The humpback whale’s talent for singing — discovered by Roger Searle Payne in 1967, as noted by narrator Ewan McGregor in “Humpback Whales” — might well have done more to save the species than all the environmental activism since. Recorded as a hit LP in 1970, the songs transformed the beast from a source of lamp oil and bustle stays (or their 20th-century equivalent) into a ubiquitous bumper sticker slogan and a thriving tourist industry. Watching the lumpy leviathans breaching, feeding, fighting, playing, and (almost) mating on the whale-size IMAX screen can only advance the cause of their preservation — and further promote them as a lucrative recreational and entertainment resource.
When it comes to hard data, however, Greg MacGillivray’s documentary has limitations, in part because in five decades much is still unknown about the creatures, including why they sing (it’s done only by males, so maybe it’s kind of a guy thing, the whale equivalent of fantasy football). And given their size (55 feet long, weighing in at 50 tons), it’s hard to believe they’ve never been caught in flagrante delicto. Somewhere in the deep there must be a very big no-tell motel.
Otherwise, “Humpback Whales” offers stunning shots that are both intimate and immense. A mother and her calf cavort — with the requisite anthropomorphic voice-over, including the rhetorical question: “What’s it like being a baby humpback whale in a vast blue ocean where the only landmark is a mountain of mother?” Not unlike the human condition, I’d wager.
But not all the whales are cuddly. In one sequence a dozen bus-length males pursue a single female, who, according to a scientist’s comments, “wants to get the mating over with so she can return to Alaska to feed.” In another scene of “Jaws”-like terror (enhanced by outstanding animation), a hunting party of humpbacks rustle up a school of hapless herring, herding them to the surface where they scarf them down into gullets “big enough to swallow a small car.”
The film reaches its dramatic peak when a crew of volunteers heads out to save a whale from one of the greatest threats to their survival — sea debris. A young humpback has entangled its fluke in 200 feet of buoy-line, ensuring a slow death from infection or even drowning. Like a scene from “Moby Dick,” a tiny skiff with a two-man crew races in pursuit, hooks onto the trailing line, and is off on a “Nantucket sleigh ride,” dragged by the whale until it has exhausted itself enough so that they can cut it free. Back in the day that’s when they’d let loose the harpoons; it is a satisfying irony that now the method used to slaughter the whales is one of the ways to save them.
Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.