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Filmmaker Letter

Filmmaker Letter

The Loneliest Whale: The Search for 52

by director Joshua Zeman

When I was 14 years old, I worked my first summer job as a midshipman on a 19th-century schooner in Gloucester, Mass. Part of my job required me to unfurl the flag that often tangled atop the 115-foot-high mast. Without any harness, I climbed the rigging as the ship rocked back and forth, the mast swaying in huge, looping arcs. After a few ascents, the overwhelming terror began to dull.

The ship hosted whale-watching cruises for tourists looking to catch a glimpse of the animals that occupy a great place in the American psyche. From the deck, I couldn’t visualize just how large these massive beasts were. So, after a few frustrating days, I decided to climb the mast again. As I reached the top, I saw a giant humpback the size of our ship swimming right alongside us. The whale rolled on its side and its massive flipper waved in the air. At that moment, the fear left my body, and for the first time in my life, I understood just how awe-inspiring this world could be.

So, it made sense that when I first heard about the 52 Hertz Whale from animal behaviorist Dr. Vint Virga, I was hooked on the story. Here was a tale of such profound loneliness, of utter sadness; I had goosebumps. Over the next few weeks, I couldn’t stop thinking about the whale. It was a fascinating story, but I was even more intrigued by the depth of my own reaction. And as I began researching the story, I found that I wasn’t alone. People across the web and all over the world were reacting to the story as strongly as I. Even more fascinating were the countless 52 Hertz Whale-inspired paintings, plays, sculptures, and songs. These weren’t just people who had ended a relationship or parents with empty nests—this connection to the whale was universal.

As I began asking myself broader questions about loneliness in our culture, I discovered questions and ideas that have been brewing in academic circles for some time. Is our digital-centric lifestyle leading to loneliness through the erosion of real relationships? Is this one reason why 52’s story resonates so deeply?

No one’s loneliness is cut from the exact same cloth as anyone else’s, but this one story of a whale brought us all together. This creature is more alone than any of us could ever imagine and yet refuses to give up, continues to call out, hoping to one day be heard. It is a story that I want to share with others—one that inspires us to have hope and reminds us that the bonds of love, friendship, and family we share must remain meaningful as we navigate the vast oceans of our ever-changing world.

— Joshua Zeman

 Posted July 2, 2021

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