NATURE: Ocean Giants

Whales and dolphins conjure a deep sense of wonder in us that’s hard to explain. Now, Nature dives into their magical world in Ocean Giants to explore lives full of sex, violence, emotion, and song. From the Arctic to the Amazon, this groundbreaking three-part series goes on a global expedition with world-renowned underwater cameramen, Doug Allan (Planet Earth) and Didier Noirot (Jacques Cousteau’s cameraman), as they capture spellbinding moments in the lives of these leviathans. The film explores how these mammals hunt, mate, and communicate with each other and with us. Ocean Giants also joins scientists as they pursue their ongoing research to uncover new insights about dolphins and whales that will help us better understand these still mysterious creatures.

In the first of three hours, Giant Lives, we examine the world of great whales, such as the blue whale and the bowhead, the largest animals that have ever lived on our planet. To these mighty leviathans, size matters. In the Arctic, giant bowhead whales survive the freezing cold wrapped in fifty tons of insulating blubber two feet thick, making them the fattest animals on the planet. And in addition to being the fattest, they may live the longest. Some tissue samples indicate the whales may be over 200 years old, old enough to have lived through the great age of whaling over a century ago. But the biggest animal on the planet is the blue whale. Measuring a hundred feet long, and weighing in at 200 tons, it is double the size of the largest dinosaur. Surprisingly, scientists discover a group of “tropical” blue whales living in Sri Lanka’s warm waters, feeding on krill, tiny crustaceans usually found in cold polar seas. Once again, size is the secret to success. Baleen mesh in their enormous mouths makes the process of catching their tiny prey extremely efficient. Filming blue whales is a rare opportunity, and underwater cameramen Doug Allan and Didier Noirot are thrilled at the chance to fulfill a life-long dream.

The second hour, Deep Thinkers, explores the cognitive and emotional lives of dolphins and whales, which have the largest brains of any animal. Like us, cetaceans have special brain cells called spindle cells that are associated with communication, emotion, and heightened social sensitivity. These cells were once thought to be unique to humans, yet research is showing that whales and dolphins have may have three times more spindle cells than we do, leading scientists to believe that their mental abilities and emotional awareness could be far greater than we imagined.

In the final hour, Voices of the Sea, the extra sensory perceptions and communication skills of these extraordinary creatures are considered. Whales and dolphins use sound to hunt, to communicate with one another, and also to “see” and experience the world around them. Sending out loud clicks, they use the echoes to form a mental picture of the world around them. They use ultrasound to see inside other creatures, clicks and whistles to speak, echolocation to navigate and hunt in the depths where the light cannot guide them. In the Arctic, migrating narwhals, “unicorns of the sea,” echolocate to map a world of shifting ice and pinpoint vital breathing holes hundreds of feet away. In the Amazon, pink boto dolphins find their way in waters muddied by floods, darkened by tannins and choked with branches and leaves. Using a special bulge on its forehead, a boto is able to focus its clicks and buzzes into a sound beam that allows it to navigate the dark waters while chattering away to its neighbors with a second, completely different sound system.

Noirot and Allen set out to film sperm whales, once known only by their fictional Moby Dick representation. They travel in families and communicate with complex “coda” clicks, which can also be put to more lethal use. A mile below the surface, the whales use another form of clicks to hunt in the dark. These hunting clicks are the loudest sounds made by any living thing, louder than a thunder clap. Unable to follow the hunt into the depths, Noirot and Allen experience a breathtaking encounter with a baby sperm whale lost and looking for its mother.

Killer whales also hunt with sound, producing a high-pitched shriek that herds their prey into a tightly bunched school of swarming fish so panicked that the whales are easily able to move in for the kill. Dolphins off the coast of Brazil use not their voices but the sound of their bodies to hunt cooperatively with local fishermen. Driving fish toward the shallows at the shore, the dolphin slap the water with their tails and heads to signal when to throw the waiting nets. The fish that escape the fishermen swim right back into the mouths of the waiting dolphins.

But the most famous and mysterious voice of all of the Ocean Giants belongs to male humpback whales. Every winter, these 40-ton giants gather off the coast of Hawaii to sing with voices that can travel thousands of miles across an entire ocean basin. It is a communal song sung by all the male humpbacks from Mexico to Japan, improvised together and evolving from year to year, a haunting performance that captures our imagination but remains wonderfully mysterious.

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