Producers: Joshua Zeman and Jonathan Shukat   Director: Joshua Zeman   Screenplay: Joshua Zeman and Lisa Schiller   Cast: Joshua Zeman, Ana Sirovic, David Rothenberg, Joe George, John Calambokidis and John Hildebrand    Distributor: Bleecker Street

Grade: B

Two films focusing on whales have appeared almost simultaneously, but though each focuses on a quest, they’re very different kettles of fish, so to speak.  (Yes, whales are mammals, not fish, but the urge to use the cliché was just too strong.)

On the one hand there’s Drew Xanthopoulos’ “Fathom,” in which the creatures play an almost off-screen role, though a vocal one.  The sounds of the magnificent creatures were brought to the attention of the global public in 1970 when Roger Payne’s record “Songs of the Humpback Whale” was issued and became an unexpected smash, eliciting widespread admiration for the species in particular and cetaceans in general, and sympathy toward human treatment of them.     

Payne’s disc might have slipped off the charts, but its impact continued unabated, and “Fathom” represents a persistent effort to understand and communicate with the whales.  It concentrates on two dedicated scientists who have devoted themselves to that goal.   

Michelle Fourney, who centers her expedition off the Alaskan coast,  tries to greet the whales, and she hopes receive a reply, via recordings laboriously compiled over the course of a decade.  Ellen Garland, on the other hand, establishes her base in French Polynesia, where she attempts to track one “song” around the globe to prove that whales have a shared “language” passed from herd to herd, and to determine where it leads. 

Both investigators run into difficulties.  For Dr. Fourney, it’s mechanical: her boat’s motor malfunctions, and she and her team are trapped on shore.  For Dr. Garland, it’s the unpredictable behavior of her subjects, which simply aren’t vocalizing. 

The focus has been on the women rather than the whales from the start, but now it gravitates toward them more and more, until we learn more about what drives them, and how their lives (and those of their disciples) have been impacted by their projects, than we do about how the whales communicate—presuming, of course, that they do. 

The film thus becomes a study in frustration for us as well as the two women whose obsessions it depicts, and Xanthopoulos’ rather ragged cinematography and Robin Schwartz’s equally unkempt editing don’t help.  “Fathom” is an interesting portrait of how intense and consuming scientific research is, and it certainly presents intriguing nuts-and-bolts information on the two projects it covers, but it inevitably leaves one wanting more, as Fourney and Garland certainly did when their time with the whales was over.

Joshua Zeman’s “The Loneliest Whale: The Search for 52,” on the other hand, is less disciplined as a film but more accessible from the perspective of an emotional, rather than an intellectual, connection with the whales.  Zeman is no Captain Ahab, and his pursuit of a supposedly unique whale is unlikely to become a classic, but his essay is certainly an engaging nature documentary about a dogged pursuit of a perhaps unique specimen of whale.

Zeman, he tells us himself in his narration, became captivated by the story of a whale, discovered by marine biologist William Watkins in 1989. that vocalized at a frequency of 52 hertz which meant that the calls would go unheard and unanswered by any other whales.  (The discovery was an accidental result of Cold War naval experiments designed to detect hostile underwater activity.)  Watkins tracked the whale for decades, and eventually stories about the whale began to circulate, prompting widespread human sympathy for (and feelings of identification with) an animal that—given our inclination to anthropomorphize—must, it was thought by many must be terribly lonely.

Zeman decided to try to track down the elusive creature, which hadn’t been heard from in years and could well have expired.  He was fortunate enough to attract some noted experts to his dream, including John Hildebrand, a bioacoustics expert at UC San Diego’s Scripps Institute of Oceanography, and they set off into the Pacific off the California coast in a boat named Truth to find what one calls a mission less likely to succeed than finding a needle in a haystack.  And research biologist John Calambodikis offers a suggestion about what they might be looking for when he recounts finding a hybrid whale—part blue whale, part fin whale—some years earlier.

Most of the film is taken up by Zeman’s personal musings and footage of the expedition, nicely shot by Nelson Hume and accompanied by the pleasant score from Alex Lasarenko.  But as edited by Aaron Crozier, it also includes, cursorily inserted, a mini-documentary on the history of whaling, and another of the effect of Payne’s record on the public consciousness and the pro-whale movement it inaugurated.  Time is also made for a sad description of the impact of modern shipping on the whales’ ability to survive, the horns blown by huge cargo ships interfering with their ability to navigate and warn one another of the danger posed by the vessels leading many simply to be run down.  (Hearing, rather than sight, is their primary mode of understanding the environment around them.)

The result is that “The Loneliest Whale” is rather loosely constructed.  As it reaches a natural close—the end of the expedition—it also seems destined to end, as “Fathom” does, in unmitigated disappointment.  But an unexpected surprise comes at the end—not a complete success, but at least a partial one that leaves Zeman and the viewer feeling that their time chasing an elusive quarry was well spent.

Whales are fascinating creatures, somehow lovable despite their mammoth size, and both “Fathom” and “The Search for 52” feed into our desire to understand them better and perhaps commune with them somehow.  In the end, though, however much we can admire the efforts of Fourney and Garland it’s Zeman who manages to captivate on a more basic level.