The Whale Detective: Trauma and discovery in Monterey Bay

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At first glance, whales appear as invincible as they are massive. They dwarf humans and, while swimming in the ocean, project a sense of inevitability. Their movements mix power and grace. Their behavior toward other creatures is nuanced and complex. A new Nature documentary, The Whale Detective (airs Jan. 8 on PBS), takes a closer look at the ocean’s majestic mammals. Tom Mustill, the filmmaker behind the project, discussed his film with SCINQ.

Scientific Inquirer: Can you take us through the incident that inspired you to make this film about whales? It’s both fascinating and terrifying at the same time.

Tom Mustill: Fascinating and terrifying sums it up perfectly! In fall 2015 I had visited the MBARI research station in Monterey Bay, California to find out about their new underwater robots. The building overlooks the sea at Moss Landing and my friend pointed out large numbers of Humpbacks close to shore and suggested I take a kayak tour. I signed myself and my friend Charlotte up and we headed out early the following morning on a tour with a guide. I’d worked on whale watching boats and the guide made sure that we kept a good distance from the whales which mainly we were able to, though sometimes whales surfaced nearer than we wanted and we’d quickly back-paddle away. It was very calm and quiet, punctuated by the exhalations of the surfacing whales, sometimes if you were downwind we’d get nostrils full of their fishy-stale-broccoli breath!

The tour had finished and we had turned and started paddling back to the harbour when a large whale exploded out of the water ahead of us very close by. I had time to realise that it was going to land directly on us, and then we were underwater. I was slammed through the water with a speed I had never experienced in water, fast enough to make my stomach drop as it does if you jump off a rock into the sea or drive fast over a speedbump.

Underwater I opened my eyes and everything was bright white bubbles and dark sea. Almost immediately I was spun again violently, I think this was from the whale moving rapidly nearby. At this point I became scared because I felt I could have some control over whether I survived, I was convinced that I was in shock and that I must have broken everything and be about to start feeling a lot of pain, or die. I was totally sure that Charlotte was dead, she had been closer to the whale than I had. I swam to the surface and the first thing I saw was her grinning face, she was alive and totally fine. I was also totally uninjured.

We figured out that the whale had made contact with the kayak with its pectoral fin, I had flipped the kayak over as the whale came down on us, and we think this impact shot us out of the kayak, and then we were all pulled underwater with the whale, along with the kayak. The other people in our kayak tour had seen us totally disappear under the whale. The kayak had a large dent in its nose. The whole experience only lasted about 10 seconds – from the whale leaving the water to us returning to the surface. It wasn’t long enough to be very scared, but my overwhelming sensation was one of astonishment to be alive, and awe. I can still picture the whale above me in the air, and see the details of its ventral pleats and the water streaming off it and its barnacles. It looked almost impossibly big. So fascinating and terrifying is about right!

Natural World_Humpback Whale - A Detective Story
Filmmaker Tom Mustill and Charlotte Kinloch holding onto other whale watchers’ kayak after surviving the whale breaching onto them. Credit: © Michael Sack Sanctuary Cruises

Scientific Inquirer: The phenomenon of whale breaching is not completely understood yet. What is the current thought among scientists about why whales engage in this behavior?

Tom Mustill: There are many theories about this. From speaking to researchers the impression I’ve received is that breaching is a complex behaviour that could have multiple uses. Whales carry a lot of parasites on their skin, like lice and barnacles, and breaching could help dislodge these. Whales can see in air and water and it could be an opportunity to look around. It could just feel fantastic, though the energy required to throw an animal over twice the size of a T–Rex out of the sea is substantial, and whales need to conserve their energy for the long fasting season away from feeding grounds.

Most of the theories concern communication; whales are social animals and a breach makes a lot of noise which can carry far and get the attention of other whales even in noisy environments and bad weather. A loud breach could tell you how big a rival whale is, or the direction of one could tell you where your calf is if you’ve lost sight of them, or lots of breaches from one direction, some at the same time could tell you that here is a big group of whales in the distance. There are a variety of different ways whales make loud splashes on the surface, from pectoral fin slaps to tail throws, and they often do these repeatedly and in combination. It may be that these splashes carry more information – perhaps some breaches are used in some circumstances, such as feeding. We often saw calves breaching, they seemed particularly prone to leaping from the sea repeatedly, or slapping their pectoral fins or throwing their tail flukes. Was this them learning how to control communications made out of slapping noises? Or just lots of ways of saying ‘I’m here’. Or play? Or all three? It is still unclear.

Scientific Inquirer: Whales aren’t alone in the animal kingdom in facing existential threats of human origin. What specific dangers do they encounter?

Tom Mustill: Like almost everything in the sea, whales face very new problems that their evolutionary histories have not prepared them for. Whaling is no longer the biggest danger – humans have largely (with some exceptions) stopped hunting large numbers of whales. Thousands of cetaceans end up dead each year as oceanic roadkill, many also get caught in debris in the oceans such as fishing gear and ghost nets and entangled so much that their limbs are cut off, they drown or they starve to death. In the Atlantic the Northern Right Whales are down to just a few hundred individuals. If a dozen mating age females are hit by boats or trapped in nets in a year, the consequences could be grave for the entire species. Some whales, like Sperm whales, ingest man-made objects like plastic bags. They cannot digest these and they fill their stomachs.

Whales rely on sound for feeding, navigating and communicating and the toothed whales use it for echolocating. The sea is full of human sounds, some extremely loud sounds, like navy sonar, seems to prove particularly fatal for sensitive species – such as the deep diving beaked whales. As the climate changes, currents shift and food availability changes – dead zones can form where whole marine ecosystems collapse – whales must follow where the food is, if there is less, they starve. If humans have overfished or disrupted the whales food, as is the case with the salmon that resident orcas in the Pacific Northwest rely on, the populations can dwindle drastically.

These are daunting times to be a whale, with many populations recovering from whaling. New evidence suggests whales are vital in sinking carbon into the deep sea, and effective natural allies in fighting climate change – our fates are linked; a drastically warming world will be very bad for both of us.

Natural World_Humpback Whale - A Detective Story
A humpback whale breaches very close to whale watchers. Credit: © Viralhog

Scientific Inquirer: You learned a lot of things during the filming of The Whale Detective. What sticks out most?

Tom Mustill: The thing that surprised me the most and still does is how much don’t know about whales! It took a while for me to really understand how hard it is to discover anything about whales. You can only see them when they breathe, you can only see a tiny bit of them then, and that’s only if you’re lucky enough to find them in the first place, and that’s only if you can get on the sea, in good conditions, in the daytime! They are the biggest animals of all time, and yet we know more about the lives of hamsters. Technology is changing this rapidly – we can put cameras and sensors on their bodies to follow them as they live their lives, drones can track and measure them from above, listening stations can tune in to them when no humans are around, the internet means we can share our photos and data and machine learning (AI) can start to find patterns in all this information – I think this is very exciting. I’m actually writing a book about it.

On a personal note I learned that if you spend all day looking down a camera lens at the sea whilst on a wobbly boat, when you go to bed the world spins around you for hours. I also learned that almost every marine biologist I met owns a dog!

Scientific Inquirer: You end up returning to the location of your initial encounter with a breaching whale. Did you have any apprehensions about going back?

Tom Mustill: I was really excited to go back, I’ve always loved whales and an opportunity to spend so much time around them was a dream. My main apprehension was that I wouldn’t find out anything at all and that I would make a boring film!

Scientific Inquirer: Finally, there’s a line in the film, “People won’t change until they care.” What would you like your audience to take away from The Whale Detective?

Tom Mustill: I’d love the film to transmit some of the wonder and passion that the people in it have for whales to the audience, my hope is that if you watch this film it might make you care enough to talk about whales and the problems they face, and find some way to help. There’s lots of ways to help – people can use their time, money, votes and skills. Going whale watching helps whales as the value of living whales increases. Also I’d like people to see what happened to me and be careful not to get too close to whales!s

For more information follow Tom Mustill on Twitter @tommustill. You can also follow Nature on Twitter or Facebook.

COVER IMAGE SOURCE: Michele Hall

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