Whale Watch

Why the world’s loneliest whale reflects humanity’s “biggest fear”

A new documentary explains why the 52 Hertz whale has captivated humans for decades.

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A whale swimming through the ocean
Courtesy of Bleecker Street

The 52 Hertz Whale is the “loneliest whale in the world.”

While he lives among other whales, he’s also apart from them. This whale sings in a frequency others can’t understand. If they do respond, their words probably sound like garbled noise. Meaningful communication is impossible.

“Nobody can understand it,” director Joshua Zeman tells Inverse. “He's basically speaking a different language.”

His is a haunting story that has captured the hearts of humans, including actor Leonardo DiCaprio, who is an executive producer on Zeman’s latest documentary, The Loneliest Whale: The Search for 52. It’s released in theaters on Friday.

Why we’re fascinated with the 52 Hertz Whale is a question so compelling that Zeman put together a scientific expedition to find 52, leading to the creation of his new film. After all, not every whale gets its own BTS song.

“The reaction that I got from people was so fascinating. It was almost visceral,” Zeman says, recalling the reactions he got when he told the story of 52 to others.

“What was it about the story that made people react in such a crazy way?”

Who is the 52 Hertz Whale?

The 52 Hertz Whale, known as “52” to scientists, is perhaps the world’s most elusive whale. He’s fascinated scientists since a top-secret program in the U.S Navy first picked up on his unique 52 Hertz frequency in 1992.

The trailer for “The Loneliest Whale.”

Marine biologist William Watkins figured out that the sound the Navy was picking up on was actually a whale and not some submarine. That’s when the mystery of 52 really began.

Most fin whales sing or communicate around a frequency of 20 Hertz. These songs are below the normal threshold of what humans can hear.

But 52 is special: He communicates at a higher frequency, or “just above the lowest note on a tuba,” as reporter Andrew Revkin describes. He’s biologically similar to other whales, but his frequency is different. It’s possible other whales can technically hear him, but they can’t understand what he’s attempting to communicate.

Scientists, in turn, suspect he may be a hybrid whale — a product of both blue and fin whales.

This is what 52 sounds like, but at 10 times the speed of how it’s naturally heard:

Recording provided by NOAA.

Why does the 52 Hertz Whale fascinate us?

Why are humans obsessed with the tale of the lonely 52? That’s a complicated question to answer, but it requires an understanding of human psychology to fully explain.

courtesy of Bleecker Street

The documentary suggests that there are three primary reasons why we’re so drawn to this one lone whale.

3. The mystery of the ocean and the pursuit of science

Zeman compares the scientific expedition within the documentary to a “heist movie.” There’s adrenaline — and there’s mystery.

There’s a whale out there that cannot communicate with other whales, and it’s possible he’s the only one of his kind.

“Any scientist would be captivated by the opportunity to solve that mystery,” John Calambokidis says in the documentary. Calambokidis is one of the principal scientists leading Zeman’s week-long expedition to find 52, which sets off from the coast of Santa Barbara, California.

The mystery of 52 also reflects our general fascination with the mysteries of the ocean. Since humans can only dive so far into its depths, were still learning new information about the life that dwells within it.

“There’s just so much we don’t know” about the ocean, reflects John Hildebrand, the other scientist leading the expedition, during the making of the film.

2. A new chapter in whale-human relations

The documentary suggests our relationship with whales has evolved since the days of Moby Dick.

“Back then it was questing to kill a whale,” Zeman says. “Now in some respects, it's questing to study whales.”

The scientists in the film use devices called sonobuoys to geolocate whales through their sounds — a technology that has traditionally been used by the Navy to find enemy submarines. As we learn more about whales through evolving acoustic technology, we also learn more about how whales are emotional, social beings like humans, Zeman explains.

“We're just now scratching the surface of really understanding their sentience and how they understand emotion,” Zeman says.

1. Human loneliness

When Zeman first learned of the story of 52, he was going through a romantic breakup, and he saw his own personal situation reflected in the whale’s loneliness.

Anthropomorphization occurs when humans see our own human nature reflected in animal behavior. But Zeman went beyond his own feelings, wondering why other humans also perceived their own loneliness in the whale’s unique circumstances.

52 is a “mirror of ourselves.”

For example, the wildly popular K-pop group BTS wrote a song likening their own pain to the whale’s loneliness. Zeman speculates that humans see 52 as “as a mirror of ourselves” — an especially poignant metaphor in a time of growing loneliness linked to social media. We are surrounded by people, but we still feel lonely.

“Nobody wants to die alone,” Zeman says. “That's our biggest fear.”

The movie touches upon whether whales can actually feel lonely in the way humans do. Scientists have mixed reactions: One expert in the film says that 52 is “without a doubt” lonely while a discovery made near the end of the film suggests the “loneliest whale” may not, in fact, be as lonely as we think.

“We used to call this creature the loneliest whale in the world,” Zeman narrates. “But after today, it’s better known as 52.”

The Loneliest Whale comes out in theaters July 9 and on-demand July 16th through Bleecker Street.

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