Ever since I was a child watching movies like Free Willy and Flipper (and more recently family-friendly films like (Big Miracle, Dolphin Tale, and Whale Rider), I’ve been captivated by stories of highly intelligent marine mammals: whales and dolphins—or cetaceans, for their scientific name! Since then, there has been more attention paid to these creatures in the wild, including how they play and strategize, how human activities affect them, and what we can learn from them.
While I enjoy reading books about dolphins and whales, I also love watching nature documentaries: in these movies, the world under the sea comes to life thanks to the work of many skilled filmmakers and high-definition underwater cameras. They reveal amazing sights previously hidden to us and reinforce how humans can be both a source of danger and of hope to the ocean. Check out these fascinating dolphin and whale documentaries:
Narrated by Stephen Fry, this 3-episode documentary series features many different types of whales, including the blue whale, the largest known animal to have ever lived on Earth—bigger even than the dinosaurs! This series is unusual because it explicitly tells the story from the perspective of the cameramen, those who are usually silent behind the camera. Experienced underwater cameramen Doug Allan and Didier Noirot are some incredibly brave people, venturing into Arctic temperatures and getting as close as possible to such huge creatures who could seriously injure or even kill them with a flick of their tail.
Although I loved visiting Sea World as a kid and sitting in the “splash zone” at Shamu Shows, I would feel seriously conflicted about going back after watching this profoundly disturbing documentary. The film covers a killer whale in captivity named Tilikum, who has been responsible for killing several of his trainers. Such attacks happen often in captivity but are rare in the wild. The filmmakers posit that keeping such intelligent wild creatures in small artificial tanks is the height of cruelty. One of the most haunting images in the film is that of the collapsed dorsal fins that many orcas in captivity develop, which are unusual to see in the wild (hypothesized to be because the whales in captivity don’t have enough space to swim around and keep their fins upright).
If you saw Blackfish and want to learn more, check out the book that spawned the influential documentary, Death at SeaWorld: Shamu and the dark side of killer whales in captivity.
Pierce Brosnan narrates this documentary, which was filmed all throughout the globe, touching on creatures in each of the five oceans. While whales and dolphins are heavily featured, the film includes many other oceanic dwellers, such as sharks, birds, crabs, turtles, otters, and the lovely colourful sea slug called the “Spanish dancer.” All films about the ocean tend to be visually stunning, but this one is particularly so. I would have loved to see it in the theaters or even on an IMAX big screen. In addition to presenting scenes of wonder, though, the film meditates on the current state of the oceans due to the effects of pollution, rising sea temperatures, overfishing, and other environmental problems, ending with the line, “Instead of asking, ‘What exactly is the ocean?’ maybe we should be asking, ‘Who exactly are we?’”
Awarded the Oscar for Best Documentary in 2010, this documentary works more like a fast-paced thriller with the filmmakers trying to get photographic evidence of a horrifying secret dolphin hunt that goes on in the small cove of Taiji in Japan. The documentary is told from the perspective of activist Ric O’Barry, a former dolphin trainer who helped capture the wild dolphins who shared the lead role in the television series Flipper (based on the movie of the same name). After the movie and TV series helped to popularize dolphin shows, O’Barry became consumed with guilt and remorse when he witnessed how captivity caused the dolphins such suffering. In Taiji, the filmmakers go into detail about how those involved in the hunt attempt to suppress reporting and prevent locals from knowing what goes on, and after seeing the visceral and distressing footage, I understood why. I appreciated how the filmmakers put the hunt into context and went into detail about whaling practices and what happens to the dolphin meat, which is dangerously high in mercury.
Produced by Ryan Reynolds and Scarlett Johansson, this heartbreaking documentary tells the story of Luna, a two-year-old orca who in 2001 was separated from his family in Nootka Sound, off the coast of Vancouver Island. Because killer whales have strong social ties to each other and Luna was alone, he decided to make friends and play with local fishermen and townspeople, coming up to boats in the Sound and begging for attention. Watching the footage, it was clear that Luna had emotions and was lonely. But whether all that contact with humans was good for him was less clear. Luna eventually found himself in the middle of a political controversy between the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, who wanted to take him away into captivity, and the local people, including those of the Mowachaht/Muchalaht First Nations, who believed Luna was a reincarnation of their former chief and wanted him to be left alone. Regardless of the politics, though, it was very moving to see the depth of the connections that Luna formed with the people of Nootka Sound.
If you want to learn more about Luna, check out the book, The Lost Whale: the true story of an orca named Luna.