“The mystic-marked whale remains undecipherable.”—Herman Melville, Moby Dick.
If like me, you are captivated by whales and emotionally invested in their health and well-being, you will definitely not want to miss The Whale Detective, a tantalizing bit of personal whale lore recounted by wildlife filmmaker Tom Mustill.
In September 2015, a 30-ton humpback whale breached and just missed landing on Mustill and his friend Charlotte as they kayaked in Monterey Bay, California. They miraculously survived. But the traumatic close encounter haunted Mustill. He became obsessed with the whale’s intentions. Was the whale putting on a show? Was it a deliberate aggressive act aimed to topple the kayak and crush the kayakers? Or did the humpback mistakenly cut its breach too close then turn away so as not to hurt them?
Tom Mustill’s personal mission to determine the motivation of “his” whale, subsequently named “Prime Suspect,”and, in the process, learn more about the species that almost killed him is played out in his latest film for the PBS Nature series, The Whale Detective.
Nature: The Whale Detective debuts on PBS tonight, Wednesday, January 8, 2020, 8:00 – 9:00 p.m. ET. (Check local listings for air times in your region and http://www.pbs.org/nature and the PBS Video app for streaming and DVD availability.)
Monterey Bay off the coast of California is an expansive, deep and rich whale feeding and breeding ground. It not only lures various species of these extraordinary mammals, but is a magnet for their fans: avid whale watchers from around the globe, as well as marine biologists, behaviorists and concerned citizens who photograph, record, study, save (untangle) and examine post-mortem the showstopping whales that breach, feed and mate around and under them.
Self-described whale detective Tom Mustill interviews these locally-based whale aficionados and reviews their extensive research and close encounters, paying special attention to the photos and viral videos shot by others before, during and after his near-death confrontation with the breaching humpback in 2015.
Although Mustill’s film is just under one-hour long, it manages to highlight some fascinating work being done to study and protect various species of whales but most especially humpbacks. And in the end, it reminds us, that we, as humans, hold their fate precariously in our hands. Whale expert Dr. Joy Reidenberg underscores the importance of protecting whales from human detritus as she performs a necropsy on a young beached whale killed by a ship’s massively damaging impact.
While humans are their biggest threat, somehow whales seem to know that humans are also out to help them. Filmmaker Mustill joins an elite, specially trained crew on a dangerous mission to disentangle and cut a whale free from its “captor”… a rope snagged on the sea floor.
In one viral video, we see a humpback tuck a diver under its fin to protect her from a shark and swim her to the safety of her boat. The seasoned diver recalls at one point being eye to eye with the whale and the physically painful encounter that abruptly saved her life.
Surprisingly, humpback whales have not only been documented coming to the rescue of human divers, but fellow air breathing denizens of the deep as well. Humpbacks swim in to save the day when seals, sea lions, whale calves and dolphins are being bullied or attacked by killer whales. As seen here in video footage, killer whales can be seen making a quick exit instead of facing off against their mortal enemies, humpback whales.
In the end, Mustill uncovers some fascinating tidbits about his whale’s origins and backstory. And there is every indication that “Prime Suspect” may, in fact, have simply goofed and made a bad breach on that September day in 2015 and choreographed an immediate “auto correct” so as not to hurt the kayakers.
This episode in the award-winning PBS series, NATURE, executive produced by Fred Kaufman, is a Gripping Films production for THIRTEEN PRODUCTIONS LLC and BBC Studios in association with WNET.
Nature: The Whale Detective debuts on PBS tonight, Wednesday, January 8, 2020, 8:00 – 9:00 p.m. ET. (Check local listings for air times in your region and http://www.pbs.org/nature and the PBS Video app for streaming and DVD availability.) –Judith Trojan