From that lethal leviathan of the deep freighted with so much symbolism in Melville’s “Moby Dick” to today’s tourist whale-watching trips off the world’s coastal regions, it’s safe to say human’s understanding and appreciation of whales has undergone a dramatic shift over the past three centuries.
Whatever awes man, whether it’s dangerous mountains, outer space or fierce-some creatures, he wants to conquer — or kill. The whale, a onetime source of heating and lighting oil, was, like the Bengal tiger, conquered to the point near extinction until about 50 years ago.
Now that whale hunting has been banned (except for the stubborn nations of Japan, Iceland and Norway), humans instead gaze with wide-eyed wonder at these improbable and magnificent creatures. So acrobatic underwater despite a 50-ton weight, so agile when leaping out of the ocean, so musical with a song vocabulary that changes over time!
Its humpback whales are the movie’s stars, performing maneuvers of courtship, child rearing, group fishing and marathon migrations that mark them as highly intelligent, adaptable beings that deserve our awe.
The large format movie is part plea and part documentary.
Sponsored by Pacific Life, the insurance giant with a long-term commitment to humpback preservation, and produced by One World One Ocean Foundation, Greg and Barbara MacGillivray’s ocean conservationist group that uses the giant screen to educate people about the world’s oceans, “Humpback Whales” delivers its preservation message with striking visuals.
In its 40 minutes, the movie acclimates the viewer as much as possible to the whales’ point of view, observing them as no mariner ever could before underwater cameras and daring divers took over.
After watching mother whales mentor babies the size of school buses, the film then focuses on the whales’ musical abilities. Indeed it was the humpback recordings of the early ‘50s, when the U.S. Navy was monitoring Soviet submarine activity, that marked the turning point in human’s appreciation of whales.
Their mysterious, complex songs — groans, moans and calls made oddly enough only by the males — fascinated mankind. Whoa, these guys talk? Or rather sing.
The movie then moves on to briefly explore migration habits as some humpbacks traveling up to 5,000 miles in search of warm waters. MacGillivray tracks them from the tropical kingdom of Tonga in the South Pacific to lush summertime Alaska to the warm waters off Hawaii.
Then comes mating rituals involving huge fights between males and miles-long chases. It’s never clear who’s chasing whom, the male or female, but then again that’s true in human society as well.
The amazing job-assigned group effort scientists call “bubble net fishing” where whales herd and entrap schools of herring must be seen, not described. Every whale does his part so they can individually intake up to a ton of food at a time.
Finally, to end on a high note, the film captures a race-the-clock rescue at sea of a humpback entangled in sea garbage left by humans. A highly trained team operating out of Hawaii locates and, despite considerable danger to themselves, disentangles a distressed humpback.
Scientists appear throughout to answer those Frequently Asked Questions — Jim Darling, who has spent his professional life studying humpback songs; Meagan Jones, who specializes in female humpbacks; Fred Sharpe, who documents feeding behavior; and Ed Lyman, who coordinates whale disentanglement missions.
These talks along with a clear narration written by co-editor Stephen Judson and spoken by Ewan McGregor are Whale Ed. Lite. Youngsters won’t be bewildered by scientific talk, which is also a relief for us adults who might be equally bewildered were this movie pitched to marine biologists.
MacGillivray, already with more 70mm film shot than anyone else in cinema history and a box office past the $ billion benchmark in ticket sales, is truly one of a kind.
He consistently brings viewers impossible shots he treats as all in a day’s work and exhibits such an exhilarating love of his craft and of the globe he so energetically explores that his films are always a treat.
“Humpback Whales’ is one of his best.
Opened: February 2015, opening in L.A. July 3 (MacGillivray Freeman Films)
Venues: Imax Theaters
Production companies: A MacGillivray Freeman film presented by Pacific Life
Director: Greg MacGillivray
Screenwriter: Stephen Judson
Narration by: Ewan McGregor
Producer: Shaun MacGillivray
Director of photography: Brad Ohlund
Music: Steve Wood with Calum Graham
Editor: Stephen Judson, Tim Amick
No rating, 40 minutes