theory

The Whale Detective

Cover story by Jody Shiroma, PBS Hawaiʻi

 The moment a humpback whale breached near wildlife filmmaker Tom Mustill and his friend Charlotte Kinloch.

 

Imagine sitting in a kayak at sea, looking up, and seeing approximately 60,000 pounds of whale coming at you. Amazingly, the kayakers – wildlife filmmaker Tom Mustill and his friend Charlotte Kinloch – lived to tell the tale. And it became Mustill’s mission to understand why the traumatic incident took place.

 

It happened in 2015. A 30-ton humpback whale breached in Monterey Bay, California, and just missed landing on the duo in the kayak.

 

Viral videos recorded by witnesses left Mustill questioning whether the whale was deliberately trying to cause harm – or trying not to.

 

NATURE: The Whale Detective airs Wednesday, January 8, 8:00 pm

Mustill met with scientists, a whale expert, a whale tracker, a group dedicated to disentangling whales from fishing gear debris and individuals who survived similar close encounters with whales. He chronicles his inquiry in NATURE: The Whale Detective, premiering on PBS Hawaiʻi on Wednesday, January 8 at 8:00 pm.

 

Mustill found that though we’ve observed the ways that whales splash – tail throw, tail slap, chin slap, pec slap and breach – we don’t know what prompts these behaviors. While his investigation enabled him to come up with a plausible reason for why the whale breached so close to him and Kinloch, it is only a theory.

 

Filmmaker Tom Mustill (in water) and Charlotte Kinloch (far right) holding onto other whale watchers’ kayak after surviving the whale breaching near them.

But Mustill’s search did uncover interesting observations and discoveries about whales and greater questions about humans’ relationship with whales and their future.

 

Here in Hawaiʻi, we know that whales were considered by Native Hawaiians to be sacred. Called koholā, the whales were believed to be the majestic animal form of the Hawaiian ocean god Kanaloa. Ali‘i wore necklaces adorned with whale teeth and bone.

 

There are locations around the Islands associated with whales, including Pu‘ukoholā Heiau located in Kawaihae, Hawaiʻi Island; northwest Kahoʻolawe; Palaoa Hill, Lānaʻi; and Olowalu, Maui.

 

Noteworthy Facts:

  • Humpback whales have no teeth. They can barely nibble you, let alone swallow you. Their throats are only slightly larger than a human throat.
  • Inside a humpback’s pectoral fins are the biggest arms on the planet.
  • Over the past 40 years, the number of North Pacific humpbacks has increased from 1,000 to nearly 23,000, with as many as 14,000 migrating to Hawaiʻi each winter.
  • Historically, humpbacks travel more than 3,000 miles from the Gulf of Alaska to Hawaiʻi, and may be seen in Hawaiian waters from November through May. Peak sightings are generally from January to March.

 

 

 

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 CEO Message: A Front Row Seat to Myth-Busting. Ornithologist Auguste von Bayern with a jackdaw
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Leslie Wilcox, PBS Hawai‘i President and CEO“What a bird brain!” “You’re a Neanderthal!” Not so long ago, these were taunts. But, thanks to recent research by scientists and the fine documentaries on PBS, we know better.

 

And I’m just the person to be thrilled by these discoveries. When I was a kid, my no-nonsense grandmother called me a bird brain every time I forgot my rubber slippers on our neighbors’ porch, which was often. And just last month, a 23andme.com ancestry test turned up Neanderthal DNA in my family.

 

When you sit back and view Nature or NOVA on Wednesday nights on PBS Hawai‘i, you sometimes have a front row seat to myth-busting. In vibrant video, you see that some of the ideas and conclusions printed in our old textbooks have been blown away.

 

As depicted in the recent NOVA episode Bird Brain, birds are far from empty-headed. They make great use of their small neuron-packed brains. They turn pebbles and sticks into tools; they plan multiple steps to solve problems; and some even “read” human faces. Put birds to the test with puzzles – and they can figure out when to defer a reward in order to snag a bigger one later.

 

In NOVA’s Decoding Neanderthals, we learned that these hominoids were not the brutish, knuckle-dragging simpletons we’d conjured. They were powerfully built, yes, but they also had large brains. They were adept at tool-making, and in fact, may have developed the first synthetic product, a type of glue. It was a very tough life in the Ice Age, and it’s unlikely that most Neanderthals lived past age 30.

 

Within the last decade, it’s been confirmed that Neanderthals interbred with their close cousins, homo sapiens. Many of us of European or Asian ancestry carry snippets of Neanderthal DNA. That’s just what my brother’s genetic test showed. In fact, he has more than the average amount.

 

A prevailing theory holds that our homo sapiens ancestors vanquished the Neanderthals. With the recent genetic evidence, another theory merits consideration: Through mating, the Neanderthals – with their smaller populations – were simply absorbed into homo sapiens life. Look for a brand-new PBS program about Neanderthals this month, Neanderthals: Meet Your Ancestors on Wednesday, February 28 at 9:00 pm. [Note: Since publication, PBS has announced that the program has been postponed until further notice.] I suspect there’ll be further re-branding of my ancient forebears.

 

We want to thank Dr. Belinda A. Aquino for generously sponsoring the broadcasts of both Nature and NOVA on PBS Hawai‘i. A retired University of Hawai‘i political science professor, Dr. Aquino is an internationally recognized authority on contemporary Philippine affairs. She tells me that she savors these programs about natural phenomena because they inspire new ways to think about humanity and the world around us.

 

And I’d like to thank you, too, for your support of PBS Hawai‘i’s role of adding new perspectives and context to our collective understanding of history and current affairs. Myth-busting is a byproduct!

 

Aloha nui,

 

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