Humpback Whales (2015) - full transcript

An in-depth look at the lives of humpback whales and the challenges they face to avoid extinction.

When I began studying humpback
whales almost 50 years ago,

there was very little
funding for such research.

I'd like to thank the
Pacific Life Foundation

for their unparalleled
generosity in supporting

the conservation of humpback
whales and other marine mammals.

Enabling a better future
is what Pacific Life does;

and their support of a healthy
ocean benefits all of us,

whales as well as people.

Our planet holds a kind
of parallel universe.

A place of wonder where
giants roam free.

For thousands of years,
we could only wonder

about humpback whales.

Now, by exploring their world,

we're getting surprising
glimpses into their lives.

A 40-ton adult appears
weightless in its ocean home.

Though longer than a school bus,
these 50-foot giants are nimble.

With a wingspan greater
than most Learjets,

humpbacks are
magnificent acrobats.

Often seen in shallow waters,

these mammals occasionally
dive to a depth of 1,000 feet.

Each bump on their heads
contains a single stiff hair,

which may help them sense
their environment.

Today, we celebrate them...

but it wasn't always so.

Whales were hunted for
hundreds of years

and rendered into oil
to light our cities.

When whalers developed
exploding harpoons,

these giants had no chance.

We nearly wiped humpback whales
off the face of the planet.

Then, during the Cold War, a U.S.
Navy observer,

recording the hum of
Soviet submarines,

heard something mysterious.

The otherworldly calls
of humpback whales.

Humpbacks string
their songs together

in a continuous river of sound.

The music of the deep.

In the 1970s, when these
recordings were studied

by scientists Roger
Payne and Scott McVay,

they recognized that the
seemingly random noises

were actually precise rhythmic
patterns of sound, or "songs."

When record albums
were released,

the humpbacks' songs changed
millions of hearts.

People from many nations
joined together

to support a ban
on killing whales.

The song of the humpback

helped us to begin to
understand, finally,

that whales are
magnificent, complex beings

worthy of protection,
worthy of life.

This was our turning point.

The South Pacific.

The humpback population here
was hard-hit by whaling.

In Tonga, there were only
about 50 mature females left.

In 1978, when the king of Tonga
banned the killing of whales,

the humpbacks here slowly began
to recover, one calf at a time.

Today in Tonga, there are
about 2,000 humpbacks,

a fraction of what once
was, but it's a start.

The humpback resurgence
has now sparked

a whale-watching boom here.

The increased tourism has
raised the standard of living

for the local people,
like Ali Takau.

My grandfather
was a whaler.

He hunted humpbacks
to feed our family.

Instead of
killing humpbacks,

Ali works hard to save them.

The future
of our humpbacks

depends on these children.

I tell the kids about
the whaling days,

so we never have that
kind of killing again.

My job is taking
tourists and scientists

out to see the humpbacks.

Now these magnificent
whales have begun to recover.

Each calf is critical to
Tonga's fragile resurgence.

After a full year of pregnancy,

mothers give birth to a
single 14-foot baby.

What's it like to be
a newborn humpback,

floating in a vast blue world,

where your only landmark
is a mountain of mother?

Humpbacks share these
idyllic waters

with a whole community
of marine life.

The remora fish come
along for the ride.

Even when
the mother sleeps,

the newborns don't stray
far from mother's milk.

But after a few weeks,
the calves get bolder,

and they take off on their own.

They're so curious.

And they've got so
much energy.

These newborns learn by
copying their mothers.

In their first year,
they double in size.

Once they get the hang of it,

there's no stopping them.

Each calf stays with
its mother

only about one year to
learn about the world.

How to migrate
thousands of miles.

What to eat and how to find it.

Who to trust and who to fear.

Whalers like my grandfather

once targeted
mothers and calves,

because they move so slowly.

I always loved my grandfather,

but he didn't understand the
need to stop killing whales.

The killing stopped here
in Tonga,

but not everywhere.

Three nations... Japan,
Norway and Iceland...

Still allow commercial
and scientific whaling.

Today, fewer people
kill whales on purpose,

but we now kill them
without even knowing it.

When a ship collides
with a whale,

the impact is often fatal.

And the number of ships on the
world's oceans has doubled

in the last 12 years.

There is something we can do
about these fatal collisions.

One solution is to
slow down ships,

or reroute them to avoid the
migratory pathways of whales.

Here in Tonga, mothers
go for months

with almost nothing to eat.

To find food, the humpback
whales in Tonga head south

to the frigid, bountiful
waters of Antarctica.

Many humpbacks in the North
Pacific Ocean migrate to Alaska.

Dr. Fred Sharpe has been
studying the behaviors

of humpback whales here
for the past 25 summers.

Most of the time, humpback
whales in Alaska feed on krill.

These small, shrimp-like
crustaceans thrive here,

in waters enriched by upwelling
currents and glacial nutrients.

The tiny krill might
be harder to catch

if humpback whales had
teeth, but they don't.

Instead of teeth, humpback
whales have baleen.

It's a kind of strainer

that hangs from the
roof of their mouth.

It lets the water
through, but allows them

to trap these tasty morsels,
like the fish and the krill.

When we're trying to
locate big feeding pods,

it's almost like you're
coming home to family.

Fred has studied

these particular
whales for so long...

Bubbles! Bubbles!

that he can often tell

who's vocalizing
just by listening.

We know who is who,

because each of these whales has
a really distinctive tail fluke.

They're kind of
like a fingerprint.

No two are exactly alike.

So... I run the prints.

This is Melancholy.

I've really come to know him
over the past 20 years,

from studying his behaviors
and even sketching him.

I often see Melancholy

with another male,
who we call Vulture.

Many whales feed individually,

but Melancholy and his crew have
learned a really cool strategy.

They can capture more fish by
working together as a team.

When we hear the feeding calls

and see the whales
group together,

we know we're in
for quite a show.

What happens next is one
of the most incredible

and complex animal
behaviors ever observed.

It's called "group
bubble-net feeding."

The first step is always
the synchronized dive.

Some of the whales dive deep

underneath the school of herring

to drive them up
towards the surface.

With their long
pectoral flippers,

they can outmaneuver
fast-moving prey.

The bubble specialist blows
a stream of bubbles,

forming a spiraling wall of air

that acts like a net to keep
the fish from getting away.

The designated vocalizer begins

to make almost
deafening sounds...

scaring the fish up
towards the surface.

The humpback mouth
expands so wide,

they could swallow a small car.

They can eat up to a ton
of food in a single day.

That's like 8,000 hamburgers.

Well, as it starts to get
cold up here in the fall,

Melancholy, Vulture and all the
other whales begin to leave.

They'll travel
thousands of miles

down to their warm-water
breeding areas

like Costa Rica,
Mexico and Hawaii.

Some humpbacks migrate

5,000 miles one
way every year...

One of the longest known
migrations of any mammal.

There are 15 distinct
populations of humpback whales,

located in all the
oceans of the world.

They feed in polar and
subpolar regions,

and breed and give
birth in the Tropics.

Each winter, the
Hawaiian Islands host

the largest gathering of
humpbacks in the North Pacific.

Thousands of whales.

Humpbacks may live up
to 80 years or more.

They seem as curious about
us as we are about them.

Other whales and
dolphins vocalize,

but humpbacks make a
greater variety of sounds

than any other whale...

- including grunts...

- groans...

- thwops...

- snorts...

- and barks.

When humpbacks leap, or breach,

they make it look easy.

No other whale leaps
so high so often.

We're not exactly
sure why they do it,

but we're glad they do.

On a quiet morning in Hawaii,

you can hear hundreds
of humpbacks

in their hidden world below,

all singing at once.

A reminder of how their songs

began changing our hearts
so many years ago.

Today, Dr. Jim Darling lowers
the hydrophone into the water,

just as he did decades ago

when Roger Payne first
invited him here

to record humpback whales.

For scientists like Jim,

finding singers isn't easy,

but there are clues.

When whales dive, they leave a
slick spot on the surface...

what researchers
call a footprint.

Sometimes when Jim looks
down through the footprint,

he spots a singer.

All the singers in Hawaii

start each breeding season
singing the same song.

Incredibly, when one
singer changes his song,

they all adopt those
same changes.

By comparing the latest song
against previous versions,

Jim can pinpoint exactly
what has changed.

Jim's colleague, Dr.
Meagan Jones,

helps him search for those
changes in the song.

Two years ago,
Jim recorded

a song with a really
distinctive phrase.

That's really different.

We started calling it "chuckles"
because it made us laugh.

But this year, the chuckles
are starting to disappear.

After years of study,

scientists were
surprised to discover

the singers were all males.

While the males
are busy singing,

what are the females up to?

Dr. Meagan Jones
studies the behavior

of female humpbacks.

It's not easy,

because they spend 90% of
their time underwater,

out of sight.

So she catches only glimpses.

One of the most
important questions

I'm trying to answer is how
females choose their mates.

No one has ever observed
mating between humpbacks.

But we often see a male and
female pair resting together.

Just before and just after,

we see males fighting
over the females.

The battle-scarred male
escort is actually on guard,

watching and listening
for his rivals.

When intruders show up, he
tries to fight them off.

20 males pursuing
just one female.

We think the males are
vying for the prime spot,

closest to the female.

The escort will use

all kinds of tactics to
defend his position.

He streams bubbles.

He lunges...


and even collides
with other males.

ls the female leading
these males?

Or is she being chased?

We're not sure...

but we think she wants to
mate as soon as possible

so she can return to
Alaska and resume eating.

For whales, bigger mothers
often make better mothers.

She needs to be in the
best physical condition

when she gives birth
the following year.

This chase lasted
four grueling hours.

We think the competition
may allow the female

the opportunity to
select the fittest mate.

One day, just as the other
male rivals swam away,

the male and female
pair stayed around

and circled our boat
for well over an hour.

At first, we thought the female
was swimming upside down

and using the boat to
discourage the male.

But as we watched
the pair circle

and dance around
each other and us,

it became clear that
at least in this case,

the female was following him

as much as the male
was following her.

Was this courtship?

Was she trying to attract him?

This is what we think
may be happening,

but until we see mating,

we can just never be sure.

For me, these are the
best kind of days,

when new observations

lead to new questions.

When Meagan is out
studying whales,

she sometimes runs into the
real dangers they face,

like loose, floating debris.

major threat to the animals.

More than half of these humpback
whales bear scars

from being tangled up in
ropes and fishing nets.

This humpback whale
population is growing,

but we think worldwide

the humpback population may
be only 40% of what it was

before whaling began.

Some of the most serious
problems facing whales

have no immediate solution.

But when individual
whales get entangled,

some of them can be
saved by rescue teams,

like the one here in Hawaii.

Joe, let's see if we
can get underway in five.

GPS coordinates set.

Most rescues start with a phone
call from a boater.

Reporting entangled whales

is one important way
to help humpbacks.

Looking for your position.

The team caught up to the
entangled whale

in just under an hour.

This young, energetic
humpback whale

was trailing more than 200 feet
of line and buoys behind it.

Each entanglement is different,

so team leader Ed Lyman

has to keep adjusting
his strategy.

Keep an eye out.
We don't want to lose it.

If this young whale is not set free
by Ed's team,

he could die from
infection, starvation

or even drowning.

A key tool is their grapple.

That's how they hook
onto the trailing gear

and then pull themselves close
enough to cut the whale free.

We attach a transmitter

to help track the whale,
in case we lose it,

and buoys to keep it
from diving deep.

Even with extensive training,

it's dangerous for Ed
and Joe to get so close

to a huge animal under stress.

We work entirely from boats.

People have been killed jumping
in the water to cut whales free.

Let's be careful here!

If we hear signs of stress,
like a trumpeting blow,

we back off.

Our pole cam gives us
an underwater view

and helps us see
what's going on.

We need to get this gear off.

These wounds are... are bad.

These young ones,

they're unpredictable.

Our whale makes a sudden U-turn

and snags his gear
on a nearby boat,

so we race back to
cut the boat free.

You got it? Okay, good.
Next side.

As soon as we cut that line,
he takes right off.

Even dragging all those buoys,

the whale is just
pulling us too fast.

We actually got what the
old-time whalers call

a Nantucket sleigh ride.

Let me help you.

- Still running hard.
- Yeah.

We attach a sea
anchor to slow it down.

Okay, knife is out.

You're doing good.

Okay, here, I'm
right beside you.

Finally, the whale slows
down enough

to give Ed a clean angle.

So he moves in for the cut.

Perfect. Right there.

And... here comes.


- Okay.
- Oh, nice slice!

It all went their way today,

but it doesn't always work out.

Even Ed's heroic team
can't save every whale.

But you and I can help reduce

the number of
entangled humpbacks.

Encourage the use
of whale-safe gear,

and keep debris
out of the ocean.

I'm in awe of humpback whales.

For centuries,

men in boats brought
them pain and death.

It brings us such joy
to flip that around

and bring them life instead.

It took hundreds of years

for people all across
the world to wake up

and hear the song
of the humpbacks.

In the early days,

humpbacks were known
as our guardians.

Now it's our turn.

Future generations of scientists

have their work
cut out for them.

Each new insight scientists gain
into these remarkable whales

helps us protect them against
the growing threats they face.

Oceans cover 71% of our planet,

and humpbacks roam them all.

Just one look in their
eye will tell you

we have much more to
learn about their world.

And to think,

we nearly missed that chance.