We’re celebrating the launch of the 52 Kickstarter with Q&A’s from some of the project's key players. In this interview director / producer Josh Zeman discusses the film’s impetus, 52’s mysterious appeal, and the whale’s significance to art and literature.
How did you decide to do a documentary about a whale?
I was at an artist colony called MacDowell, when I met a guy named Vint Verga. Vince is an animal psychologist who wrote a book called “The Soul of All Living Creatures.” In this book he tries to dispel a lot of the mythology about animals that we have. For example, we have this idea of the lone wolf, and in fact wolves are some of the most parental animals we know. Really the book is about what humans can learn about themselves from animal behavior. Vince was there finishing his book and he asked me to read a chapter, in which there was this story about the loneliest whale. I was in a fairly emotional place at the time and I said, “This is amazing! I want to do a documentary on this!” But of course, I want to do documentaries on lots of things.
A couple weeks of later a playwright who was with me at MacDowell called me up and said, “Hey remember the 52hz whale? I wrote a play about it!” I thought “Hey, that’s my story!” Then a few weeks after that another person called up, she was a sculptor, and she said, “Hey, I want you to know I did a sculpture about the whale.” It was amazing to me how this story had inspired all these different artists to create different artworks in different mediums. I started to going the web and doing a little research and that’s when I saw that there was this interesting, growing community of people who were all so emotionally affected by this story as well. I’ve pitched a ton of stories in my life, but I’ve never quite seen a reaction like the one I saw when telling people about the whale. My point is, I think one of the ways in which we really connect with people is by talking about the art that they're creating about the whale. It’s everything from 16 year old girls doodling in their diaries to 70 year old painters or artists or poets and everybody, so I think that’s one way we can kinda keep the conversation going, with profiles about these individuals who are inspired by this story of 52, for whatever different reason, to create artwork. There’s a whole community of people out there who have been inspired, and that inspiration comes from empathy. Empathy with the story about a lonely whale. I think that’s very specific, we’re inspired by a lot of things, but what’s so interesting to me is that the loneliness of this whale inspires this emotion of empathy. That very much dovetails into an artist’s empathy as well. So the idea of a lonely whale is what really inspires people to create.
Isn’t that what your tumblr is about?
Yeah, we can do something different, but just as the starting off point, that was one of the first things we saw. You know, people are getting tattoos. That, interestingly enough, works into our Kickstarter campaign because a lot of the rewards that we are offering people are about works of art that people have created. There’s this guy we know who has an unbelievably high voice. That’s why he identifies with the whale. He takes old cassette tapes and records the sound of the whale’s call on it on loop and he sends it to people for like five bucks. He tells people its meditative and it really is. Funny enough, one of the first people to ever buy this guy’s tape was the CEO of Kickstarter.
It’s also sort of a fantasy right, about this whale being lonely? I think blue whales at least, are not always together.
Right. But at the same time, it isn’t really a fantasy. Whales have double the number of spindle cells as human beings do. These are the cells responsible for love and social networks. And they’ve developed these spindles on a completely different evolutionary track. Even though they’re not together all the time, you know, they live for over 100 years, so maybe they don’t need to be together as much. The point is that their constructed social circles may be so much richer than we could ever imagine. There’s also never been an animal that has captured our majesty in that way, you know, being both a monster and also gentlest creature in the world. There are all these stories, you know, about one very unique whale. A white whale? Jonah and the Whale? There’s always been a very interesting, deep emotional connection.
It’s interesting to me how we portray loneliness as a negative emotion. You know, maybe it’s fantastic to be lonely in the ocean.
Yeah- there’s a difference between loneliness and aloneness. That’s something thing that we’re trying to work out. Human beings need aloneness. We need time to be alone, to be with our thoughts, to be introspective. Those are the things that allow us to process our humanity.
Is 52hz is audible to the human ear?
It depends on what kind of speakers you have. It is audible, but it’s very low and you really can’t hear it well on your computer. Actually you need a stereo that has excellent bass. One very interesting aspect of the film is how we explore sound in the ocean. I always wanted to be a marine biologist as a kid, but one of the things I never really knew about was sound. Understanding the world of 52, and what’s so important about it, is facing all of the problems that we’re having in the ocean today with ocean noise pollution. I learned so much about the history of sound underwater, I mean I had no idea that sound could travel thousands of miles underwater, or that there’s this channel called the deep water channel where a low frequency sound, because of the salinity of the water, and because of the pressure and the temperature, sound in this very specific kind of 1000 meter range can go three, four thousand miles across the ocean floor. You can have a whale off the coast of Spain make a sound and a whale off Florida can hear it. I had no idea that sound traveled like that.
So there’s a map of underwater sounds.
Yeah, it’s amazing to me. Not only did I not know that sound travels underwater, but I learned so much about whale calls. I learned about the sounds of the humpback whale. People didn’t even know that whales made these beautiful songs until the early 70’s. We had no idea, we just didn’t listen. Or, we didn’t know what it was, and suddenly a bunch of scientists made recordings of these calls, and tried to promote them. Then the world suddenly realized, you know, the sounds of these beautiful creatures. That’s really what saved them, that’s what launched the “Save the Whales” movement. We never really wanted to save whales until we heard them sing.
I read that the whale songs can be hits in the whale community.
How does this happen? Is it like a whale Billboard?
The analogy used is Pop Radio. For some reason a specific pod or harem of whales will start out the season with one single song and, nobody knows how they all knew to start with this same song you know nobody sent around a tape for everybody to listen to, but everybody starts with this one song and then everybody sings it like a game of telephone, the song changes throughout the season and then, by the end of the season, everybody has their own version of this song, and then they start over again the next season. The collective consciousness of that is amazing when you really think about it. How do they know? They find these variations for years and years. In fact, some of the earliest scientists who were looking at these whale songs believed that the whale song is really the key to being able to speak to a whale. It’s fascinating stuff.
Is there any attempt to try to communicate with the 52Hz whale?
You know that’s a good question. And that’s always been one of the questions that everybody has asked: “What are you gonna do when you find it?” Or, you know, “this whale is lonely, right?” Do you go out in the ocean and do you play a song back to it? Is that the right decision? Is that the wrong thing to do? Who are you to do so, you know? It’s an interesting question. I don’t think we should play songs for the whale, but should we go up and hug it? Pet it? Vint Virga says absolutely. There’s a lot of people who say, “What are you doing, trying to find this whale? That’s very humanistic, and that’s very egocentric.” Vince turns around and he says that whales are unbelievably social creatures, more social than maybe we even understand or can know about. When you have a dog or a cat, if you left that cat or dog home alone for 10 years, would you have a problem going and petting it? Would you say, oh you know, leave that cat alone it shouldn’t be pet. No, you’d say, hey, give it a hug. And so the same concept applies here. There’s no reason why we shouldn't go out and let 52 know, “we hear you.” I think that’s a wonderful and amazing thing.
What are the chances of finding the whale? Because apparently this type of whale has never been contacted before.
It’s not lost upon us that the search for the unique whale is an age-old narrative at least in American literature with Moby Dick. In fact we’ve been trying to find single whales for as long as we’ve been recording history (Jonah from the bible) so it’s a fascinating thing. Trying to find a specific whale in the ocean is literally like trying to find a needle in the world’s largest haystack. Some would say it’s nearly impossible. However, we’ve been very lucky recently.
Is there a way to be connected to the 52 whale sounds in real time?
You know, what’s very investing is that we have hydrophones, underwater microphones, that sit on the ocean floor. The United States Navy has them. They were actually the first to put them on the ocean floor, to listen for submarines. Out of that cold war technology came how we use hydrophones for ocean conservation. The whale travels and different hydrophones pick it up. It would be difficult to have a specific hydrophone that would be able to find the 52Hz whale, but on our expedition, we can have real time listening, so you could always be listening to what we’re listening for on the expedition, if that makes sense.
That would be fantastic. So you can map a little bit of 52’s migration pattern?
Well, the first person to ever map 52s migration pattern was a guy out of Woods Hole named William Watkins. William Watkins was a very interesting and kind of persnickety marine biologist. He was actually an acoustician. He originally studied languages, and from studying languages, he started to study whale and dolphin languages. He became a bio-acoustician, and the first to discover 52, because they didn't know what 52 was when they first heard it. They first heard it back in ’89 and they thought it was a submarine. They didn't know what the hell it was, and he was the first one to come out and say this is a whale, I think this one single whale has been traveling the ocean calling out at a frequency that theoretically no other whale can understand. Watkins used the Navy and some of the guys we interview in the documentary, a guy by the name of Joe George, through the Navy’s help. They tracked 52 for… 11 years. Then Watkins passed away, and the Navy stopped listening for the 52Hz whale and the Whale’s been friendless since then. We tried to encourage and get these scientists to listen for him in the past 10 years. They haven't heard him, but thankfully this guy John Watkins did hear it, in ’09, ’10, and ’11. But they’ve been able to track, to at least track 52’s migration patterns north to south, from 1989 to 2004. What’s so interesting about this migration pattern is that they’re all over the place.
Yeah that was my next question, do they fit with the-
They fit in terms of going north to south, they fit in terms of standard either Fin or Blue migration patterns, but you can tell they’re not really following pods of other whales. Basically the guy has no friends with which to hang out, and as a result he’s on his own, swimming about, trying to figure out where he’s going. He’s either a cross between a blue or a fin. He’s going pretty fast as well.
So what if 52 swims into a group of females, are they not able to communicate? Maybe they will just pass by?
That’s a good question. We don’t quite know. First of all, a couple of interesting things. We know its a male because only males sing, number one. Number two, we’ve never seen a recorded instance of a female whale responding to a male’s call and then turning around and suddenly shimmying up and and you know, getting it on. We know they do it for some kind of mating ritual. Maybe one guy starts the dance and then everybody starts the dance and then everybody is dancing. But it’s not specific, like a bird pluming its feathers, and then suddenly a female comes over and then the male jumps on the female- that doesn’t happen. So it’s a lot more complicated in terms of the social paradigm than we think it is, this singing. And you know that, of course, since we just spoke about all the intricate ways in which the songs change as well. Another thing we want to talk to about and that I find so interesting is anthropomorphizing, assigning human attributes to whales when they may not have any, and that’s really one the biggest thing’s we’re gonna tackle in the documentary besides the actual science. Does 52 really feel lonely? And I said before, a guy like Vince would say of course he’s lonely, whales are extremely social creatures. So as he’s calling out the question is, do other whales hear him? Or, do they understand him? That’s what we really don’t quite know. Of course they hear him, it’s like a deaf person calling out. Are they able to understand him? Are we able to hear that deaf person? Yes. Are we able to understand that deaf person? Maybe not. Does that mean we end up ignoring him? Probably. Maybe facially we’ll see him and they’ll kinda hang out together, but the quality of that engagement is really what’s in question.
Essential Whale Songs