Four stars. Suitable for all ages
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.26.16
In a film laden with captivating facts — an impressive number of them, for a documentary that runs only 40 minutes — none is more unexpected than the revelation that the world’s attitude about whale-hunting was changed, almost overnight, by ... a record album.
1970’s Songs of the Humpback Whale, produced by biologist and environmentalist Roger Payne, culminated his three-year study of songs and vocalizations among these mighty ocean mammals. It became the best-selling environmental album in history, sharing not only the majestic beauty of these oddly melodic sounds, but proving that they represented a complex means of communication.
The subsequent “Save the Whales” movement, galvanized by this “discovery” of highly evolved whale culture, resulted in the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment’s global moratorium on commercial whaling (observed to this day by all but three countries: Japan, Iceland and Norway).
That’s an impressive result, for a rather unusual pop LP.
These magnificent creatures are celebrated in the MacGillivray Freeman IMAX documentary, Humpback Whales: a gorgeously filmed production with all the hallmarks of previous efforts such as Grand Canyon Adventure, Dolphins, Coral Reef Adventure and many others. Indeed, MacGillivray Freeman productions have long been the crown jewels of IMAX nature documentaries, and this one’s no exception.
Director Greg MacGillivray and his team of giant-screen cinematographers patiently recorded humpback behavior and migrations in the waters off Alaska, Hawaii and most particularly the remote islands of Tonga, which has enjoyed its own success with a local whale restoration program. Via commentary given just the right degree of reverence and Scottish lilt by off-camera narrator Ewan McGregor, we learn why humpbacks “perform” these diverse and haunting songs, and why they migrate up to 10,000 miles, round-trip, every year.
The always amazing footage is given greater dramatic heft by composer Steve Wood’s exhilarating score, which mixes humpback songs with an orchestral blend of piano, synthesized sounds and the energetic themes of Canadian folk guitarist Calum Graham. Wood also choreographs several sequences to the rousing 2014 pop anthem “Best Day of My Life,” which echoes the irrepressible bliss that we can’t help experiencing, while watching the humpbacks whirl, twirl and leap with abandon.
Needless to say, MacGillivray gives us plenty of “money shots” of these 55-foot, 50-ton, unexpectedly acrobatic animals propelling their massive bodies almost entirely out of the water, in order to slap back onto the surface, accompanied by a thwomp with the volume of a sonic boom.
Such scenes are awe-inspiring, to say the least.
As are the lengthy sequences of mother whale parental behavior, as they instruct their jumbo-sized babies in the essential arts of feeding, migration and overall survival. Like all mammals, infant humpbacks are curious and eager mimics; nothing is cuter — allowing for the size of these creatures — than a sequence that shows a mother whale smacking her tail on the water’s surface, while her offspring does the same with its (not that much smaller) tail.
And yet a few things remain unknown, because such behavior never has been seen, let alone recorded: the courtship ritual that eventually produces this ginormous baby, and its subsequent birth. Hard to believe, in the second decade of the 21st century, but scientists still haven’t glimpsed humpback sex. (Obviously, the whales are extremely shy.)
The most fascinating footage, caught in Alaskan bays, reveals a degree of cooperative hunting behavior which — given its water setting — is every bit as cunning and ingenious as that demonstrated by land-based wolf packs. This method, known as “bubble net fishing,” involves at least half a dozen humpbacks, working together to maximize their access to a large school of herring.
The labor is divided, with a few whales blowing and directing large streams of air bubbles that effectively “herd” the herring into a closely packed group. Other whales “nudge” this compact flurry of fish toward the surface, with still other humpbacks producing booming “feeding calls” that further concentrate the prey, forcing them to the center of the “bubble net.”
The process obviously requires patience and persistence, but the reward is significant: an essentially entrapped colony of hundreds (thousands?) of small fish, driven toward the ocean’s surface and then — in a sudden feeding frenzy — scooped into the humpback’s mighty maws.
Which, just in passing, lack teeth. A humpback mouth is full of baleen — like our hair and nails — which acts as a filter when the whales scoop up tiny prey animals.
The significance of this skillful hunting technique becomes understood, when McGregor reminds us that humpbacks eat up to two tons of food per day.
MacGillivray concludes his film on an exciting and suspenseful sequence, as “whale rescuer” Ed Lyman leads a team on a small boat, with the goal of disentangling a humpback that has gotten wrapped up in long strands of abandoned fishing gear. This is potentially fatal, as the drag can tire the mighty animal, and — depending on how much debris is involved — even prevent it from diving.
Lyman is based at The Hawaiian Islands Entanglement Response Network, a community-based endeavor led by the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, partnered with the U.S. government’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
There’s no question of the difficulties involved, as Lyman’s (comparatively) tiny boat races after a compromised humpback; it’s also highly dangerous, as the whale’s unexpected movement could cripple the boat or injure — even kill — its human rescuers.
And while this particular mission concludes on a happy note — MacGillivray wouldn’t have dared do otherwise — the numbers are grim. “We know we’re only scratching the surface,” Lyman notes. “We believe we only find about 4 percent of entangled whales.”
That’s a sobering detail on which to conclude this inspiring film, but it speaks to the challenges involved, and the need to more aggressively re-think the mega-fishing techniques that can lead to such tragedies. MacGillivray Freeman films never are shy about their role in environmental advocacy ... and more power to them.