While North Atlantic right whales have roamed our oceans for nearly 20 million years, these gentle giants could be extinct within 20 years.
Nadine Pequeneza's film The Last of the Right Whales (streaming on CBC Gem) provides an unprecedented look at the migration of these whales from their calving ground off the coast of Florida to a new feeding area in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
With less than 400 of these right whales remaining, dying at a rate of 24 per year, this documentary uses stunning cinematography to help us understand what's happening in our oceans, and the impacts on these incredible, but rarely seen animals.
“I hope they really appreciate being able to see a North Atlantic right whale because so few people get that opportunity,” Pequeneza told Yahoo Canada. “I hope they come to really love the North Atlantic right whale and want to protect it, and then see the ways that are possible.”
For Pequeneza, her work on this film began in 2017, when scientists documented an "unusual mortality event" (UME).
"The whales impacted by the UME include dead, injured, and sick individuals, who represent more than 20 per cent of the population, which is a significant impact on an endangered species where deaths are outpacing births," information from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAAA) reads. "Additionally, research demonstrates that only about 1/3 of right whale deaths are documented."
It's that warning from 2017 that caught the filmmaker's attention.
“I was watching the headlines, like everybody else, and initially the news was reporting that the whales were dying, but they weren't saying why,” Pequeneza explained. “So it was a bit of a mystery, at least for those of us who weren't familiar with the story of the North Atlantic right whale.”
“[I] start doing some research and you find out that humans have had a pretty negative impact on this species for centuries.”
Those human-related threats include ship strikes and fishing gear entanglement. Additionally, the effects of climate change have resulted in these whales searching the ocean for food in new areas, coming into contact with ships and fishing gear where they haven't previously been present.
Pequeneza also highlights that while making this film, three calves died by small recreational boats, stressing the importance of what it means to actually slow down in the ocean.
Humans have had a pretty negative impact on this species for centuries.
'You can't help but get attached'
The Last of the Right Whales isn't just about right whales broadly, the filmmaker was able to also tell an intimate, emotional narrative about one whale in particular, Snow Cone (NARW #3560) and her calf born in 2020.
“You can't help but get attached,” Pequeneza said. “Once you start to relate with the whales on an individual level, we could recognize them and we were following them over the course of two years, especially Snow Cone and her calf.”
“You really start to see them as individuals with histories and not just personal histories, but family histories, because the scientists have been following them over generations, through decades.”
Pequeneza also utilizes quite graphic and distressing images in her film of these right whales who have unfortunately died. She balances those images with stories of families in fishing communities, whose entire livelihoods depend on catching fish and crab in the ocean.
In the Gulf of St. Lawrence, snow crab fisher Martin Noël is conducting the first real-world test of ropeless fishing technology for fishing in the North Atlantic. As he says in The Last of the Right Whales, the migration of whales is "pushing" fishermen out of some areas with their existing gear, but as we see in the film, there is room for change and evolution to help protect these animals.
“It's understandable that fishermen and fishing communities would be resistant to change,” Pequeneza said. “It's a big ask, especially when it's so integral to the communities where it's happening, that is the primary employment, that's how the community survives.”
“So it takes time to make those kinds of changes. It takes learning, it takes a willingness from people like Martin, and he's not alone. There are other fishermen that are testing and working this gear, and helping to develop it. So there's resistance but there's also willingness, and hopefully over time, more people will start to test the gear and find ways to use it.”
Having to get a number of clearances to actually obtain footage of these whales, while also working with wildlife photographer Nick Hawkins, Pequeneza recognizes that it can be hard for the general population to connect to what's happening in our oceans.
“It's difficult because so many of us don't live beside the ocean and then even those of us who do, it really looks like a desert until you see a whale surface, or you're able to dive and you get under there and you see the miraculous world that's beneath the surface,” Pequeneza said. “Most of us live in urban centers and so our connection to nature has been really broken.”
When people watch the film, the filmmaker wants the audience to be supportive of fishing communities transitioning to whale-friendly gear, while also expressing their support for government funding of these initiatives.
“Not just with right whales, but all marine mammals are impacted by ship collisions and fishing gear entanglement," she said. "People often call this a nature documentary or wildlife documentary, but I really see it as a film more about us, and how we relate to the natural world.”