New Documentary Gives a Voice to World's Loneliest Whale that All Humans Can Understand

The Loneliest Whale: The Search for 52, directed by Joshua Zeman and out in theaters July 9, is a documentary about the 52-hertz whale, a marine mammal that communicates in a unique frequency.

The world's loneliest whale, also known as the 52-hertz whale, is getting some major love.

The sea creature is the star of the upcoming documentary The Loneliest Whale: The Search for 52 — out in theaters on July 9 — a cinematic quest to find the famous yet elusive whale and learn more about the animal and what the marine mammal's plight can teach us.

The 52-hertz whale, whose species has yet to be confirmed, was first discovered in 1989 with the help of the animal's unique call. It is this whale's song that sets the creature apart. The whale calls out at a frequency of 52 hertz, different from any other known whale in the world. Scientists believe that this unusual call has prevented the whale from communicating with other whales, leading to a life of solitude and the title of "the loneliest whale."

Since the whale's discovery, the creature's story has captivated countless animal lovers — BTS even wrote a song about the whale. Among the 52-hertz whale's many fans are Joshua Zeman, the director of The Loneliest Whale: The Search for 52, and Leonardo DiCaprio and Adrian Grenier, two of the documentary's executive producers.

Ahead of The Loneliest Whale: The Search for 52's release, PEOPLE talked to Zeman about his journey to bring this film to the big screen and find the world's loneliest whale in the vast Pacific Ocean.

"I first learned about 52 from an article in the New York Times as well as from an animal behaviorist named Vint Verga who wrote a book called The Soul of All Living Creatures," Zeman, an award-winner filmmaker who recently directed Netflix's Sons of Sam: Descent into Darkness, tells PEOPLE. "And when I first heard the story, it really had this profound effect on me, I guess because I had just gone through a breakup, but it was really when I started to share this story with other people, their reaction was just like mine. They were so moved by it — and that led me to want to know more and eventually go out and find this whale."

Part of the 52-hertz whale's mystique is that the creature has never been seen by humans, only heard. After learning about the creature's background, Zeman and a team of experts explored what it would take to find this whale, which eventually led to creating The Loneliest Whale: The Search for 52.

"Initially, we were interested in this so-called Legend of 52, this creature that scientists and the Navy had heard but never seen — and the idea of whether it was really lonely or not? Was the story that had spread around the globe about this lonely creature really true? Or were we just projecting our own fears of loneliness on it?" Zeman says of the research that led to his new film. "And more so, could whales even feel what we call "loneliness"? From that, we started reaching out to some of the best whale scientists to get answers, and that led us to wonder if it was possible to even find it."

Zeman scoped out large parts of the Pacific Ocean in search of the documentary's subject. The process introduced Zeman to the "many mysteries still out there in the ocean" and several up-close "amazing, spiritual, terrifying, and smelly" interactions with sea creatures. The exclusive clip above from The Loneliest Whale: The Search for 52 shows one of those emotional encounters. Overall the quest to meet the 52-hertz whale ended up being a bit of a spiritual journey for Zeman as well.

The Loneliest Whale
Courtesy Bleecker Street

"Ironically, this whale has taught me how to be a better human being — especially when it comes to my interactions with other people," he says. "I found myself connecting with people on such an intense and profound level, and I was so filled with empathy — that had never happened before with a story. So it was an incredible learning experience — but isn't that weird that a whale taught me to be a better human being? I still can't get over it."

The director hopes The Loneliest Whale: The Search for 52 allows others to learn important lessons from this mysterious creature.

"One takeaway is the importance of listening. How we need to learn how to listen, especially when it comes to the listening for 52, and others like him in the ocean, but also we need to learn to listen to each other," Zeman says.

The Loneliest Whale
Courtesy Bleecker Street

"Isn't it ironic that we've all been talking about this one whale for so many years — that this whale who is so alone seems to actually have so many human friends," he adds. "It just goes to show you never know who cares about you, even though you might think you're alone. I think that's a very applicable lesson for all of us. You might think we're alone, but there are probably so many people out there that care about you."

The Loneliest Whale: The Search for 52 premieres in theaters on July 9 and will be available on digital on July 16.

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