John Sutter: Help fund a documentary about world's "loneliest whale"
The whale sings songs at a frequency other whales don't understand
Editor’s Note: John D. Sutter is a columnist for CNN Opinion and creator of CNN’s Change the List project. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
There’s something about this whale.
They call him “52,” which isn’t as much a name as much as a measurement, since that’s the frequency, in hertz, of his bleating, electric call. He’s said to have been making it, unanswered, for years. The trouble: Other whales, quite literally, aren’t on his frequency. Maybe they can hear him, but his songs are so different from theirs that they don’t understand them and never respond.
Still, 52 keeps calling. And calling.
Shouting into oblivion – alone and out to sea.
This brooding, lone-wolf lifestyle – the Rihanna-at-the-Grammys of the ocean – has earned 52 another nickname: “the loneliest whale in the world.” And it’s made Josh Zeman, a 40-year-old filmmaker who described the particulars of 52’s situation to me, really freaking determined to find him.
Sound a little like “Moby Dick”?
Yep, he’s thought of that, too.
“We’re talking about themes that are very ingrained in our society,” he said.
I interrupted Zeman during his run on the beach Tuesday to talk about his new Kickstarter campaign that aims to fund an expedition in the Pacific to find and tag the 52-hertz whale.
With the help of “Entourage” star Adrian Grenier, and a team of scientists, Zeman hopes to raise $300,000 for a 20-day search. If they find him (they know it’s a him because only male whales sing), the group will tag him with audio-sensing equipment, so scientists can study 52 in all of his crooning bachelordom.
Zeman also plans to make a documentary about it.
“No one has ever seen this whale, but we know he’s out there because we hear him,” Zeman says in his Kickstarter pitch video.
As of Wednesday morning, the group had raised $46,000 from 266 backers.
The whale has captured media attention before.
“Imagine roaming the world’s largest ocean year after year alone, calling out with the regularity of a metronome, and hearing no response,” Andrew C. Revkin wrote in 2004 for The New York Times. “Such, apparently, is the situation faced by a solitary whale, species unknown, that has been tracked since 1992 in the North Pacific by a classified array of hydrophones used by the Navy to monitor enemy submarines.”
This year, Slate published an excerpt of a longer piece called “The Legend of the Loneliest Whale in the World.” “If anyone actually finds 52, it will probably be Josh Zeman … ,” wrote Leslie Jamison, referencing the filmmaker.
My first thought when I was reading about Zeman’s project was this: What if the whale doesn’t actually want to be found? But after talking to Zeman, I’m not sure that’s the right way to think of it.
“It’s not just about jumping in front of him and saying, ‘Hey, we’re here!’ And giving him a hug when he doesn’t want one,” he told me. “It’s more about what it means for us.”
What it means for us.
That seems selfish at first.
But it does make sense.
Zeman told me people who hear about the project get pretty obsessed with it – to the point that they almost “overconnect.”
We see a range of narratives in 52’s mysterious habits.
“For some people, he’s so lonely,” Zeman said. “For others, he’s celebrating his alone-ness. He’s an inspirational message – because he continues to call out no matter what. For other people, he’s a kind of cautionary tale about technology and social media” – a time, he said, when people are more connected than ever, communicating constantly, but no one is really listening or even cares.
(Which leads me to think: Is anyone out there reading this? ANYONE?)
Anyway, Zeman realizes this could sound like anthropomorphizing, something certain scientists frown upon. But it’s not, he told me. Research shows whales are social creatures. Some whale songs can travel 3,000 miles across the ocean – 3,000 miles (!!) – with the purpose of communicating.
“Being lonely or calling out and never being heard is one of our greatest fears as human beings,” he said. “We are completely social beings. … Whales are the same. They have spindle cells, which allow them to love, hate, be part of certain (social) circles. … Imagine a being out there that could even feel love, acceptance (and) pain in ways we can’t even comprehend?”
Oof. That’s sadder than Bon Iver playing a funeral.
But people definitely relate to it.
“A singer in New Mexico, unhappy at his day job in tech, wrote an entire album dedicated to 52; another singer in Michigan wrote a children’s song about the whale’s plight; an artist in upstate New York made a sculpture out of old plastic bottles and called it 52 Hertz,” Jamison writes.
“A music producer in Los Angeles started buying cassette tapes at garage sales and recording over them with 52’s song, the song that was quickly becoming a kind of sentimental seismograph suggesting multiple storylines: alienation and determination, autonomy and longing; not only a failure to communicate but also a dogged persistence in the face of this failure.”
Whale 52 even has a Twitter account: @52_Hz_Whale.
Zeman has his own story, too. He told me he was going through a breakup when he heard about whale 52 – which is thought to be part blue whale and part fin whale – from an artist friend.
“The whale is a wonderful breakup cure,” he said.
We should use 52’s story as a good excuse to see something of ourselves in nature, and something of nature in us.
If we saw those connections more readily – if we knew enough and experienced enough of the natural world to see them, which we don’t, in these days of cubicles and subdivisions – then I have to think we humans might become much better stewards of the environment.
That’s why I hope Zeman gets to make his film.
So we can know the ocean a little better.
And, in the process, know ourselves.