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VOD Review: The Loneliest Whale: The Search for 52

July 16, 2021

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

Filmmaker Joshua Zemen sets out in search of the “52 Hertz Whale” in his documentary The Loneliest Whale: The Search for 52, which follows Zemen and a team of marine biologists as they try to track the elusive whale’s signal across the Pacific Ocean.

Because this specific creature vocalizes at a different frequency from other whales, scientists have theorized that it is alone in the wild, separated from other pods. The whale, who came to simply be known by the name 52, was first discovered by the US Navy in 1989, who at first believed the signal to be coming from a Soviet submarine.

Dr. William Watkins, a pioneer in the field of marine mammal bioacoustics at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, was the first to determine that the sound was actually coming from a whale trying to communicate at 52 hertz, and tracked the whale until his death in 2004. While the animal has never actually been seen by people, 52 started to receive an online following of people who projected their own feelings of loneliness onto him, with Zemen’s team hoping to catch the first visual documentation of the creature.

With Leonardo DiCaprio serving as executive producer, The Loneliest Whale: The Search for 52 seems intended to reach the widest possible audience with its ecological message,  but Zemen’s journey doesn’t always maintain full audience interest. The film itself drags a bit, and is somewhat messily assembled, with a few interludes that aren’t properly woven into the narrative. Moments where the film ponders the sentience of 52, and whether or not he is experiencing the feelings of loneliness that we humans have ascribed to him, are interesting, but feel under explored and could have been better incorporated.

One of the most interesting parts of the film examines how whales used to be killed by the thousands for their oil, a practise that fell widely out of favour with the release of biologist Roger Payne’s 1970 album Songs of the Humpback Whale, with the public turning against the whaling industry when people heard them singing. It’s an interesting interlude, but again feels separate from the rest of the movie.

The film also touches on how the sounds from container ships passing through the paths of the whales are causing audio pollution that drowns out their sounds, which provides an interesting suggestion of the effects that global trade are having on the environment. But, again, this theme feels somewhat underdeveloped. We also get random moments like actress and musician Kate Micucci singing a song she wrote inspired by 52, which comes out of nowhere and doesn’t fit with the rest of the movie.

Zemen works in references to Moby Dick that seem intended to provide subtext to his own increasingly elusive search for the so-called great white whale, but these themes are never quite as fleshed out as they could have been. While there are certainly interesting elements in The Loneliest Whale: The Search for 52, and some moments of intrigue, the film as a whole feels a bit unfocused and is not as compelling as it could have been.

The Loneliest Whale: The Search for 52 is now available on a variety of Digital and VOD platforms. It’s being distributed in Canada by Elevation Pictures.

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