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‘There’s hope’ for North Atlantic right whales: Q&A with filmmaker Nadine Pequeneza

  • The documentary “Last of the Right Whales” seeks to bring the plight of these gentle giants to audiences that are largely unaware of how close to extinction the species is today.
  • North Atlantic right whales (Eubalaena glacialis) were historically decimated by hunting, but the biggest threats to the species today are ship strikes and entanglement in fishing gear.
  • There are an estimated 336 of the animals remaining, more than 80% of which have experienced entanglement in ropes tethered to fishing gear on the sea floor.
  • Documentary director Nadine Pequeneza spoke with Mongabay about bringing these threats to public attention, the importance of engaging with and not vilifying fishers, and why she holds out hope for the whale’s future.

Midway through a recent documentary called Last of the Right Whales, we get a drone’s-eye view of half a dozen jet-black right whales cuddling and caressing while lolling in an amorphous orb on the surface of the North Atlantic Ocean. The tender idyll of the scene comes through the moment the whales appear onscreen. To the strains of a heart-tugging score composed by Deanna H. Choi, we surface from the film’s immersion in the dire situation these animals face to catch a glimpse of this “surface-active group.” The behavior is part mating ritual, part social break from a life that’s otherwise fairly solitary.

“It was the most surreal experience,” HitPlay Productions’ Nadine Pequeneza, the film’s director, told Mongabay.

The right whale’s dwindling numbers suggest that the film’s title is not hyperbolic. Only 336 Eubalaena glacialis remain, according to the latest estimate. (Their southern cousins, Eubalaena australis, are faring better.) The reasons for the animal’s decades-long slide toward extinction are legion and complex. It’s a maelstrom in which climate change-induced warming oceans have likely shifted the range of tiny copepods (their favorite prey), and the hangover from relentless whaling through the 1930s has no doubt also played a role.

A North Atlantic right whale mother with her calf. Image by Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, under NOAA research permit via Flickr.

But the contemporary demise of the right whale in the North Atlantic boils down to a two-pronged assault on the species: ship strikes and entanglement in fishing gear. Studies show that these threats cause just about all currently known right whale deaths in roughly equal measure. The film touches on the issue of deadly collisions with ships, and indeed, it becomes personal for one of the featured whales. But the ramifications of booming fisheries in the right whale’s domain, especially for snow crab and lobster, take center stage.

Hundreds of thousands of stout ropes tether surface buoys to crab and lobster traps on the floor of the rough North Atlantic, making the entanglement of right whales — and a lot of other marine life — a veritable certainty. More than 80% of right whales bear the scars of at least one such potentially lethal encounter. Through the eyes of researchers, citizen scientists, fishers, and entanglement response teams, as well as the whales themselves, the documentary provides an unvarnished look at the acute and at times horrific specter of our impact on the marine environment.

The odds against the right whale’s recovery seem overwhelming. But the same people grappling with their decline are also searching fervently for solutions. To some, that means investigating why whales choose to feed where they do. Others are trying to document the species in a way that brings it to life for land-dwelling humans. And fishers themselves — some of them at least — are bucking age-old fishing practices to try new technologies that don’t rely on fixed ropes.

A right whale with propeller wounds offshore South Carolina, U.S. Image by EcoHealth Alliance, under NOAA research permit via Flickr.
Crab traps in California. Whale biologists say crab traps and the ropes they’re attached to are heavier than those in other fisheries, thus posing a greater danger of deadly entanglements for whales. Image by loren chipman via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).

But the decline of the right whale also risks becoming a divisive issue, pitting fishers against conservationists in a politicized arena while more right whales continue to die than are born each year. Some observers say that even measures designed to engage consumers, such as a proposal by the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch to list lobsters from the U.S. on its red “Avoid” list because of the threat the fishery poses to right whales, jeopardizes the delicately orchestrated collaboration from all parties involved needed to find solutions. They argue that acting immediately to minimize the ropes used in fishing, and thereby one of the greatest threats the whales face, is the only action apt to save the species.

As gutting as it may seem that we may truly be watching footage of the last North Atlantic right whales, scientists like Michael Moore, steeped for decades in studying the perils and hurdles they face, still believe that a recovery is possible. Perhaps that’s a reason for us all to believe, and to, as the film suggests, do our part, whether petitioning lawmakers to keep fishing closures in place when whales are present, advocating for funding to support fishers’ transition to ropeless gear, or calling on shipping companies to slow down or take alternative routes through whale territory.

“Those guys are tough mothers. They really are,” Moore, a biologist and veterinarian at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, says in the film. “Give nature a chance, and it’ll come right back. That’s what we’re asking for is to give the right whale a chance, to show what it’s made of.”

Last of the Right Whales won the award for Best Canadian Feature at the 2021 Planet in Focus International Film Festival in Toronto. Three screenings in the U.S. begin Feb. 16 in Boston, hosted by the New England Aquarium, and will include panel discussions with the filmmakers. Cinemas across Canada will show the film starting Feb. 18 to celebrate World Whale Day (Feb. 20).

Nadine Pequeneza spoke with Mongabay from Oslo. This interview was edited for length and clarity.

A North Atlantic right whale skim feeding on its side in Cape Cod Bay. Image courtesy of HitPlay Productions.

Mongabay: How did you come to make a film about right whales?

Nadine Pequeneza: I had never heard of a right whale when I started making this film. [For me], it was the deaths that happened in 2017. There was an unusual mortality event [that began that year when] 17 whales died, 12 of them in Canadian waters. It was being reported what felt like daily in the news. That’s when I started reading about North Atlantic right whales and learning that they’re critically endangered and that we are directly responsible for their pending extinction with the boat strikes and the fishing gear entanglement. I just felt like we can really prevent these kinds of mortalities. If more people knew about it, what could we do? That’s what inspired me to make the film.

Mongabay: That issue of public awareness was an interesting part of the documentary. I think Michael Moore said that if the sort of suffering that these whales go through was happening in cities, there’s no way we would let it continue.

Nadine Pequeneza: It was Michael Moore who said that. We’re not connected to nature at all anymore. When you’re talking about a great whale in the ocean, and there are only 336 of them left, and most people have never seen them, it’s hard to have a connection. On top of that, scientists [and] researchers estimate almost a third of these deaths go unwitnessed.

One of the things that we filmed in the documentary was that fresh entanglement of a 5-year-old male. That footage has never been captured before. Even the scientists who were on the boat with us who’ve been in this for 30 years had never seen that happen. That footage has been shared with the scientific community and regulators in both Canada and the United States because it’s really eye-opening about how painful, stressful and really critical these types of entanglements can be. To watch that whale — we filmed it for six hours — struggling at the surface, trying to free itself from this rope, it’s incredibly difficult footage to watch, and we only included a small part of it in film. But that’s the kind of thing that I think people need to see to really understand what it means for a whale to become entangled in fishing gear.

A dead 6.7-meter (22-foot) right whale calf with injuries consistent with a vessel strike, including fresh propeller cuts on its back and head, broken ribs, and bruising. Image by FWC/Tucker Joenz, under NOAA research permit via Flickr.

Mongabay: That was the most memorable part of the entire documentary for me, to see the violence of that whale’s reaction. And four hours prior, the whale had been photographed unencumbered, so you knew that it was a new entanglement. But you also filmed these incredible scenes of whales socializing at the surface. Can you describe what you were feeling while filming such different circumstances?

Nadine Pequeneza: The most beautiful footage we filmed was in the Gulf of St. Lawrence of a surface-active group. It was at dawn. We had just woken up because we were overnighting [on the boat] so that we could be there at all hours to film the whales. [We wanted to] make sure we had calm waters [and] beautiful light. And there was a surface-active group almost right beside our boat. It was the most surreal experience.

There were maybe seven whales in this group. [Decades ago], when there were more North Atlantic right whales, those surface-active groups could number 40-50 whales at a time.

And then, [the whale] we were just talking about, 4615’s entanglement, happened at 4 o’clock that day. I had those two experiences in the same day. It really brings home what their lives could be if we weren’t interfering so much.

Mongabay: What did you learn about the whales as individuals throughout the filming?

Nadine Pequeneza: All of these whales are named [and] numbered in the North Atlantic right whale catalog. Because they are facing extinction, they’re extremely well-studied. That individual identity is the connection that scientists have to the whales, and I want the audience to have that same connection. There is a mom-calf pair that we followed over the course of two and a half years while we were filming. [The mother’s name is] Snow Cone. Just in the short time that I was filming, what happened to that pair is exemplary of what the entire species is facing: the calf died, and the mother became entangled.

Snow Cone went on to have a second calf while entangled. She is the first right whale known to have a calf while still entangled, which just speaks to the resilience of these animals, but also the dire situation that they’re in.

Snow Cone and her calf on December 17, 2021. Image by Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, under NOAA research permit via Flickr.

Mongabay: Can you talk about the people who have made this species a focus of their lives?

Nadine Pequeneza: There are people from all different walks of life. In the film, there are the volunteer scientists who are helping the scientists observe and track new calves in the calving ground every season. There’s a wildlife photographer who’s trying to get underwater imagery of the North Atlantic right whales because, to date, that doesn’t exist. Then there’s a crab fisherman who’s trying to [use] ropeless gear. And of course, [there are] scientists, oceanographers, biologists [and] ecologists who are all looking at this issue from a different vantage point. So it was through those individuals and their connection to the whales that people are introduced to the individual whales, introduced to their behavior, introduced to the threats that they face. And for me, that was very important, that the audience had a very personal introduction. All of these perspectives and connections are critical for the audience to really understand and appreciate and love these whales.

Mongabay: Seeing the response of the fishing guide and the recreational fisher, who hadn’t seen a whale in the past, to the death of Snow Cone’s calf  — it shows the emotional connection that forms pretty quickly.

Nadine Pequeneza: Yeah, they’re incredible animals. I’m hoping that when people have the experience of seeing and experiencing the whales on film, that can build that connection.

Mongabay: Are you hopeful that we can save this species from extinction?

Nadine Pequeneza: First of all, I wouldn’t do this work if I didn’t have optimism. I just wouldn’t be able to do it. I am optimistic. What gives me the greatest hope are the people that I met, people like Martin Noël who’s a crab fisherman [and] the president of the [crab fishing] association in his region. Not only is Martin testing new gear, but he’s also taken the scientists out every year to do their research, and he formed the first whale rescue team in the region. That’s someone who recognized a problem and started looking for solutions and collaborating with people like [whale researcher] Moira Brown and with government [and] industry. The public can support that in the choices that we make. So yeah, I meet people like that, and I’m like, OK, there’s hope.

Juvenile right whales are often observed rolling, splashing, and socializing with each other near the surface of the water. Image by Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, under NOAA research permit via Flickr.

Mongabay: It seems like there’s the danger of politicizing this issue and of one side potentially demonizing the other.

Nadine Pequeneza: That’s the reason I wanted to include Martin [Noël] because the fishers are often presented as villains. And it’s not true that they all share the same opinion about whales or conservation. In fact, many fishers are conservationists because they understand a healthy ocean is what is going to sustain their livelihood.

This issue has been politicized, not just between fishers and conservationists, but also between borders. But as Scott Landry, the whale rescuer that works with the Center for Coastal Studies, said in the film, it’s not a particular country, and it’s not a particular target species. It is rope. It’s rope within the water. So how do we minimize that threat? That’s the only question.

Mongabay: Tied in with that is the issue of the fishers’ livelihoods, right?

Nadine Pequeneza: I can only imagine if someone came up to me and said, you can’t continue to do your work because of this problem that I’ve never heard about. That was the case in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. [Before], the right whales were not coming there in large numbers. Most fishers have never seen a North Atlantic right whale, and then they’re having zones closed to fishing and regulations put in place that will force them to change the way they have been fishing for, well, since people started catching crab and lobster. If you want to be part of the solution, you have to come to the problem with that understanding. I just think we have to be sensitive and empathetic because it’s not just the whales that are facing a risk. For me, I think you have to take into account different perspectives when you’re approaching the potential for conflict. That’s my personal belief.

Banner image: Three North Atlantic right whales socializing. Image by the Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institute, under NOAA research permit via Flickr.

John Cannon is a staff features writer with Mongabay. Find him on Twitter: @johnccannon

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