Humpback Whales

Synopsis: An in-depth look at the lives of humpback whales and the challenges they face to avoid extinction.
Genre: Documentary
Director(s): Greg MacGillivray
Production: MacGillivray Freeman Films
  1 nomination.
Rotten Tomatoes:
40 min


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.

(whales singing)

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.

(whales singing)

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.

(whales singing)

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.

(toy squeaks)


My grandfather was a whaler.

He hunted humpbacks

to feed our family.


Instead of killing humpbacks,

Ali works hard to save them.

(woman speaking native language)

(kids exclaiming)


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?

(whales singing)

Humpbacks share

these idyllic waters

with a whole community

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"Humpback Whales" STANDS4 LLC, 2020. Web. 2 Jun 2020. <>.

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