narrative tangents, Zeman traces humanity’s relationship with whales to the discovery of bio-acoustician Roger Payne in the 1960s that the sounds of whales actually repeated themselves and were more like songs. The ensuing release of the 1970 album Humpback whale songs gave way to the conservation efforts of Save the Whales and a global environmental awareness that is the basis of today’s green movement.

“We hear calls from whales and we suddenly realize, ‘Oh my God, a creature that does something so beautiful must be worth saving,’ Zeman said. “In our little brain, the whale must now be worth saving. You could make a specific line by hearing something in nature that blows us away and then suddenly we realize, damn it, nature is amazingly beautiful, connected, and spiritual in a way that I can’t even imagine. And that leads to our appreciation and our need for appreciation today.

Zeman’s film also delves into the history of whaling, as well as the notion of noise pollution from giant cargo ships, which interrupts whales’ communication to a potentially disorienting degree. But the heart of The Loneliest Whale is the actual research of 52 in Pacific waters. An expert says finding a needle in a haystack is a “chance favorite” compared to finding a whale in the vast ocean, of which about 90% remain unexplored. With a seasoned team of bioacoustic experts and whale researchers, and a complex interplay of technologies including drones and sonobuoys, Zeman set out in 2015 on the high seas to hopefully spot the elusive creature.

“I had this real idea of ​​pollyanna that like this whale who had taught us so much about humanity would somehow find a way to break through the noise, and history would find it in a way. or some other, ”Zeman said. “We were like, ‘We’re going to do it. “”

You can probably see where this is going, but in case you can’t, the following is a bit of a spoiler (which Zeman talked about openly and at length): He didn’t find 52.

“I think it would have been different if we had had 14 [days], “he said.” We were so close. If we would have stayed in the area and somehow swam, I think we would have seen or heard him again. He pointed out that it was on day 6 that the The crew finally understood the triangulation of sound and image and encountered a large group of whales, but the camera did not look at the blue whale hybrid that 52 is believed to be.

Zeman was ambivalent about his unrealized goal – there’s one final reveal in the film that gives a sense of closure and points to a resolution of the Loneliest Whale story, but it’s not quite a substitute for the images of a living and breathing legend. But as Zeman says in a voiceover in his film, “Every story has an end even if it isn’t what you expected.”

“My big discussion was that scientists need to be better storytellers and we need creatures like the Loneliest Whale for people to care about,” he said. “Let this be the metaphor. We needed that in the fight against climate change at the start of the game, we needed a much better story. We had to rely on that fucking Al Gore. No wonder we are losing this battle. Al Gore, he’s awesome. But that’s not what’s gonna make people cry, you know?

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