What does the top-secret SOSUS sound surveillance system, operated 24/7 by the US Navy during the Cold War to record enemy submarines, have anything to do with a legendary whale swimming somewhere in the vast Pacific Ocean? Actually everything. Most of the sounds the Navy picked up were “whale songs”. But in 1989, listeners heard a strange, non-mechanical noise that no one had heard before. Oceanographer Bill Watkins was asked to catalog what they were hearing.
Directed and co-written (with Lisa Schiller) by Joshua Zeman’s choppy, if intriguing, documentary, The Loneliest Whale: The Search for 52 tells us about Watkins’ discovery and lots about whales before he takes us on a whale hunt. But as Watkins knew, what lies beneath the sea is more powerful – and elusive – than what is seen.
dr Cornell’s Christopher Clark explains that most of the knowledge we have about “whale song” is centered on the humpback whale. Blue and fin whales are infrasonic: their song is below the human hearing threshold, around 20 Hz. David Rothenberg, an “interspecies musician” who uses musical instruments to communicate with whales, describes the patterns of blue and fin whale song and admits it that he has no idea how a whale (sound) can be so regular.
While listening to the Navy recordings (made with sonobuoys that Zeman’s expedition is said to be using), Watkins, a pioneer in marine mammal bioacoustics, discovered a biological signature that had never been heard before. It was the sound of a lone whale transmitting at a frequency of 52 Hz. It’s not that other whales can’t hear the song; they could understand. No whale answered.
Watkins, who developed whale tags, underwater playback experiments, methods for locating sounds made by marine mammals underwater, identifying whales, and built the first tape recorder capable of recording marine mammals at sea, tracked the whale from 1992 until his death in 2004
No one heard of this whale, named 52 after the singular frequency, when the Navy (and Watkins) stopped listening in 2004. The whale is believed to be male as only males are believed to “sing”. Nobody has ever seen this whale.
John Calambokidis, senior research biologist and co-founder of the Cascadia Research Collective in Washington state, may have seen it. He tells Zeman that in 2004 his boat was off the coast of St. Miquel, California, and the crew encountered a large group of blue and fin whales that had migrated to feed. In between was a whale that looked like a hybrid. Could it have been 52?
With the discovery of Watkins and his death in 2004, there was a lot of media interest in 52. The story went viral, capturing the imagination of many, from songwriters, poets, artists and psychologists to filmmakers like Zeman, who grew up hearing stories about the enchanted Sea. “We all hunt something. We all have our Belugas,” he muses, referring to both Moby Dick and his desire to find 52.
The film addresses the issue of loneliness and whether a whale can be lonely, with some experts who have dissected whale brains saying yes. It’s dark beneath the oceans, and whales depend on sounds that travel quickly underwater. Like humans, whales are social animals and the sea is an underwater web of sounds. Then there’s 52: a separate whale that many people have identified with.
When Joseph George – the retired Chief US Navy of Integrated Undersea Surveillance System – shows Zeman the framed 1989 “signature” (printout of a sound wave recording) of 52, Zeman’s eyes light up. With Watkins’ death, the possibility of finding 52 seemed to end. What if we could find him, Zeman wonders?
To fund the expedition, Zeman needs proof that the whale is alive. Unless killed by busy shipping lanes, pollution, or rogue hunters, whales can live up to 70 years.
After a visit to the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, John Hildebrand, Professor of Bioacoustics, is (literally) on board. He had hired an intern to look for the whale at four spots previously specified by Watkins, with positive results. Hildebrand and others conclude that the best place to search is near Point Conception, where the Santa Barbara Channel meets the Pacific.
After four years, the search begins, with the bioacoustics team on the main boat (accommodation) listening in real time; and John Calambokidis and a helper on a small, fast boat approached the whales to collect skin samples, photos, and affix a tag. The pressure is great because the budget only gives them five full working days.
The search for 52 is at its best when drone footage from above gives us images of the whales just below the surface of the vast ocean and the marker.
Since there isn’t always much action, Zeman finds other ways to entertain us, including a story about man’s fascination with and destruction of the whale. In the 1950s, hunting was still widespread and the whale was on its way to extinction.
All that changed in 1966 when Dr. Roger Payne, the founder of the Ocean Alliance, began listening to and recording the song of the humpback whale. Then he had the brilliant idea of selling an album called Songs of the Humpback Whale.
The publication corresponded with flower power, hippies, protests and a new appreciation of the natural world. The album became a bestseller and conservation groups like Greenpeace took action. The number of whale kills dropped dramatically and people became interested in the meaning of the songs.
Back in the Santa Barbara shipping lane, the busiest in the US, the noise of ships and oil rigs drowns out the sounds of the whales, confusing and even killing them. And the crew aboard the Truth can’t pick up any signals. So do they find 52? You have to see the movie to find out.