The name of the boat is Truth, which is just one of the juicy details in Joshua Zeman’s nautical documentary “The Loneiest Whale: The Search for 52”. Another is a coda that the audience will appreciate staying for.
The whale in question – known as 52 because its call broadcasts at 52 Hertz, a frequency considered unique among whales – was first picked up by the Navy in 1989 and has been suspected of being a Russian submarine. From the marine scientist Dr. William A. Watkins, who tracked the lone signal for a dozen years until his death in 2004, identified as a whale, 52 has since gone as unheeded as a suspended Twitter account.
Was he still alive at all? Zeman, a man who loves a secret, decides to find out. While he’s putting his low-budget expedition together with high hopes and recruiting a team of experts, the movie’s nerdery is unexpectedly adorable. Avid scientists struggle to attach trackers to bucking sea creatures, and acoustic devices slide under the waves and magically open in the form of upturned satellite dishes.
Neither smooth nor floating, “The Loneliest Whale” gently combines water adventures and rocking meditation on the environmental arrogance of our own species. As the boat travels along the southern California coast, Zeman ponders the bloody history of whaling and the “acoustic smog” that plagues the oceans with clattering container ships. It wasn’t until we heard the 1970s album Songs of the Buckel Whale – the best-selling nature recording in history, and not just because it goes perfectly with grass – that we wanted to save the whales. He hardly needs to add if only the earth could sing.
The Loneliest Whale: Finding 52
Rated PG. Running time: 1 hour 36 minutes. In theaters.