‘Second chance’: B.C. humpbacks, researchers feature in ‘Planet Earth’ episode

British Columbia’s humpback whales are starring in one of the world’s premier nature documentary series, just in time for Earth Day.

The massive creatures, and the work of B.C. researchers who study them, appeared in an episode of Planet Earth III that aired on Sunday night.

“It’s unbelievable. It’s crazy to be able to describe it,” said Christie McMillan, co-founder and science lead with the Marine Education and Research Society.

“Hearing David Attenborough say the name of the humpback that we nicknamed and talk about the research strategy that we described, you never really dream of it happening, it’s amazing.”

Click to play video: 'Study says ‘The Blob’ led to decline in humpback whale population'

Study says ‘The Blob’ led to decline in humpback whale population

It was documentation of a unique feeding technique used by the humpbacks off Vancouver Island’s northern coast that got BBC producers interested in Marine Education and Research Society’s work.

Story continues below advertisement

The group had documented a technique described as “trap feeding,” in which the whales leave their mouths open and let birds chase fish in. Just two whales including a juvenile they nicknamed Conger were known to use the technique, but they appear to have since taught it to at least 32 of their peers, researchers say.

“To film a behavior in a whale that hasn’t been featured in a wildlife documentary before is incredible. So, once I heard about that – you know, I had to go and see what it was all about,” Planet Earth III producer Fredi Devas told Global News.

More on Science and Tech

While that was the hook that got the Planet Earth team on board, humpback researcher Jackie Hildering said the episode was an opportunity to show the species’ critical role in the ecosystem, and how they help combat climate change.

The email you need for the day’s top news stories from Canada and around the world.

“What are whales doing for you when it comes to the climate? They can’t poo at depth. Part of nature’s amazing design is whales poo at the surface, they can’t poo under pressure, and as a result, they are fertilizing the ocean,” Hildering explained.

That whale poop is packed with iron and helps spur the growth of plant-like algae which absorbs carbon dioxide and produces oxygen, while also providing a food source for other species.

Hildering said research has determined that a single large whale helps remove the equivalent of over 30,000 trees over its lifespan.

Story continues below advertisement

“It’s a remarkable thought – and it’s another reason why we’ve got to protect whales,” Divas said.

Humpback whales have been a ‘good news’ story of late in British Columbia, amid a remarkable comeback from near extinction due to hunting.

Click to play video: 'UBC study finds 8 humpback whales entangled over 13 years at fish farms'

UBC study finds 8 humpback whales entangled over 13 years at fish farms

But Hildering and her colleagues say our “second chance” with the animals is already at risk.

The team contributed to research that found a 20-per cent drop in the North Pacific humpback whale population between 2012 and 2022, apparently linked to the marine heat wave known as “the blob.”

“There are still so many ways to kill a whale. Our daily economic choices, consumer choices, where we are buying things from, is influencing the noise in the ocean, the chance of collision with these huge whales that can be oblivious of where boats are, and also we are literally driving the vessel traffic with fossil fuels as well,” she said.

Story continues below advertisement

“But the key message is really about climate change and how important the whales are, and trying to motivate humans to reflect on their day-to-day behaviour that of course is impacting all life on earth.”

Click to play video: 'Record-year for Humpback Whales in the Salish Sea'

Record-year for Humpback Whales in the Salish Sea

McMillan said she hopes the Planet Earth episode will help people in British Columbia and globally understand how everything in our environment is connected.

“It really emphasizes the interconnectedness of the ecosystem,” she said.

“The idea of a second chance is so important, to say let’s learn from what we did before, we are so lucky to see humpback whales back here again but let’s not forget how close we came to losing them and remember that we are not out of the woods yet.”

Planet Earth III can be viewed on Amazon Prime with a subscription to BBC Earth.


&copy 2024 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.