Smallscreen Reviews

Nat Geo's Kingdom of the Blue Whale a no miss March 8

By April MacIntyre Mar 8, 2009, 4:34 GMT

Nat Geo's Kingdom of the Blue Whale a no miss March 8

Kingdom of the Blue Whale-All images are cleared for all media, worldwide in perpetuity with promotion of the National Geographic Channel program.

Sunday March 8th will feature a no miss documentary from National Geographic called "Kingdom of the Blue Whale."  Producers embarked on an ocean adventure to discover the secrets of the world's largest creature.

The Blue Whale is the largest ever to live on our planet, and it is one of the most endangered.  It was a successful multiyear mission that was the first ever to capture an infant calf on film.  This is an extraordinary film, and all children and students should be watching.

Supported by the National Geographic Society, the world's eminent blue whale scientists embark on a revolutionary mission: They'll find, identify, and tag California blue whales, use the DNA samples to confirm the sex of individual whales, then rejoin the massive creatures' stunning migration when they collect at a chimera known as the Costa Rica Dome.

So little is actually known about them. Yet these experts have dedicated their professional lives to observe, firsthand, courtship behavior among the whales at the moving mass of their primary diet, krill, and currents 500 miles off the coast of Costa Rica.

Senior research biologist John Calambokidis of Cascadia Research spoke to Monsters and Critics at the recent winter TCA's about his life's work of tracking the great whales, and answered our question of why we have not been able to see these whales before.

Calambokidis said, "Well, blue whales, unlike some species of Humpbacks and grey whales that come into shallow waters to breed, blue whales go to these offshore areas.  Even whalers did'nt dscover some of these whaling grounds.  So we've been able to study them off California.  But this is the first film expedition going out, doing some if the things we've been able to do at the Dome that this film depicts.  The Crittercam depolyments that we put on, those can film for up to eight hours, so they're usually times to release within that time frame.  There are also other types of tags that help document the feeding behavior that can stay on a few days.  It's a very short term tag that we have to recover becasue it gathers an intense amount of information, either the video or the acoustics."

The scientists along with Nat Geo producers have discovered the breeding and calving grounds of the biggest mammals in the sea.  These massive sea creatures weigh as much as 25 large elephants.

The whale is so large, they are said to have a heart the size of a Mini Cooper car.  Their mouth is big enough to hold 100 people, and they are longer than a basketball court.  The Blue Whale is the largest creature ever to inhabit the earth. They are the largest creatures ever to live on our planet — larger than any of the great dinosaurs — yet few people have seen one.  They are one of the loudest animals on land or sea — capable of making sounds equivalent to those of a jet engine — but we struggle to hear them.  They deliver the world’s largest babies, but despite their immense size, most of the places where the great blue whales calve their young have been among the world’s greatest mysteries. 

Nat Geo enlisted the narration skills of Emmy Award-Winning Actor Tom Selleck, to tell the story of the scientists who devote their lives to the whales.  National Geographic Magazine will also have coverage of this landmark expedition in its March 2009 issue.

Kingdom of the Blue Whale Premieres Sunday, March 8, at 8 p.m. ET/PT

Blue whales in the Eastern North Pacific once numbered close to 10,000, but more than a century of whaling took its toll.  Even though the hunting of blues has been banned since the 1960s, today only about 2,000 are left in what is thought to be the largest known population on earth. 

An international team of scientists supported by the National Geographic Society sets out on an expedition to unlock the secrets of the blue whale and investigate why more are dying than at any time since the era of whaling.  

 

Filmed during sea voyages off the coasts of California and Costa Rica, Kingdom of the Blue Whale follows a watery trail of clues over hundreds of nautical miles, as scientists unravel answers to ancient mysteries hidden in the darkest depths of the oceans.  Back closer to shore, we investigate the traumatic deaths of four blue whales in one season — far greater than the one expected every few years.  Is man to blame, and what can be done to prevent the loss of additional whales?  

Of note: The crafts that contributed in the making of this film, especially post-production and cinematography: The stunning HD underwater cinematography, CGI of the developing whale fetus, satellite imaging and insight from experts all help tell this new chapter in the story of the blue whale. 

I asked the DP, Ernie Kovacs, what kind of gear he used in lensing this documentary.

"You know, for the filming that I did in the water and on the surface, nothing too fancy," shared Kovacs. "Because we were out on boats with not much room at all, a lot of times just had to stand in these square three foot and stay out of people's way, because we're actually not allowed to approach the whales just for the purpose of filming.  It has to be for the purpose of science.  So, there's not the opportunity for elaborate jibs.  We're on bouncing ships 500 miles offshore.  So you really have to stick to the basics and just try and keep the camera as stable as possible.  But we had the Crittercam which was the most advanced-technology approach where this camera...you actually stuck to the back of the whale, and we got some phenomenal first-time-ever footage with that of the whale coming up towards the surface, seeing a ball of krill, and just engulfing a whole ball of krill.  And that camera was able to capture that footage."

Using National Geographic’s cutting-edge Crittercam®, an integrated video-camcorder and data-logging system that attaches to the whale’s back with suction, this special also features the exclusive footage of the blue whale gulping krill — from the whale’s perspective.

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 cutting-edge technology, 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. 

Ground zero for the Whale: The Costa Rica Dome is almost 1,000 square miles of remote ocean rarely visited by humans, where three whale behaviors never witnessed before - courtship, calving and winter feeding - are observed by camera for the first time.

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. 

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.  

Kingdom of the Blue Whale also opens a window into why these animals have become one of the most endangered species on earth.  Today, our oceans are busier and noisier, and resources the whales depend on are disappearing.  And while blue whale hunting is now illegal, they remain under assault by another killer — huge oceangoing cargo vessels that power through the sea day and night. 

Blues have been known to become victims of ship strikes on occasion, but the numbers of fatalities have increased in recent years.  In fact, the four dead blue whales found during the making of this film were apparently killed by ship strikes.  Whale experts are exploring whether the amount of industrial noise in today’s oceans might be a cause of confusion for blue whales, which can play a role in their tragic, but avoidable, deaths.  

Whale expert Steve Palumbi says, “It’s probably harder to be a whale like that than it’s ever, ever been before … I think we have the power to protect them and let them have that chance.”  To give them that chance, we must protect our seas over the years and decades to come … for baby blue and for ourselves. 

For more information on blue whales, visit here

Kingdom of the Blue Whale is produced by National Geographic Television and Film. 

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