NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC SPECIAL EXPLORES BOND BETWEEN MAN AND WHALE, AND LOOKS AT DANGERS FACING THE OCEAN GIANTS — Premiering Wednesday, March 31, at 8 p.m. ET/PT on PBS (check local listings)
WASHINGTON (Feb. 23, 2004)—Few creatures are as mysterious and captivating as the whale. Few connect with us so emotionally and spiritually. After hunting whales for generations, we have brought their widespread slaughter to an end, but these graceful giants still face threats on a number of fronts, and the battle to save them goes on. A new National Geographic Special, “Whales in Crisis,” travels from the Arctic to the Florida Keys, from Puget Sound to the South Pacific island of Tonga, to meet a new generation of whale warriors — men and women dedicated to studying and preserving the world’s remaining populations of these magnificent animals.
Premiering Wednesday, March 31, on PBS (check local listings), the film takes an intimate look at four types of whales — pilots, humpbacks, bowheads and orcas — through the eyes of the humans who are closest to them. From the struggle to save a pod of pilot whales in the Florida Keys to the groundbreaking work of a scientist risking life and limb in the Arctic to the controversy over military sonar, the Special takes us to the front lines of whale conservation.
In Washington state’s Puget Sound, marine biologist Ken Balcomb has been researching the region’s killer whales for nearly three decades. The animals are in decline, perhaps because of toxins and decreasing salmon stocks. But recently, Balcomb found himself suspecting another potential factor. Last May, he witnessed his study population racing away from an area where a Navy destroyer was operating its sonar. Although the pod did not appear to suffer lasting harm, Balcomb was very concerned. It was not Balcomb’s first encounter with whales and sonar. Three years earlier, he was in the Bahamas when 14 beaked whales, two minke whales and a dolphin washed up on a day when a group of Navy destroyers in the area was engaged in a sonar exercise. Six of the beaked whales later died. A later study determined that sonar likely played a role in causing the animals to strand.
Events of this nature have created a fierce debate about the impact of sonar, with scientists working hard to provide the answers. As the Special reveals, sonar is essential for detecting new super-silent submarines and is thus a vital tool in our nation’s defense. The U.S. Navy has spent millions to learn more about its potential effects on marine mammals and has adjusted its operations accordingly. National security interests and whales can coexist, says Roger Gentry, an acoustics expert with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries Service. “And we can cut down on the number of deaths we are seeing by carefully avoiding the areas where we know marine mammals concentrate.”
In the Florida Keys, a mysterious stranding is the problem facing an army of volunteers racing to save a group of pilot whales, including an orphaned calf. Pilots, among the most social of whales, are notorious for this baffling behavior.
“One real popular theory is that there might be a lead animal or one of the members of the group that is sick and ends up closer to shore,” says NOAA marine biologist Laura Engleby. “Since pilot whales are very cohesive, very gregarious, they end up following that one individual animal. They get in shallow water, they get disorientated, and then the tide goes out and they are left stranded on the flats.”
The volunteers are locked in a battle to save the severely dehydrated and sunburned animals. The crew of the Special spent weeks on the inside of this whale rescue operation, one of the most ambitious ever undertaken in the United States. Especially poignant is the story of whale number seven, the orphaned calf that is nursed back to health and ultimately released. “It was very touching to watch the bond grow between the whales and their rescuers, and between the whales themselves as a new pod was created,” says producer Bruce Norfleet.
Off the icy coast of Greenland, another type of whale is beginning to give up its secrets. The Arctic’s great bowhead whale, once a coveted prize for European whalers and driven to the brink of extinction, is today on the rebound, but it remains threatened. Danish scientist Mads Peter Heide-Jorgensen has launched a groundbreaking study of these elusive creatures. It’s bone-chilling — and highly dangerous — work. Heide-Jorgensen and his team risk life and limb as they race across the frigid waters in rubber rafts, chasing 60-ton bowheads to attach satellite tags to them, hoping to chart their travels through the Arctic.
“It’s only been in recent years that we even have enough bowheads to do meaningful studies on them,” says Heide-Jorgensen. “The fact that we know so little about them gives [us an] enormous challenge to try to figure out where they go, what they do, how they do it.”
Knowing where the whales go will be a key step in the battle to protect their waters and ensure their future. Already, the study has shown these great creatures may travel farther into the Northwest Passage than we thought, and scientists have recently learned that bowheads may live up to 200 years — making them perhaps the oldest animals on the planet.
“Like many people, I thought we had saved whales by putting an end to global commercial whaling,” says producer Bruce Norfleet. “But this project exposed the many issues and perils that whales still face. Some dangers we know about, like entanglement in nets; others we are still learning about, such as noise pollution. Why whales strand themselves is an enigma that has puzzled people for centuries, and we need to find out if human activities are contributing to an increase in this suicidal behavior.
“Many whale species reproduce so slowly that they are highly susceptible to becoming extinct,” he adds. “If our actions or lack of action result in high mortality rates for whales, we may not get a second chance to save them from extinction.”
“Whales In Crisis” is produced and directed by Bruce Norfleet. Michael Rosenfeld is executive producer; Keenan Smart is head of the Natural History Unit.
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