Review: The Loneliest Whale Charts the Scientific Research of (and Emotional Connection to) a Very Special Ocean Mammal

From writer/director Joshua Zeman (Cropsey, Netflix’s crime doc series “The Sons of Sam”) comes a nature documentary about perhaps the most famous whale on the planet. The whale is famous because he sings at a frequency—52 Hertz—that it seems no other whale on earth can hear, a fact that earns it the moniker that serves as the title of the movie, The Loneliest Whale: The Search for 52. There is a great deal both known and unknown about “52,” and a great deal has been speculated and written about it, both from a scientific perspective and from a deeper, more emotional curiosity. Can a whale be lonely? Most scientists seem to believe it can, since the creatures are among the most social beings in the vast ocean.

The Loneliest Whale Image courtesy of the film.

The 52 Hertz Whale was originally discovered in 1989, and over the last three decades, it has become a global sensation capturing the hearts of fans around the world with articles written about it in most major publications, nature-centered and otherwise. There have even been songs written about it, including a recent one by the K-pop act BTS. Although 52 has never been seen, the whale has also become something of a mascot for lonely people everywhere. This enduring global obsession sparked a group of scientists to not only seek it out but also try to understand why it has such a unique sonic signature, with some genuinely startling results.

The Loneliest Whale is one of the most emotional experiences I’ve ever had watching a nature documentary. There is something about the passion of these researchers and their enthusiasm at each new discovery that makes it easy to become whole-heartedly invested in their expedition. But more than that, the film spends a great deal of time building up a case for 52 being this sad and isolated creature, only to reveal that in fact it's entirely possible it isn’t quite as alone as the world once thought, which for some reason brought me all sorts of relief and joy. In true cinematic fashion, the film has drama, suspense, scope, heart, and adventure. But it also teaches us about one animal’s lonely plight, and in doing so, perhaps changes our perspective on the ocean and nature.

The film is now playing at the Landmark Century Centre Cinema and will be available digitally on July 16.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.