Actor Adrian Grenier is looking for the world’s loneliest whale.

The whale was first discovered by the US Navy in 1989 with an array of hydrophones used to detect enemy submarines. The hydrophones, called SOSUS, picked up a whale song that was somewhat similar to the songs of large baleen whales…with one major difference. This whale, whatever it is, sings its key notes at 52 Hertz. That’s low for humans but much higher than the average songs of fin whales and blue whales.

Adrian Grenier (right) and director Joshua Zeman (left). (Photo via the 52 Kickstarter)

Adrian Grenier (right) and director Joshua Zeman (left). (Photo via the 52 Kickstarter)

“For a blue whale, which is what this one seemed to be, a frequency of 52 Hz was basically off the charts,” wrote author Leslie Jamison. “Blue whales usually came in somewhere between 15 and 20 [Hz].”

Fin whales also sing at 20 Hz, so cetacean experts were baffled as to what species this whale was, and who it was singing for. The whale, dubbed “52,” so intrigued marine mammal researcher Bill Watkins that he spent 12 years tracking it. To this day, the whale has never been seen, but its song is so unique that it’s impossible to misidentify.

“It is perhaps difficult to accept that if this was a whale, that there could have been only one of this kind in this large oceanic expanse,” Watkins and his co-authors wrote in a 2004 paper. “Yet in spite of comprehensive careful monitoring year-round, only one call with these characteristics has been found anywhere, and there has been only one source each season.”

Some have taken this finding to mean that the whale is alone out there, singing for companionship that will never come.

But no one really knows what’s going on with this whale. By all accounts it’s an otherwise healthy animal. Some scientists have hypothesized that it’s a hybrid of a fin and blue whale, but this has yet to be confirmed.

That’s why Adrian Grenier is helping to produce a documentary on 52, to get to the heart of this mystery.

The Spokeswhale for Our Disconnect

Planet Experts met up with Adrian at Earth to Paris, where the actor, filmmaker and activist participated in a panel alongside Paul Bunje (XPRIZE) and John Woolard (Google) to discuss technologies for climate solutions.

Adrian Grenier addresses a panel made up of Paul Bunje of the XPRIZE Foundation, Aimée Christensen of Christensen Global Strategies and John Woolard, Vice-President of Energy at Google. (Photo Credit: Nicole Landers)

Adrian Grenier addresses a panel made up of Paul Bunje of the XPRIZE Foundation, Aimée Christensen of Christensen Global Strategies and John Woolard, Vice-President of Energy at Google. (Photo Credit: Nicole Landers)

Adrian was asked to join the documentary team by his friend and fellow producer Lucy Cooper. The actor was taken with the story of the whale, and has since become a 52 devotee. “He’s been calling out his whole life without ever receiving a response,” he said, “floating out in the abyss, seeking companionship. Whales are highly sentient, and social, just like humans, so we can project a little of our feelings onto it and imagine it could be lonely.”

I asked Adrian what’s so special about this story. It’s something he doesn’t take lightly. “Anybody I’ve ever told this story to, if you don’t feel something when you hear it, you’re probably not human. The whale has this innate ability to inspire empathy. It’s an allegory, it’s a narrative that we can relate to. I think the oceans need us to have more compassion and empathy and connect more to what is happening.”


As a sign of solidarity with 52, Adrian recently shared his new whale neck tattoo with his Instagram followers. “@lonelywhale neck #tattoo,” the actor wrote. “I’m committed to ocean conservation.”

By joining his public profile to 52’s, Adrian hopes to raise awareness about more than just the lonely whale. “He’s a symbolic parallel to our disconnect,” he explained, “not only [to] the oceans but also our environment. He’s helping us bridge that gap.”

Also helping to bridge that gap is actor Leonardo DiCaprio, whose philanthropic Leonard DiCaprio Foundation donated $50,000 to the 52 Kickstarter campaign.

The documentary will focus not only on the search for 52 but the science behind tracking whales and the effect of noise pollution on the underwater environment. In the end, Adrian, Lucy and the film’s director, Joshua Zeman, raised $450,000 to invest in both the film and the science.

“We want to tell the story of the loneliest whale in the world,” said Adrian, “and that’s a science story, but we’re not scientists. And there’s not a lot of research surrounding ocean noise pollution, which is going to be our focus, [as well as] hybrid whales. We know more about the surface of the moon than we do about the ocean, right? So why don’t we fund the science and make that the narrative arc of the film?”

Raising Environmental Capital

When Adrian and his team approached traditional investors for 52, the response was less than enthused. “A lot of investors were like, ‘You want to fund half a million dollars of science research for the film?’ That’s not a line item you normally see in a documentary budget, so we decided to go to the community.”

The response from the Kickstarter community has been overwhelmingly positive, and that has led Adrian to search for other ways to bring people into contact with the lonely whale and, by extension, the ocean. “My mission when I first agreed to produce was, ‘I’ll do it, but I’m looking for a way to build out into larger platforms.’”

Adrian with US Secretary of State John Kerry at Earth to Paris. (Photo Credit: Nicole Landers)

Adrian with US Secretary of State John Kerry at Earth to Paris. (Photo Credit: Nicole Landers)

52 is just the latest project for Adrian’s environmental passion, which stretches back to his childhood. For him, environmentalism is as much about practicality as it is about morality. “My mother taught me to take care of my space,” said Adrian. “Clean my room! It’s just the mature thing to do to recognize your responsibility to the world at large. Many people haven’t grown up yet, including many people in positions of power. But I think maybe now that’s changing.

“I started to recognize the importance of taking care of the world, not because I want to save humanity or save the Earth – I just want it to be nice. I want to enjoy my life. I want my quality of life to be at a level that is enjoyable for me and for others.

“The basic idea is that we’re all interconnected, and what someone else does affects you and vice versa. You’ve got to start with your own actions.”

For Adrian that led to him co-founding SHFT, a lifestyle platform for establishing more sustainable choices in food, film, design and art. It led to the creation of the Lonely Whale Foundation “as a vehicle to engage students in units on empathy, communication and ocean and environmental science.” It led to his becoming a social advocate for Dell.

For the past several months, Adrian has been working with the computer company to help achieve their Legacy of Good goals by 2020, which includes the creation of a robust tech recycling program. The company wants to upcycle 50 million pounds of material in the next five years, which would significantly improve the deplorable state of e-waste recycling in its current form.

For Adrian, this has meant expanding Dell’s mission to improving its relationship to the ocean. “We’re looking at ways to take out or prevent plastic waste from entering the ocean,” he said. Dell also helped Adrian to launch the Lonely Whale Foundation and the Lonely Whale Virtual Reality experience. Adrian and Dell shared the VR experience, Cry Out, with Earth to Paris, where everyone from journalists to US Secretary of State John Kerry could try it on.

“I’ve worked with many companies and I’ve learned how to gauge whether or not people mean it or if it’s just a PR stunt,” he said. “Whenever I get railroaded by PR teams, you start to realize it’s a lot of greenwashing or nonsense, but Dell means it. I think it’s because Michael Dell means it. […] When I sat down with him, I wanted to make sure this was real, because I have my name on the line, too. I’ve been building up my environmental capital as a spokesperson and I didn’t want to fuck it up now. And he said, ‘I mean it. Because my name is on all my products, and when it goes into a landfill, [consumers] see my name on it.’”

Forging the Connection

During his panel at Earth to Paris, Adrian said his dream is to create an app that allows consumers to see what ocean garbage belongs to what company. Imagine sailing out to a garbage gyre, sliding on a pair of Google glasses and seeing brand tags on all the little pieces of debris. Unlike Dell, said Adrian, “Coca-cola isn’t a name.” But you know where it comes from.

Ultimately, the actor, filmmaker and activist wants to see consumers make a deeper connection with both the planet and the things they throw away. Adrian quoted Barry Commoner, a noted ecologist and author of The Closing Circle: “There is no ‘away.’” Everything goes somewhere.

But no one has to do this alone. The message of Earth to Paris, of COP21, of the future we’re striving for, is that a sustainable world is achievable if we work together. “We’re all the lonely whale,” said Adrian. “We all need connection.”

More stories from Earth to Paris:

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