Documentary offers a whale of a tale

April 04, 1992|By Steve McKerrow | Steve McKerrow,Staff Writer

What is it about whales? Something about the eyes.

Anyone who has ever taken a whale-watching trip and stared down into the green water to find a big eye staring brightly back knows a curious, unmistakable feeling of kinship.

And that intimacy of fellow voyagers comes powerfully through "In the Company of Whales," a passionate documentary film premiering this weekend on cable's Discovery Channel.

"Maybe they would like to make friends with us," says biologist Roger Payne midway through the two-hour program, which debuts at 9 p.m. tomorrow on the Maryland-based cable network (with multiple repeats through the month).

Mr. Payne has certainly made friends with them, and is the center of the documentary's focus. The scientist has been studying the wonderful, threatened world of the ocean cetaceans for about a quarter century.

And as the documentary shows, he has long argued eloquently for a rapprochement between humankind and whalekind, following a sad history of conflicts both intentional and inadvertent.

The film, narrated in part by Jessica Tandy, opens by recounting Mr. Payne's first exposure to the voices of whales, which he began recording in 1967 off Bermuda.

Noting repetitive sounds and tonal changes, "it occurred to me that these were songs . . . and suggested they're conscious of their performance," he recalls concluding.

So in 1970, Mr. Payne began traveling yearly with his wife and children to the coast of Patagonia, in the far southern reaches of South America, to study an annual congregation of right whales.

The movie nicely captures idyllic human encounters with this variety of whale whose individuals can be easily identified by distinctive bulbous head growths.

The right whale, we learn, is among the category of "baleen" whales, such as the humpback and blue whales. These have long plates of a fingernail-like material -- highly prized during the age of whaling -- through which they strain their food.

The other type of cetacean is toothed whales, such as the porpoise, sperm whale and beluga whale.

"In the Company of Whales" eventually travels around the world to explore most of the varieties of whales, and along the way it manages to teach a great deal. Only occasionally does it slip into the trap of perhaps over-humanizing the creatures.

Humans came close to exterminating right whales from the planet through the whaling industry, whose work is displayed in some fascinating, old black-and-white films. Later dramatic footage shows the protests of Greenpeace and other activists against "factory whaling" that continued into modern times.

"Now, we have finally all but stopped," says Mr. Payne, celebrating the rise of a new industry: the operation of boats to take tourists out merely to watch and photograph the Earth's largest living creatures.

However, things are not all well with whales.

For one thing, as we see in a visit to Newfoundland, the reduction of whaling pressure has increased the numbers of whales fouling the nets of offshore fishermen.

Profiling a man who helps rescue trapped whales, Mr. Payne explores the tough equation that results when two species are after one resource. To the fishermen, the whales are pests that threaten their livelihood.

The film gives no easy answer.

In a potentially worse development, Mr. Payne asserts a mysterious skin condition afflicting a number of whales, as well as the occasional mass whale beaching incidents, may result from a global buildup of toxic pollution from decades of waterway discharges of a variety of chemicals.

The evidence presented is still somewhat anecdotal rather than incontrovertible proof. But it is hard to argue with Mr. Payne's closingwords:

"It is possible to own a brain as complex, perhaps for all I know more complex, as ours without destroying the world."

Whales have proved it by surviving longer than humans, he says, urging the rest of us to ask, "Will what I'm doing diminish the quality of the environment? . . . Then don't do it."

*

Elsewhere on the Weekend Watch:

* Baltimore's celebrated Morgan State University Choir can be heard this weekend on the religion program "Hour of Power," with the Rev. Robert Schuller.

The choir, conducted by Nathan Carter, was taped last week at the show's Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, Calif. The program airs at 7:30 a.m. tomorrow on WBAL-TV (Channel 11) and at 9 a.m. on Washington's WJLA-TV (Channel 7).

* Actor Sidney Poitier receives a "Life Achievement Award" from the American Film Institute in a 90-minute special at 9:30 tonight on NBC (WMAR-TV, Channel 2).

Harry Belafonte serves as host of the clip-rich biography tribute, and the guest list includes Bill Cosby, Tony Curtis, Danny Glover, Rod Steiger, Richard Widmark, James Earl Jones, Lee Grant and Louis Gossett Jr.

The award citation credits Mr. Poitier "for opening doors so that today the United States has the beginnings of a richer and more diverse film industry."

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