You’ve heard their story. You first learned of it from a clickbait article, or a podcast episode, or maybe a chain email. Somewhere out in the Pacific is a whale singing songs which none of their kind can understand. Their calls are pitched at 52 Hz, notably higher than the songs of other whales of their likely species (blue whales call at 10–39 Hz, for example). Across the internet, the “52-hertz whale,” often called “the world’s loneliest whale,” has become a widely shared touchstone signifying melancholy and alienation.
The new documentary The Loneliest Whale: The Search for 52 features a sequence demonstrating the thousands of results that turn up if you search for mentions of the whale on social media, many of them some variation on “It me.” The image of a solitary whale in the vast depths of the ocean crying out to no answer is harrowing, instantly sympathetic. Given the presence the 52-hertz whale already has in pop culture, it was inevitable that some film project would eventually embark on a hunt for the elusive figure. But is that a realistic goal, and do we human beings truly comprehend this whale’s situation?
To director Joshua Zeman’s credit, the movie does not succumb as easily to anthropomorphism as people on social media usually do. Rather than offer a simple story around trying to find a sad whale, Zeman interrogates the assumptions we’ve conjured around the 52-hertz whale. While cetaceans likely have some form of interiority, what a whale’s emotional life is actually like is not merely a difficult philosophical question but possibly an untestable, unverifiable, insurmountable matter of divergent experiences of the world. How do we know what a whale would consider loneliness, or how they feel sadness, or even what their intentions are when they call? We often refer to these calls as “songs” because they sound musical to us, but they could be purely mundane actions to the whales, as rote as texting lunch plans with your friends.
It’s difficult to ask such questions about things that have built up so much mystique in the popular consciousness without coming across like a buzzkill. In its better moments, The Loneliest Whale works around this by getting that, since anthropomorphism is projection on the part of human beings, it can turn around these questions on us. Instead of delving too deeply into “Is this whale lonely?” the documentary can ask “Why does the story of a lonely whale speak to so many people in this day and age?”
In the field of animal conservation, there’s the concept of “charisma,” the qualities that make a species attractive to humans and thus ideal mascots for efforts to curb hunting, habitat destruction, and other activities that endanger them. Sometimes an animal’s charisma is easy to explain — penguins are cute, tigers are cool, pandas are funny and voiced by Jack Black, etc. In her marvelous book Fathoms: The World in the Whale, Rebecca Giggs muses how odd it is that whales have captured the place they have in the common imagination. After all,
They lack many classic charismatic features … whales live where people do not, in the most remote seas. Whales are hairless, legless, handless, and, most of the time, horizontal. Their faces defy expression by being prolonged sidewise … The whale’s extreme bigness is not just stupendous, but a bit eerie; to think of aliveness, and sensitivity, on such a scale.
Nature photographer Tim Watters, who’s done a fair share to evangelize whale charisma in his work, theorizes that their mystery may be part of the appeal. “It’s the same with gems and gold, isn’t it?” he tells Giggs. “The less we see, the more aura around it; the more we care about, talk about it, write about it.” In Leviathan, or the Whale, Philip Hoare drops the mind-boggling factoid that we had pictures of Earth from space before we had pictures of free-swimming whales in the ocean. “We knew what the world looked like before we knew what the whale looked like.” For millennia before that, it was almost impossible for the human mind to grasp an entire whale. The odds of seeing one in full were low, and the odds of seeing one from a distance that allowed you to comprehend its shape rather than be overwhelmed by its might were even lower. Renderings in sketches by naturalists or sailor scrimshaw would simply not convey the effect. No wonder glimpses of whales fueled myths of sea monsters for so long, that many cultures throughout history have revered them, or that this awe could turn to contempt, that people could view them more as giant seams of resources than as living things during the golden age of whaling. One could argue that modern photographic, videographic, and audio capture techniques saved many whales from extinction, endowing them with charisma and enabling humans to empathize with them.
But as The Loneliest Whale demonstrates, the conventions of these technologies inevitably keep us at a remove from their subjects, and projection fills the vacuum in our conceptualizations of whales, since we lack true understanding. Anthropologist Arne Kalland argues that, because people don’t grasp the distinctions between disparate species, whales are generally thought of collectively in the figure of a “super-whale” that has all their qualities at once. For example, only a few kinds, mainly humpbacks, make the kind of calls that we think of as “whalesong.” Most of them actually communicate through clicking noises. But we tend to ascribe song to all whales, and the role the songs play in their charisma is incalculable. The single greatest turning point in the public perception of whales came with the 1970 release of the album Songs of the Humpback Whale, which brought whalesong to widespread popular attention for the first time. For centuries before we caught these vocalizations with hydrophones, the only humans who heard whalesongs were sailors, sitting inside ships, the timber hulls acting as amplifiers. Having no idea what they were listening to, they spun tales of sirens. We may know better now, but that mystical, entrancing quality endures. The 52-hertz whale’s song is why they’re famous.
It isn’t really a spoiler to say that Zeman and his crew don’t definitively find the 52-hertz whale. Tracking down an individual animal in the expanse of the Pacific solely with the use of audio devices was an unlikely proposition. They do propose some interesting answers to the question of how lonely the whale is, though through a bit of my own research I found that they don’t come up with anything scientists haven’t already suggested. But this is no fruitless Moby Dick hunt; the point of the quest for the “loneliest whale” is what we learn about ourselves along the way. (I guess that’s also the point of Moby Dick, sort of, but you get what I mean.)
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