'The Loneliest Whale' Might Actually Not Be So Lonely, According to a New Documentary

The elusive whale nicknamed 52 has been a creature of fascination for years, and 'The Loneliest Whale: The Search for 52' sets out to find him.

Bleecker Street
Bleecker Street
Bleecker Street

In 1989, the United States Navy’s underwater sonar surveillance system SOSUS, built in the 1950s and used to pinpoint Soviet submarines during the Cold War, picked up a highly unusual sound off the coast at 52 Hertz, a pitch or two higher than the lowest note on a tuba. It was definitely not a sub, the rhythmic thrum of the oceanic bellow suggesting this strange tone was coming from a sea creature. In short, this is how an elusive whale, nicknamed 52, was first found.

One scientist in particular, William A. Watkins, heeded the call of 52, whose frequency doesn’t match that of any other known whale vocalizations. Watkins and his team tracked 52 underwater for years, but never once seeing it for themselves. In 2004, the New York Times published a story on Watkins’ findings from 12 years of research, turning 52 into the most viral cetacean this side of the depressed orca Tilikum and immediately crowning it as the loneliest whale in the world, singing out into the ocean’s void and never receiving a response. 

Filmmaker Joshua Zeman (Cropsey, Sons of Sam) heard about the Watkins whale and, as a teenage midshipman on a 19th century schooner that hosted whale watching tours, was taken by him. (And 52 is most likely a he-it’s widely theorized, though their purpose is still a mystery, that whale songs are mating calls.) In researching further, he found entrenched communities, Twitter accounts, and other stories-Buzzfeed blurb-bombed it, Leslie Jamison penned a deeply thoughtful piece for The Atavist-obsessed with 52’s solitude. So, in a self-admitted Ahabian move, Zeman decided to see if he could find it for himself, a four-year quest resulting in the new documentary The Loneliest Whale: The Search for 52, out in theaters and, this week, on VOD.

“We’re trying to find this whale, but that existential human crisis is in the form of this whale,” Zeman says over Zoom ahead of the film’s release. “What is it that makes this idea that this is the loneliest whale? And what makes it such a powerful metaphor for us?”

Bleecker Street
Bleecker Street
Bleecker Street

The Loneliest Whale toggles between the science behind Zeman’s expedition, funded through a Kickstarter campaign and supported by executive producers Adrian Grenier and Leonardo DiCaprio, and loftier philosophical inquiries about exactly those questions, tracing a practically spiritual obsession with whales back to the ’60s when their songs were first heard by the public.

“The minute people heard the songs of the humpback whale, they were blown away. It was a mystical experience,” Zeman says. “They were suddenly like, ‘Oh, my God, a creature that makes such a beautiful sound has to be more than a dumb animal.’ We never wanted to save whales until we heard them sing. You can actually make this very interesting direct line from whale song to the green movement of today.”

It’s that wide-eyed optimism that Zeman credits to sustaining him during the yearslong quest, with so little information to go off of, to find 52, if it was even still alive. After begging the Navy to grant access to the SOSUS system-which is still used to this day over fears of a new submarine warfare because of the melting polar ice caps and, thus, classified-Zeman was finally able to access bits of data and sent it to marine scientists to evaluate the audio for any blips of a 52 Hz tone. “The scientists call us up and they’re like, ‘Look, we just went through all eight years worth of data, and we haven’t heard him and we think he’s dead,'” Zeman recalls. “At that point, I was just like, ‘Oh, my God, I’m gonna be a laughingstock of the Kickstarter world.’ It was a real up and down kind of travesty. But I guess that’s the point. Right? That’s the journey.”

Watching The Loneliest Whale, it’s hard not to feel Zeman’s frustration after hitting roadblock after roadblock while trying to find the needle in a haystack. “I’m like, ‘this motherfucking whale.’ So many times,” Zeman says. “We would sit there and be like, this fucking whale, just making it so hard.”

Even getting access to a boat to get out to sea wasn’t a straightforward process. (Zeman shares that the crew got the OK to use Google CEO Eric Schmidt’s yacht for the expedition, but rescinded the offer when he ended up using it to vacation with Bill Gates and Reed Hastings.) As the 22-person crew makes it out to sea on a tiny diving boat to trawl off the coast of Santa Barbara in the film, I was crossing my fingers and toes that they’d find literally anything-if not, what did I just watch? “That is the whole thing of this expedition,” Zeman says. “It is a gamble.”

His game of chance-miraculously, euphorically-pays off in the end. Throughout the film, it’s speculated that 52 is actually a hybrid of a fin whale and blue whale, a few of which are spotted via drone footage. It’s a bit later, when Zeman and crew returns to shore, that he gets news from audio taken from the expedition: They didn’t pick up a single 52 Hz call; there were two. “I was so fucking blown away,” Zeman says. “Whether [one of them] is the Watkins whale, it could be, but who knows?”

Suddenly, I felt less bad for the alleged loneliest whale in the world. He’s been playing us, messing with our inherent compulsion for connection. If there are two of these hybrid whales, surely there must be more, which is what the scientists are trying to suss out now with collected audio. “This isn’t your-we call them ‘Chicken Little science stories,’ where it’s like, the corals are bleaching,” Zeman says. “Yes, that’s important, no doubt. But we wanted to do something slightly different.”Want more Thrillist? Follow us on Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube, TikTok, and Snapchat.

Leanne Butkovic is an entertainment editor at Thrillist, on Twitter @leanbutk.


Where to Celebrate Lunar New Year 2023 in Australia

And what it means to be in the year of the Rabbit.

where to celebrate lunar new year australia

Starting with the new moon on Sunday, January 22, this Lunar New Year ushers in the year of the Rabbit. We’ve put together a guide on celebrating the Lunar New Year in Australia.

What is special about the year of the Rabbit?

As you might know, each year has an animal sign in the Chinese Zodiac, which is based on the moon and has a 12-year cycle. This year, we celebrate the year of the rabbit, known to be the luckiest out of all twelve animals. It symbolises mercy, elegance, and beauty.

What celebrations are taking place and how can I get involved?

There are plenty of festivals happening all around the country which you can get involved with. Here they are per state.

New South Wales

Darling Harbour Fireworks
When: Every year, Sydney puts on a fireworks show, and this year, you can catch it on January 28 and February 4 at 9 pm in Darling Harbour.

Dragon Boat Races
When: Witness three days of dragon boat races and entertainment on Cockle Bay to usher in the Lunar New Year. The races will commence on January 27 and finish on January 29.

Lion Dances
When: Catch a traditional Lion Dance moving to the beat of a vigorous drum bringing good luck and fortune for the Lunar New Year. The dance performances will happen across Darling Harbour on Saturday, January 21, Sunday, January 22, and Sunday, February 4 and 5, around 6 pm and 9 pm.

Lunar New Year at Cirrus Dining
When: Barangaroo’s waterfront seafood restaurant, Cirrus, is celebrating the Year of the Rabbit with a special feast menu. Cirrus’ LNY menu is $128pp with optional wine pairing and is available from Saturday, January 21, to Sunday, February 5.

Auntie Philter
When: Hello Auntie’s owner and executive chef, Cuong Nguyen will be dishing out some of the most classic Vietnamese street foods with his mum, Linda. All of Philter’s favourites will be on offer, as well as Raspberry Pash Beer Slushies and other cocktails being served at the Philter Brewing rooftop bar on Sunday, January 22 and Sunday, January 29.


Lunar New Year Festival
When: Ring in the Lunar New Year with food, music, arts, and more on Sunday, January 22, from 10 am to 9 pm.

Lunar New Year at the National Gallery of Victoria
When: Celebrate the year of the rabbit at the National Gallery of Victoria’s festival of art, food, and art-making activities for everyone from 10 am-5 pm.


BriAsia Festival
When: From February 1-19, Brisbane will come alive with performances, including lion dances and martial arts displays. There will be street food, workshops, comedy and more.

South Australia

Chinatown Adelaide Street Party
When: Adelaide is set to hose a fun-filled day celebrating the Chinese New Year on Saturday, January 28, from 12 pm to 9 pm.

Western Australia

Crown Perth
When: Across January and February, Crown Perth hosts free live entertainment, including colourful lion dances, roving mascots, and drumming performances. The restaurants will also throw banquets and menus dedicated to the Lunar New Year.

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