For decades, a solitary whale has been calling out across the ocean, never receiving a reply. It’s believed to be the only whale of its kind: an unknown species, perhaps a blue whale hybrid. The frequency of its 52-hertz voice is too low for other whales to hear.
While other whales may be deaf to its cry, humans are listening. Since a 2004 New York Times article first brought the story of the Lonely Whale into the public consciousness, it has gathered something of a movement around itself. It seems more myth than creature — both a fascinating story with a mysterious protagonist, and a place to project your own feelings of isolation.
The zeitgeist surrounding the whale, known as 52, even extends to Kickstarter. In 2011, a guy named Mike Ambs started making mixtapes of the whale’s song and distributing them, a few at a time, to Kickstarter backers. One of those backers was Josh Zeman, who, with Adrian Grenier, is now developing a documentary called 52: The Search for the Loneliest Whale. The film will chronicle a 20-day expedition, taking their team 400 miles off the coast of California out into the open ocean — all in pursuit of a whale that nobody has ever seen.
“It resonated with me because the story is so dynamic,” says Grenier, the film’s Executive Producer, about the narrative. “Beyond the documentary, the film will be a rally call. We’ll have a community that we can tap into for other ocean work and other stories. And we can help the lonely whale speak to a larger audience.”
Seeking a lone creature across the vast sea is both audacious and familiar. “The search for an individual unique whale is one that’s very common in our culture,” Zeman says. “The greatest piece of American literature is the search for a whale, but it goes beyond that.” The appeal is not just canonical, but also emotional. “The whale is just a metaphor for the human connection that so many of us are searching for, so that’s why it’s important to me. I’ve learned more about human beings from a whale than from hanging out with other human beings.”
“I don’t know if I could say that I relate to it — I just thought it was a beautiful, strange, fascinating story that was just vague enough that people projected onto it,” says Ambs, who’s had a lifelong fascination with whales. “When I was really young, I was flipping through the kids' magazine Ranger Rick, and there was a centerfold spread of facts about blue whales: human adults can swim through their major arteries, and their hearts are the size of a van.”
How then is it so common for people to relate to this creature, when it’s so different and so unimaginably huge? “They say that when you think about a whale, it’s just so giant that it really humbles you as a human being,” says Zeman. “So suddenly your heart is very open in the face of this other creature.”
He sees the way this whale’s story affects people all the time. “I was talking to one person about it and I told her about it, and suddenly her arms went all goosebumped and she started to cry. Like literally right there. It also happened with a journalist just two days ago.”
Besides, the human connection to whales through audio goes back a long way. “In the 70s the album Songs of the Humpback Whale was one of the number one selling nature albums,” Zeman says. “But here is this other 52-hertz whale, and it doesn’t really sound like you’d think a whale sounds. It sounds like this really weird kind of spooky thing.”
Upon discovering the story in 2004, Ambs recalls seeking out a recording immediately (a limited number of his mixtapes of the recording are available as rewards through the documentary project). “It’s a very calming sound. I don’t know if other people feel that way. When I first heard it, I kept wanting to hear it.”
Zeman carries with him a CliffsNotes copy of The Odyssey. He and Grenier are realistic about the challenge of finding one specific whale in an ocean, but they’re optimistic, even excited. “Every film I’ve ever been a part of is a crazy idea, or, ‘Oh yeah that sounds nice but it will never happen.’ But it’s important that we as humans dare to imagine the impossible, and then go out and make it possible.”
Ambs is conflicted. “I’d be scared to come face to face with it a bit because it is such a symbol,” he says. “Still, it’d be a hell of a story to find it.”
For more information, or to support the effort to find 52, visit the project page here.