World's 'Loneliest Whale' Calls Out at a Frequency No Others Can Understand

A new film, out now in theaters, documents the quest to find an animal that has been called the loneliest whale in the world.

The documentary, The Loneliest Whale: The Search for 52, follows the attempts of director Joshua Zeman and a team of scientists to track down the enigmatic "52-hertz whale," which experts believe has spent its entire life calling out in a frequency different to any other whale.

The story of the whale starts in 1989 when a top-secret Cold War-era underwater surveillance system operated by the U.S. Navy picked up a mysterious signal in the Pacific Ocean.

The origin of the signal, which resonated at a frequency of 52 hertz, was not immediately clear. While the surveillance system was designed to detect enemy submarines, experts knew this wasn't the source.

After the data was partially declassified in 1992 following the end of the Cold War, oceanographerWilliam Watkins of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution analyzed the recordings. He concluded that the strange sounds were, in fact, being produced by a whale that called out in a distinctive frequency.

Whales call out as a form of communication, but no response to this unique sound was ever recorded. Watkins speculated that this whale, nicknamed "52," was living a solitary life, unable to communicate with other whales. The whale of an unidentified species may be the last of its kind, or even the first—perhaps a new type of hybrid between a blue and fin whale.

Watkins studied 52's calls for more than a decade until his death in 2004. In the years since then, the whale has become something of a global sensation, with the animal's plight resonating with people around the world in a technology-centric culture where feelings of loneliness seem to be on the rise.

Alongside the story of 52, the film also looks at how the relationship between humans and whales has evolved over time.

The documentary looks at the centuries of brutal hunting that has devastated whale populations, the discovery of beautiful, haunting whale songs that ignited conservation efforts around the world and the growing environmental impact of our species on the world's oceans—including the increase in ocean noise that disrupts the lives of these highly intelligent animals.

As Zeman and the crew of scientists set out on a seemingly impossible mission to try and find the solitary whale in the vast Pacific Ocean, the film also explores our changing relationship to the oceans—as well as each other.

Newsweek spoke with Zeman about his new film, which counts actors Leonardo DiCaprio and Adrian Grenier as executive producers. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Newsweek: What sparked your interest in this whale and inspired you to make this film?

Zeman: At the time, I had been doing a lot of true crime and needed a little bit of a palette cleanser. I had just broken up with a girl and was feeling very sad and lonely. I read a story about this lonely whale and it totally floored me.

I started to talk to people about and I was like, 'Oh, have you heard about this lonely whale that swims through the ocean calling out but never receives a response?' I've never seen a reaction to a story like people how reacted to the plight of the lonely whale. People would would get goosebumps. They would grab my hand. And as a storyteller, you're thinking, 'Oh my God, this is really interesting.'

There was something so visceral and starkly emotional about their response. Is it just this idea perhaps that we're all afraid of dying alone? Or is it something more? That is what led me down this path to really look at our relationship with whales and how that's changed over the years—and to look at why we're so moved by whales.

Research vessel from The Loneliest Whale
Screenshot from The Loneliest Whale: The Search for 52 showing the research vessel used in the quest to find the 52 Hertz Whale. Bleecker Street

When I started to really delve into the story of 52 and learn more about the science, it suddenly became very fascinating. There was a whole mystery of whale song in the ocean that I never really knew about. Suddenly my true crime brain kind of kicked in. Here's a legend of a whale—let's go out and try and find it. Here's a mystery in the ocean—let's try and understand it.

With whales, and in the ocean, it's not about what you can see, it's about what you can hear. You look across the surface of the ocean and it seems like endless nothingness. But it's not—there's a huge amount of life right under the surface. These animals, their primary sense is sound, versus humans—our primary sense is sight. So, when you have an animal that's as intelligent as a whale and uses sound as their primary sense, how does that change their emotions?

What would you would like people to take away from this film?

Number one, that whale song is incredibly interesting. The first time that people heard Songs of the Humpback Whale, that album put out by Roger Payne in 1970, they freaked out. They said, 'Oh my God, what kind of creature can make such an angelic sound?' Then suddenly, people all across the globe said we can't be killing these creatures. And from that, the Save the Whales movement started, which led into the green movement of today. You realize how important it is for us to revere our relationship with the ocean, because we need this relationship if we're going to fight climate change.

I think it's high time for us to realize once again that we are not the leaders here. We are not the alpha species. And we're not the only species. There's an incredible amount of species out there that humble us—and whales do that. Some scientists have a problem with anthropomorphizing a lonely whale and I definitely get that, but it's also important for us to find ways to care about the ocean because when you can care, you can change the world. I think that's really important.

The theme of the film is you have to listen. We have to listen to each other to be interconnected. And we, as human beings, have to listen to the ocean. We have to listen to nature. There are so many more mysteries out there to explore and understand, but we have to take the time, we have to slow down and we have to listen.

One of the most interesting parts of the film, in my opinion, is when it shows the differing views of scientists on whether or not the 52-hertz whale can actually feel lonely. There seems to be a lot of debate. What are your thoughts on that?

It's very interesting. We want to be careful about going too far and including pseudoscience. It's always been a raging debate, and rightly so. I think in the '70s, there was this innate feeling that these creatures have emotions. Now finally, we're coming to the realization that there is science to back it up. When you have a social network, i.e. you have a group of whales, if one of them goes away and dies, the others suddenly appear to feel sadness and or display protection behaviors, for example.

But this whale, how do we know how it interprets loneliness? What is that emotion for them? Is it loneliness? Is it a feeling of sadness? Is it a feeling of confident aloneness? What is the extent of that feeling? Is it a negative? Is it a positive? It just opens up the whole idea of what feelings are.

The Loneliest Whale: The Search for 52 is in theaters now and will become available on digital platforms from July 16.

A whale featured in The Loneliest Whale
Screenshot from the film showing a whale. Bleecker Street