In 1989, a team from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution identified the call of an animal who would come to be known as "the world's loneliest whale". The star-crossed whale was calling at a frequency of 52 hertz, higher than any whale species that share its migration pattern. The animal's identity had long been a mystery, which is why director Joshua Zeman decided to try and track it down in his latest film The Loneliest Whale: The Search For 52.
Now, if you're thinking that finding one whale out in the abyss is a tall order for a film crew, you'd be exactly right. Here, Zeman tells us about his motivations to track down "52", as well as providing some insights into the turbulent life of a director.
The Loneliest Whale: The Search For 52 is quite a departure from your previous work, The Sons of Sam. I’m curious to know how you ended up down this rabbit hole?
You know, I think you need a palate cleanser every now and then. Weirdly enough, thinking about it, it's not as much as a departure as you might think. In a lot of ways, the oceans are an incredible mystery that we have yet to solve. And the legend of this whale, is he real? Is he really lonely? That's kind of what filmmaking is, you know, it's exploring a story and answering the questions that you have.
What were some of the most shocking or profound things that came to light during your research?
That’s really hard, there were so many. First of all, I had no idea how little we actually know about the oceans and whales. Every time I would speak to scientists, I’d be like, “Well you obviously know this,” and they're like, actually, we don't. And I'll be like, “How do you not know this?” And they'd be like, “Yeah, we don't always get a chance to study whales. We don't have them in captivity.” Once you get out on the ocean, and you realize just how difficult it is to like tag a whale and get data, you were like, “Oh… now I understand why.”
Also, the importance of whale song. I had no idea that Songs of the Humpback Whale, an album a guy named Roger Payne released in the 1970s, had been hugely popular. People would drop acid and put on headphones and listen to the songs of the whale and wonder how we could be killing something be so angelic that makes such a beautiful sound? That led to the creation of Greenpeace, and the Save the Whales movement.
When I saw these pictures of hundreds of thousands of people standing at the Capitol holding big “save the whale” it was just like, this is amazing. People were so emotional about it that they actually went out to do that. Understanding how that led to the green movement and concern about our oceans and nature and what we’re doing to the environment. That same green movement has become one of the foremost pressing issues of today. So, you can track the green movement all the way back to whale song.
And then maybe the last thing was, I had no idea that I would become a more empathetic and better person doing a movie about whales. It got me speaking to people about loneliness and nature and found myself suddenly becoming a better person. Strange to think there, you know, here is a whale that made me be a better human being to other human beings.
Yeah, that was something from the film I found really amazing too, like this pivotal album underpins the reason why we still have whales today. I must confess I’ve actually since bought a copy.
So, it's literally the root because we're so self-absorbed, right? As a species we like to think human beings are the best. So suddenly, when people heard that album, they were like, “Oh my god, what creature creates such a beautiful sound, better than any orchestral choir, better than in church. They must have something we don’t have; we have to stop killing them.”
It was kind of a cool moment, but it just goes to show you what assholes we are as people, that that's what it takes for us to stop. But it was cool tracking the album’s success like it was 62 on the charts, and then National Geographic had this rip out album that they sent around, and the fact that they sent those whale songs into space on Voyager. You suddenly realize how crazy interconnected everything is. You can go spiritual; you can go alien – if you want – you can go anywhere.
I feel like if we ever worked out a way to hack into what they’re saying, they’d be really freaked out to learn all of this
It's interesting that you mention that because that is actually the next step. Now we're using AI to listen to sperm whale clicks and try to ascertain what they mean. So, it could happen, but interspecies communication is always a very difficult thing for scientists, but I think with AI, we will come to a better understanding.
What are some common misconceptions about working as a director?
With this film, I think, that I knew what the ending was going to be. You know, you hope that you have an ending, you pray that you have an ending, you spend a lot of sleepless nights talking with God and negotiating for an ending. But you don't quite know, and so you really do have to figure it out by the seat of your pants.
The other thing – and this is a lesson I keep learning – is that you can lay it all out, you can have all your interviews, you can write out what we think the script is going to be, but the smartest documentary filmmakers – I'm not saying I'm one of them – then have that whole plan, but know when to throw it out the window. And they know when to let the story unfold in front of them rather than trying to shoehorn in, and that's a lesson that I'm still learning.
Any funny moments from the behind the scenes of this movie?
Yeah, so there's a scene in the movie where a woman is like, “if you really want to find this, you have to make the decision to go out and find it.” I figured that’s easy for her to say, you know, I’d already spent like five years making the film – but what she didn't know was I had already gotten all the money from Kickstarter. So, I had like, $400,000 of people's money and she turns around to me and says, “I think he’s probably dead.”
I didn't know what I was going to do! I thought I was going to be the laughingstock of the film community and never make another movie again. I would have to return everybody's $20, and how was I even going to possibly do that? Like does Kickstarter even have like a refund $400,000 option? There were so many crushing moments in the film steeped in a fear of failure, but it was a lesson in learning how to turn failure into something else.
Any advice you’d give to someone interested in following a similar path in investigative documentary filmmaking?
It’s tough. Like they say, “If I knew what I knew, now, I don't know if I would have done it.” It’s been ten years of my life so far and I’m not sure if I would do it again. When you have an idea and people are telling you it’s crazy, you have to know when to listen and when to follow through anyway.
When we first spoke to some scientists for this film, they said it was crazy. That it was like finding a needle in the world's largest haystack. In some ways, perhaps I should have listened to them – but then we wouldn’t have the answers we have now. When anybody tells you something is really hard in film you have to investigate and work out if it’s really as difficult as it appears. Sometimes difficulty is a good thing. Sometimes it’s what sets you apart.
You can stream The Loneliest Whale: The Search For 52 now.