An amazing movie... you must go see it - Ellen DeGeneres, Twitter, 30 September 2011
Thoughtful and moving - Los Angeles Times
Visually stunning and emotionally wrought - Washington Post
Serious-minded, thought-provoking - The Hollywood Reporter
Everyone should see this movie - Ric O'Barry, star of THE COVE
A gossamer lyricism… Wondrous to behold… gorgeous images - The New York Times
A gorgeous and provocative film - The Seattle Times
By Michael Parfit
Michael Parfit has been a regular contributor to Smithsonian and National Geographic magazines for many years, and is co-director, with his wife, Suzanne Chisholm, of The Whale. The film was named Critics’ Pick by both the New York Times and the Washington Post. The Whale is released in New Zealand March 30, 2013.
The night was still, except for the breathing. Mist drifted over the strange planet’s undulating surface, and out there, beyond visibility and perhaps beyond comprehension, the breathing was getting closer.Trapped by the hostile liquid around the vessel that had brought him all these miles, the human waited, hearing only the breathing and the faint irregular ticking of the vessel’s motor as it cooled, like the sound of time running out.
The breathing drew closer.
Where was this, and who was coming to meet him? It could have been anywhere: Hydrogen oceans on Saturn, a heavy sea on Kepler 22-b; an imagined swamp on Pandora. But it was not. It was on the edge of the Pacific Ocean, and the breathing came from a whale.
I was the one in the boat, and this was not fanciful. It was very real. The intelligence and social complexity of the creature who had chosen to meet me was undeniable, and his ocean world was more foreign to humans than the face of the moon. Here, perhaps, was the smart extraterrestrial we have been waiting for, right in our own back yard.The amazing experiences that humans had with this companionable young killer whale, nicknamed Luna, in British Columbia, are described in the new non-fiction film my wife and I made called The Whale. (It will be playing in New Zealand starting March 28.) In the film Ryan Reynolds, the narrator, wonders whether Luna was more like a real extraterrestrial than the typical Hollywood version. Some scientists ask that question too.
“I've always seen Luna as a parallel to what would happen when we make contact eventually with an extraterrestrial." says Dr. Lori Marino, a neurobiologist who studies whales and has worked with both NASA’s Astrobiology Institute and the famous Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute (SETI) in exploring ways to approach living beings from other worlds. Her biggest worry is that we won’t recognize intelligence when we see it.
“That somebody can be intelligent,” Marino says, “doesn't mean that it has to be in exactly the same way we are. They could be on a par. There are different ways of being that are on a par in terms of complexity and level of awareness, but are not synonymous.”
Humans often think smart extraterrestrials will look like us and will have similar ways of communicating, such as languages with separate words. But it is much more likely that they will be mysterious and hard to understand -- just like whales.
Orcas and most other cetaceans are smart, social, have cultures that they learn from their families, and use elaborate sounds to communicate and to sense their world. That we cannot, so far, detect language does not mean their communications are simple. We may be the simple ones.
“If we can't recognize intelligence on this planet,” Marino says, “it would have to literally land on our heads in a spaceship for it to be recognized in a being from another planet.” She’s worried that unless extraterrestrials’ intelligence is just like ours, we may kill them before we even notice that they’re smart -- just like whales.
To Marino the dramatic and heart-warming encounters between people and Luna tell us that if we want to learn how to meet distant smart creatures, we’d better stop thinking of the close ones as inferior.
“If another human being is trying to communicate with us, we don’t ignore them,” she says. “The idea is that we should be going into their territory on their terms, respecting them for who they are and not having this sort of superior attitude.”
On that dark night and on other times when Luna came to see me, trying to communicate with clicks, whistles, and slaps on the water that I couldn’t understand, it became obvious that he was at least as alert and present in the world as I am, and that he shared something like my own emotional needs for the form of contact that we call friendship. At first, that created a kind of vertigo, as if my entire location in the universe had suddenly shifted. But then it became wonderful. It may be that way when we first meet someone from outer space -- as long as we’re open enough to respect both their similarities and their strangeness. Just like whales.
Good News about Animal Emotions
By Michael Parfit
Michael Parfit has been a regular contributor to Smithsonian and National Geographic magazines for many years, and is co-director, with his wife, Suzanne Chisholm, of The Whale. The film, named Critics’ Pick by both the New York Times and the Washington Post is released in New Zealand March 30, 2013.
What can you say about a whale who seems to be lonely?Humans often see emotions in animals -- fear, pain, longing, loneliness. But we have long been told by scientists that describing animal emotions in ways humans can understand is anthropomorphism and is scientifically wrongheaded. This makes us feel guilty. We feel as if we’re engaging in illicit sentimentality.Wonderfully, that guilt is no longer necessary. The study of animal emotions and consciousness is becoming a legitimate part of science. This is good news but it also carries new responsibilities in the way we acknowledge what animals may be feeling.As a writer for Smithsonian and National Geographic magazines and as a filmmaker, I have often run into the wall of anthropomorphism. That happened recently in making a documentary all about emotions in an animal -- the story of that “lonely” whale. (The film, The Whale, will be playing in New Zealand starting March 29.)For years, the prohibition against describing animal emotions drastically hampered people who wanted to encourage empathy toward animals. Some writers have ignored all constraints and portrayed animals as if they were emotional people in fur suits. Others, including me, tried to avoid describing animals in any emotional context. Either way, we made caricatures, not portraits. To save animals, it seems, we have had to misrepresent them.
Making The Whale brought my wife and me face to face with this problem. The film is about a young killer whale nicknamed Luna, who lost his pod and tried to make contact with people. We were determined not to be anthropomorphic, but what Luna did looked so much like loneliness that we didn’t know what else to call it. But we were lucky: changes in the scientific approach to animals gave us authority to acknowledge what Luna may have been feeling.The change began in the 1960s and ‘70s, when scientists like Jane Goodall wrote vividly about emotions in animals, shaking up the establishment. Then in 1976 a highly respected biologist named Donald Griffin shocked the field with a book called The Question of Animal Awareness, which suggested that the study of animal consciousness and emotions was valid and important.Griffin’s daring book opened doors. New work showed scientifically credible evidence of altruism, self-awareness, grief, pleasure, and other mental states we once thought were special to our species. The public glimpses this in occasional astonishing news stories about ravens or octopi, but we have not yet grasped the grandeur of what this change means.“Denying animal emotions now flies in the face of a growing mountain of solid, challenging and exciting scientific research,” writes cognitive ethologist Marc Bekoff, a leader in the scientific exploration of animal minds, in his 2010 book, The Animal Manifesto. “It’s important that we get over the issue of anthropomorphism and move on. There’s important work to be done.”So the good news is that we can now feel sympathy without scientific guilt. But we still can’t put a fur -- or blubber -- suit on simple human emotions and pretend we have it right. Animals’ emotions may be similar to ours, but they’re not identical.“I think it’s the difference between saying something is the same and saying something’s on a par,” Lori Marino, a cetacean neurobiologist, told me recently. Marino is one of two scientists whose 2001 study revealed that dolphins have self-awareness. “Luna and other cetaceans really represent a significant challenge to us,” she said, “because they are similar to us and different at the same time.” But so what if animals’ emotions are complex and impossible to fully understand? Aren’t humans that way, too? And isn’t the fathomless complexity of emotions the very thing that makes life, in reality and in fiction, endlessly fascinating?
The great thing is that humans no longer face prohibition against even thinking about emotions in other lives. As we found in making The Whale, humans can now be part of a growing new respect for other lives that acknowledges the mystery, subtlety, uncertainties and layers of meaning that we share with them -- the same pieces of life’s experience that have always made compelling stories about any living being.Yes, we have important work to do in learning to recognize and respect other animals’ feelings -- and great stories to tell as we learn more.
Julian Wood FILMINK
The Whale - Worth $15
Whales and dolphins have had bigger, more complex, brains than man and for infinitely longer. No one really has a solid theory as to why this should be, or has worked out what they can really do with all that water-bound intelligence. One thing is for sure, we sense how incredible these creatures are and we are in awe of them. This heartfelt Canadian documentary – executive produced and voiced by actor Ryan Reynolds – concentrates upon one whale called Luna. Luna is an Orca – usually known as a killer whale – who ends up in a shallow bay in Nootka Sound in Northern Canada.
A scientist, Mike Parfitt, and his partner, Suzanne Chisholm, have made this doco with a lot of affection for the big black and white fella. Orcas have a strong herd instinct and they stay in the same pods, from grandchild to grandparent, forever. So when Luna somehow gets separated the concerned scientists and local fishing village residents know it is serious. Most of the film revolves around the best remedy for these unusual circumstances. On the one hand Luna comes up and gently nuzzles every boat in sight. He apparently loves to be patted. On the other hand, Mike and co. are worried that too much familiarity with humans will lessen Luna in some way and even change his ‘whaleness’ in a sense. Luna, no doubt, has his own opinions about all this but of course he can only communicate with Flipper-like squeaks and warbles. Still, when the various humans in the film talk about looking into his eye every one of them feels there is something very special that is communicated beyond language. The First Nation peoples of this region also have a special regard for Luna. As their chief died shortly before Luna appeared they associate him with the spirit of the dead leader. Between the scientists, the indigenous Mowachaht people, the tourists and the sea rangers, all the adults are worried about Luna.
The film is perhaps a tad too long at a full feature length but it is a good story with lots of fine underwater photography and you could indeed look at Luna for a very long time.