On Sunday March 8 (check TV schedule here), a new documentary from National Geographic is set to reveal some of the secrets of the world’s largest animal ever – Balaenoptera musculus, the mighty blue whale.
Kingdom of the Blue Whale follows Dr. John Calambokidis, Dr. Bruce Mate and Dr. Erin Oleson as they attempt to solve key questions surrounding the mysterious lives of these rare animals. For science-watchers everywhere, this documentary is particularly enjoyable as we observe biologists with a variety of skills work together to better understand and protect the blue whale. Actual underwater footage of these animals is infrequent, but this is because of the necessity of protecting the animals from unnecessary approaches. The cameras do follow the action as the scientists place suction-cup tags and take tissue samples – amazing sequences as the huge whales rise up beside the tiny boats that are used to approach them.
Interwoven with the main theme we find CGI animations and some genetic detective work on the marketing of whale meat in Japan. Also examined are the threats to blue whales today. A disturbing element in the documentary is the fact that during the period in which the film was made, four blue whales were killed by ship strikes – a tragic result of bigger and faster ships in increasingly busy shipping lanes. It is hoped that by increasing our knowledge of the migratory habits of blue whales, scientists will better be able to determine methods to increase their chances for survival.
From the official press release:
Aboard Oregon State University’s research vessel the Pacific Storm, scientists use state-of-the-art equipment to find, study and listen to the Eastern North Pacific blue whale population. Beginning in California, Dr. Bruce Mate, director of the Marine Mammal Institute at Oregon State University, places satellite tags on individual blues to track their location anywhere in the sea and collects skin samples to determine the sex of the whales. Simultaneously, John Calambokidis of Cascadia Research in Olympia, WA, uses a camera to photo-ID blues and a crossbow to collect small skin samples for further study.Employing a different type of tag, Dr. Erin Oleson, formerly of the Scripps Institute of Oceanography near San Diego, CA, decodes the whales’ sounds — and what they might mean — by comparing the acoustic signals to the behavior they exhibit. To their delight, the scientists are able to tag 15 blues. But sadly, the team also comes across several dead blues off the coast of Santa Barbara, leaving the scientists distressed and elevating the urgency to find what is killing them.Armed with technology and driven to solve the mysteries of these giants, the scientists next journey hundreds of miles through remote and dangerous seas searching for the wintering ground of these leviathans in the vast Costa Rica Dome, an area of the Pacific Ocean where cold water from the deep rises to just below the warm, tropical surface — an ideal blue whale habitat. There the team faces the real challenge of finding and observing blues, which spend virtually all of their lives underwater and surface for only seconds at a time to fill their closet-sized lungs before diving again.
The team locates the whales in almost 1,000 square miles of remote ocean rarely visited by humans, and succeeds in their bold mission to confirm three whale behaviors never witnessed before at the Costa Rica Dome — courtship, calving and winter feeding. By learning more about this secret spot, they win a huge victory toward protecting the creatures and their most vital habitat. The team also confirms that calves are born at the Dome by documenting a mother blue whale traveling with an infant calf, the youngest ever photographed underwater and one of the rarest sights in nature. And they confirm that blues feed all year round in this location — a behavior never before observed here. Prior to this discovery, scientists had suspected that blue whales fed here during the winter months, but were never able to conclusively prove it. In addition, the team verifies that blue whales interact with one another by singing, a behavior previously exhibited only by single males swimming alone.
Mouth big enough to hold 100 people.
Longer than a basketball court.
Weighing as much as 25 large elephants.
It is the largest creature ever to inhabit the earth.
But we know precious little about it.
- Visit the Blue Whale profile at National Geographic.
- Read more on the Blue/Fin whale hybrid genetic tracking in the Cipriano and Palumbi letter in Nature (PDF)
- Observations of a Nerd gives her marine biologist’s view of the documentary.
- Daniel Brown at Biochemical Soul, discusses the production and presentation.
And more information from Tetrapod Zoology.
- A 6 ton model, and a baby that puts on 90 kg a day: rorquals part I
- From cigar to elongated, bloated tadpole: rorquals part II
- Lunging is expensive, jaws can be noisy, and what’s with the asymmetry? Rorquals part III
(Photographs used with permission of National Geographic, with many thanks to Minjae Ormes)