Director Joshua Zeman never forgot the first time he saw a whale. He was a teen then, humbled by the majestic sight, reminded of the earth’s awe-inspiring power. With “The Loneliest Whale: The Search for 52,” he harnesses the cavernous passion he formed for the ocean and marine life at an impressionable age and pours it into a spirited yet naive personal quest to find a specific cetacean no one has ever laid eyes on. The result is a well-meaning but somewhat granola, partly engaging yet disorganized documentary, one that searches for an imprecise story and struggles to keep its chief ambitions afloat.
At the center of it is the titular whale, often referred to as “52” due to the singular sounds he diffuses at 52 hertz, a mysterious and apparently one-of-a-kind acoustic frequency for these aquatic mammals. The film’s pragmatic opening moments recap that the unidentifiable sound was first detected by the United States Navy in 1989, thanks to a classified underwater surveillance system designed in the Cold War era, at the height of the Soviet paranoia, to detect unwelcome submarine vibrations. It was Dr. William Watkins of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution who first concluded that the source of the timbre was a whale and not a submarine, declaring that the distinct transmission frequency could only mean one thing: Despite swimming through the ocean day in and day out and calling out for connection with his unique song, this unheard creature was all alone, with no mate or community to call his own.
Even though Watkins traced 52 for the next 12 years, it wasn’t until 2004 that the friendless whale became famous, striking a chord with a society in distress after a profile in The New York Times. And it’s easy to understand why, considering that humans often project their thoughts and feelings onto animals for comfort and affirmation. Indeed, many around the world were moved by the tale of a solitary mammal in search of a comrade, perhaps reminded of their own seclusion. While there are still many scientific unknowns about the communal behavior of whales (although the more commonly accepted school of thought regards them as social beings), scores of kindred people across the globe were stirred enough to shower the web with their profound concern for 52, as well as artwork created in his honor. Zeman was hooked when he heard the story, harboring an obsession with locating the whale around the California coastline, where he was last heard from.
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What would most likely have been a pipe dream in pre-Kickstarter days turned into a real, time-crunched undertaking for the filmmaker, thanks both to a handsome enough crowdsourced budget and conservation-minded stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Adrian Grenier coming on board as producers. Then again, no amount of Hollywood A-listers could have steered Zeman’s childlike pursuit toward the kind of resolution he wished for. Indeed, it wouldn’t be a major spoiler to reveal that the filmmaker, teaming up with a group of researchers and scientists throughout his quest, doesn’t quite end up meeting his hero. And the issue with “The Loneliest Whale” — apart from the entitled ring of the entire needle-in-a-haystack mission — is that Zeman seems aware of this fast-approaching bummer from the start. So much so that he overloads his documentary with interesting yet beside-the-point sidebars and narrative parentheticals as filler, as well as apt yet obvious references to Jacques Cousteau and “Moby Dick,” just to give the viewer something to nibble on before the inevitable anticlimax arrives.
Admittedly, some of those diversions are engaging and informative, if not exactly groundbreaking. Through them, Zeman educates us about different types of whales while assembling a standard-issue nonfiction film, mostly comprising flat talking-head interviews conducted with an array of scientific experts. Also in the mix are simple, well-defined graphics and rich archival footage about the historical plight of the oceanic titans that were once brutally and commonly murdered in hordes for their precious blubber. Sadly, these segments fall short of summoning a “Blackfish” type of urgency in activism and distance the viewer from Zeman’s central premise and framing. In that regard, it is no surprise that the film’s breathtaking underwater footage as well as sequences that follow Zeman and his crew as they race against a ticking one-week clock (and shrinking budget) are the most compelling offerings here. Also admirable are the scenes that involve musician, philosopher and “Thousand Mile Song” author David Rothenberg, who links the world’s renewed understanding of whales in the late ’60s to the discovery of humpback songs. As someone who conducts musical jam sessions with whales, Rothenberg instantly establishes himself as one of the doc’s liveliest and most cinematic authority figures, whose wise, lighthearted presence you feel grateful for.
In fairness, “The Loneliest Whale” does offer a surprise element in its conclusion. And through a consequent postscript that feels like an afterthought, Zeman and writing partner Lisa Schiller work overtime to sell a lesson about interconnectedness versus isolation in the age of technology. But it all feels too vague, even conveniently retrofitted, making one think hard on a question: What if deep-sea creatures, whether octopus teachers or solitary whales, just want to be left alone?