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Review – The Loneliest Whale: The Search For 52 – “Well-told, well-made, and it’s uplifting”

Nature documentaries have never shied away from showing upsetting things, but these days, it feels riskier to sit down and watch one. They necessarily highlight the man-made climate emergency, but the impact on viewers can be painful. Seeing what members of our species are doing to other animals and their home can be troubling. Ironically, our technology has progressed to show us ever more incredible elements of nature even as we race to destroy them.

The Loneliest Whale: The Search For 52 doesn’t shy away from this. There is a section that looks at the whaling industry. A quiet, simple explanation of the horrendous levels of human noise these animals must endure in modern times is also difficult.

But there is a specific story to be told here and that’s what the film leans into, in a short and mostly focused 96 minutes.

In 1989 the U.S. Navy detected a mysterious signal in the Pacific Ocean. The sound was picked up by a Cold War-era surveillance system designed to track enemy submarines. The frequency of the sound was 52 hertz. Scientists determined the noise came from a whale, but they had never previously detected one at that frequency and could only find a lone source of the sound.

The film follows the attempts of Director Joshua Zeman and a team of scientists to track down ‘52’ as they nickname the whale.

Negatives first:

The story is a little thin. Once we learn about the lonely whale, there is some history and colour provided, as well as an eloquent explanation of just how unlikely it is that anyone can find ‘52’. That leaves us with a likely hopeless search.

There are a couple of musical interludes, which add nothing. The story of how whale songs challenged people’s perception of the animals is inspiring, but the human interpretations of it are a little awkward.

Moreover, there are hints of parallels with humanity in the tale of 52, the well-established paradox of a loneliness epidemic in a hyper-connected world. These hints are never fully explored.

What remains is the simple story of the first discovery of 52, and a renewed search for the mysterious loner. A group of scientists using surplus military equipment and a boat full of hope. The intentions are pure, the methods sometimes a little tricky. The film shows that humans are stressing these animals with their activities. Interfering with them directly using things like tagging to answer a question for ourselves seems somewhat hypocritical.

However, it’s a mystery that’s hard not to be drawn into. It’s unsurprising to learn that Leonardo DiCaprio backed the film by personally donating $50,000 to the kick-starter. It’s hard to imagine anyone not caring about the answer to this mystery. And there is an answer. There is hope. That’s what this film leaves us with.

This is a simple story with a simple message. It’s well-told, well-made, and it’s uplifting.

The Loneliest Whale: The Search for 52 will be available on Digital Download from 4th April.

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