Captain Ahab had Moby Dick.
Documentarian Josh Zeman has 52, the elusive cetacean who inspires The Loneliest Whale.
Subtitled The Search for 52, Zeman’s documentary traces his — and the wider world’s — fascination with a creature who seems to speak to all the lonely people. (If not his fellow whales.)
Initially, a U.S. Navy program designed to detect undersea security threats discovered 52 — as an unidentified sound repeating at a frequency of 52 hertz.
When an oceanographer analyzed the sound as “biologic” — the song of a whale calling out at a frequency other whales couldn’t hear or understand — the whale dubbed “52” became a media sensation.
The Navy stopped listening to, and for, 52 in 2003. But Zeman (who directs, co-writes with Lisa Schiller, narrates and appears on screen) remained intrigued.
So intrigued that he rounded up experts to join him on a week-long voyage to find 52 off the Southern California coast.
Aboard the appropriately named Truth, Zeman’s expedition partners range from a veteran whale researcher to a bioacoustics professor to a musician, tootling on a clarinet from the boat’s deck, who hopes to spark a response from the deep.
If The Loneliest Whale were a fictional adventure, this ocean trek would be the primary focus.
But Zeman augments the account of his odyssey with multiple ancillary elements.
Beyond the (too) numerous talking heads, the documentary features extended examples of humanity’s age-old fascination with whales. Starting with the one that, according to the Bible, swallowed the prophet Jonah.
Archival footage recalls how whales were hunted to near-extinction for their oil — which lit the world’s lamps. But an unexpected smash recording from 1970, Songs of the Humpback Whale, sparked a worldwide save-the-whales campaign. (Even TV’s The Partridge Family got in on the action.)
All of this background proves enlightening. Some of it even proves compelling. But it gives the documentary a rambling, scattershot quality that diminishes its overall impact.
Nothing, however, could detract from the documentary’s stirring views of the Truth at sea, the shifting tides below, the shifting clouds above, the elusive, evanescent beings somewhere beyond.
A silvery sliver of moon stands sentinel in the night sky. During the day, our intrepid adventurers keep a sharp eye out for the awe-inspiring whales. And, alas, for the even bigger container ships, heading for port, that even now still threaten the whales’ very existence.