Leviathans on film, and in the Great Hall

The sea lion tunnel is clearly the place to be. Photo: Aquarium of the Pacific

Swimming with the fishes and the whales

Where? At the California Science Center and the Aquarium of the Pacific

by Bondo Wyszpolski

There’s little quite as thrilling as a big subject on a big screen, and it doesn’t get any larger than “Blue Whales: Return of the Giants” on an IMAX screen over at the California Science Center. This new 3D documentary, narrated by Andy Serkis, is from the folks at Oceanic Films, who along with SK Films and HHMI Tangled Book Studios previously brought us “Amazon Adventure” and “Backyard Wilderness.”

Blue whale mother and calf. Photo courtesy of SK Films

We’ve all seen majestic shots of whales blowing off steam and flipping their tails as they deep-dive and then come bursting up through the swells as seagulls scatter in disbelief. So how do you make another movie that doesn’t swim in the same wake as its predecessors?

“Drones are the real game changer,” director Hugh Pearson has pointed out, and the aerial shots from above — so close that spray from the animal’s blowhole covers the camera lens — add a previously unseen dimension, both cinematically and scientifically where ongoing research is concerned. And, on one of the largest screens anywhere, the whales are pretty much life-size.

Darker days. An archived image. Photo courtesy of SK Films

At up to around 110 feet long, blue whales may be the largest creature this planet has ever seen, but when mankind came along with harpoon guns then the pre-whaling population of maybe 350,000 plummeted to red flashing light levels. Harpooning stopped in the 1960s, and in 1986 commercial whaling was banned, although between Norway, Iceland, and Japan about 1,000 are killed each year (not blues, but Minke, Bryde’s, and Sei whales). So today the global population of blue whales has rebounded to about 15,000 (the figures range from 10,000 to 25,000). That may not seem like a lot, and it isn’t, but compare it to the North Atlantic right whale, truly skating on thin ice with numbers estimated at less than 350 individuals. If that isn’t having one foot (or fin) in total extinction, then what is?

But blue whales aren’t out of the woods yet, because while they’re no longer being rounded up for human consumption they’ve got new obstacles to contend with. First of all, they can communicate with one another over hundreds of miles. However, for the last century or so they’ve been sharing the seas with ocean-churning ships which saturate the waters with sound pollution. In addition to having their phone service disrupted by garbling static, as the oceans heat up fish populations and other sea mammals are migrating into previously inaccessible areas. This isn’t really addressed in the film, but it’s a problem-in-waiting.

In particular I’m thinking of those apex predators, the orcas (your kids know them as killer whales), which are smart fellows with voracious appetites and, yes, they do attack and feast on the blues. Anything else that’s in the water quickly skedaddles when a pod of orcas slips into the neighborhood.

Swimming in someone else’s food dish can be dangerous! Diver with krill. Photo courtesy of SK Films

The documentary, which clocks in at about 45 minutes, was filmed around the Seychelles, islands in the Indian Ocean, off the coast of East Africa, where blue whales hadn’t been sighted in some 50 years. Is it possible they’ve returned? One boating party goes in search of them. And it was also filmed in the Gulf of California where another group of blue whales goes to spawn and nurture its young. In the latter sequences we listen to an at-times ecstatic and at-times concerned Diane Gendon, known as the “blue whale whisperer,” as she notes a drop in the birthrate in the population — before eventually finding evidence of new calves coming into the fold. The audience, of course, will let out a collective sigh of relief.

The film’s music, by Steven Price, is generally large and upbeat, utilizing a full-size orchestra (no flutes and piccolos for these sea creatures!), and the narration is by Andy Serkis, best known for his motion-capture appearances as Gollum in “Lord of the Rings,” Peter Jackson’s “King Kong,” and Caesar from the “Planet of the Apes” reboot trilogy. He brings a welcoming gravitas to the picture, although I was disappointed not to see him add a whale imitation to his repertoire.

What goes in one end must come out the other. Photo courtesy of SK Films

While we don’t get any fight scenes with giant squids or any footage that might put “Avatar: The Way of Water” to shame, we do get to witness a whale defecating, although not from very close up, and we do get to watch them feeding on krill (tiny, shrimp-like crustaceans), which look similar to the purée they expel after the fact (compare the photos). In one ear and out the other, so to speak.

With a few of the scenes (in IMAX 3D) we feel like we’re in the boats or even in the water itself. There are some exciting moments here, so be sure to catch “Blue Whales: Return of the Giants” on the biggest screen possible, because on your tiny cell phone it’ll only resemble “Minnows: Return of the Midgets,” and how exciting is that?

Blue Whales: Return of the Giants is now showing at the California Science Center, 700 Exposition Park, Los Angeles. Screenings, through June 15, are 10:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. on weekdays and also 4:30 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. Starting June 16, all screenings are at 11 a.m., 1 p.m., and 4 p.m. (through Sept. 4). “Journey to Space 3D” and “Mystery of the Maya” are also playing. Tickets are under $10. More at californiasciencecenter.org

Yes, you can walk under a blue whale. Here, at night in the Great Hall. Photo: Aquarium of the Pacific

Happy birthday, kid!

So, listen. Have you ever walked under a blue whale?

You can do that at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach where a life-size replica hangs in the Great Hall. I was there recently in anticipation of the 25th anniversary celebration kick-off, and I have to mention that I also attended the 1998 grand opening media preview with fellow Easy Reader colleague Will Shuck.

Aquarium of the Pacific staff, left to right: Jennie Dean, Vice President of Education and Conservation; Cecile Fisher, Vice President, Marketing & Communications and Corporate Secretary; Andreas Miguel, Communications Manager; Marilyn Padilla, Director of Public Relations; and Nicole Sarmiento, Public Relations Manager. Photo by Beverly Baird

Now, a quarter of a century later, what’s new? The intervening years have seen many additions, with the latest — the Southern California Gallery — set to open this summer. It’ll have 10 exhibitions and over three dozen species, including the California two-spot octopus, leopard sharks, garibaldi, white abalone, giant sea bass, and more. It’s still under construction, so my advice is to check the website and then be among the first to have an in-person look.

There’s also a short film, “25 years of Conserving Nature,” which is periodically projected on the walls of the Great Hall, beneath the blue whale. And, on an upper level, there’s a photo exhibit, “Connecting to Nature,” which is not very impressive, but then what do I know?

Furthermore, special events, days, or evenings take place throughout the summer, seemingly with something for every persuasion or ethnic identity, such as Pride Night, Juneteenth Celebration, Southeast Asia Day, and even Seniors Day for all you geezers over 50. Of note is the Blue Whale Gala on the evening of July 22.

On many days the aquarium is overrun by elementary school children, but that’s due largely to the aquarium putting a great deal of emphasis on education, or ocean stewardship. These kids need to know that if we mess up the ocean, all seven of them, then everyone dies.

The Aquarium of the Pacific entertains and educates at the same time. Photo by Bondo Wyszpolski

The aquarium is an exciting place, and so many of the different life forms are just astonishing. How did Mother Nature come up with so many variations? Stand in front of the jellyfish tanks for a while and you’ll know exactly what I mean.

The 25th anniversary celebration year continues through Dec. 31.

The Aquarium of the Pacific is located at 100 Aquarium Way, Long Beach. Hours, daily from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., except for Dec. 25. General admission is $44.95 for adults; $29.95 for children (ages 3-11); $41.95 for seniors, ages 62 and up; and it’s free for aquarium members and anyone who can prove they’re under three (years, not feet). Advance reservations are required. Call (562) 590-3100 or visit aquariumofpacific.org. PEN


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