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Tom Mustill's Humpback Whales - A Detective Story
By Jason Peters
31 January 2019

Wildlife film-maker Tom Mustill was almost killed by a Humpback Whale while kayaking in California. Now he turns detective to try to find the whale and discover what it was doing.

Sanctuary Cruises Humpback Whale Tom Mustill kayak

On the 12th of September 2015 in Monterey Bay California, a 30-ton humpback whale breached and landed on Tom Mustill and his friend Charlotte Kinloch as they paddled a sea kayak. Incredibly, both survived the incident. This near-death experience haunted documen- tary maker Tom, and left him wondering if the whale was deliberately trying to hurt them. To find the answer, in 2018 Tom returned to California to investigate. He meets those who’ve survived similar hair-raising encounters, and the experts who know the whales best – and what he discovers raises far bigger questions - not just about what happened that day but also about our relationship with whales and their future alongside us.

Finding the whale that almost killed him

Tom Mustill and Charlotte Kinloch just after their dunking
Tom Mustill and Charlotte Kinloch just after their dunking

Tom Mustill and Charlotte Kinloch being helped from the sea
Tom Mustill and Charlotte Kinloch being helped from the sea

An enigma

Humpback Whales: A Detective Story: Natural World
A humpback whale dives while a kayaker looks on in Monterey Bay, California - © BBC/Michael Sack, Sanctuary Cruises

Humpback Whales: A Detective Story: Natural World
A humpback whale breaches very close to whale-watchers - © BBC/Viralhog


Humpback Whales: A Detective Story: Natural World
Each whale's tail fluke pattern and shape are unique - © BBC/Tom Mustill

Whale Tails

Humpback Whales: A Detective Story: Natural World
A humpback whale has about 600 baleen plates in its upper jaw, which act like a strainer as it feeds - © BBC/Tim Burgess

Humpback Whales: A Detective Story: Natural World
Cinematographer Howard Hall films a mother humpback and her calf in Moorea (1000fps) - © BBC/Michele Hall

Whales Underwater

Humpback Whales: A Detective Story: Natural World
A curious young humpback approaches cinematographer Howard Hall - © BBC/Michele Hall

Humpback Whales: A Detective Story: Natural World
Tom films a humpback tail-slapping - © BBC/Ru Mahoney

Whale 101

Humpback Whales: A Detective Story: Natural World
Tom films his first humpback whale breach in super slow motion (1000fps) - © BBC/Tom Mustill

Humpback Whales: A Detective Story: Natural World
Two humpback whales lunge feed at the surface - © BBC/Tom Mustill

A Gripping Films Production for BBC and THIRTEEN PRODUCTIONS LLC in association with WNET
Directed and produced by Tom Mustill
Series Producer: Holly Spearing
Series Editor: Roger Webb


Whales in Trouble

The film takes place in Monterey Bay, California. This is one of the global epicentres of whale-watching and whale research. The coast used to be a centre for whaling activities, but now whale populations have been increasing. Running through Monterey Bay is a huge underwater canyon, on the scale of the Grand Can- yon - this canyon runs right to the shore. Here, there is an enormous and rich food chain, from algae to sharks to enormous schools of fish and jellyfish to sea otters to whales. The bay is so rich in marine life it is known as the Blue Serengeti. But humans use these waters too, container ships drive across it, fishermen fish in it and tourists are drawn in their tens of thousands. Sometimes the lives of the whales and the humans collide. But the opportunity to see whales in such reliable numbers has meant sci- entists have been making extraordinary discoveries about the whales here too.

Airing at 9pm, Friday 8th of Feb on BBC Two - Programme webpage: bbc.co.uk/programmes/m0002fsh

Tom Mustill Bio:

Tom is a 35 year-old wildlife and science filmmaker. He specialises in telling stories about where humans and the natural world meet. He’s worked with David Attenborough, Richard Dawkins, Stephen Fry and wildlife heroes across the world.

His films have won over 20 awards and they include other BBC Natural World programmes such as smash-hit Kangaroo Dundee, The Bat Man of Mexico and Giraffes: Africa’s Gentle Giants which was nominated for an EMMY.

Before then he directed the special episodes among others of the genre-busting BAFTA, RTS and Broadcast-award winning series Inside Nature’s Giants.

We asked Tom a couple of questions:

In your bio it says that you "specialise in telling stories about where humans and the natural world meet” … How important to you is the human element in natural history story-telling?

The human element is the most important for me in natural history story-telling. Without it how can we feel part of the same world, and feel connected to nature rather than just spectators of it? As well as showing the world as it is - a tangle of humans and other living things - I think it's very important to show humans who have an intimate connection to it themselves. By telling stories about nature that follow people I hope that I can connect wider and more diverse audiences to these stories and animals. And I think that these stories can be moving and powerful wildlife films, without having to anthropomorphise or make soap operas of animals lives.

So far it’s been kangaroos, bats and giraffes … very different species conservation stories, with equally different humans. How will you go about finding your next filming subject … Does it usually start with the animal, as surely it did with the whale, or can it start with the human?

With all of these stories it started with the human. Natural Worlds are an hour long, sometimes it's not enough to just have an animal people are excited to watch - you also need an engaging and sympathetic character, and you need to follow them while something unusual and challenging is happening. When I met Brolga (Kangaroo Dundee), Rodrigo (The Bat Man) and Julian (Giraffes: Africa's Gentle Giants) in each case I thought 'fantastic! the elements are there'. It's also really important to get on well with the people you decide to pitch films about - you're going to be spending a lot of time together. I've learnt a great deal from the humans in all these films, as well as from being around the marvellous animals. With the whale film it was definitely different - the whale chose me! But again, the story hinged on people. With this film rather than having a single protagonist I wanted to try and make a film about a community - like Robert Altman often did in his feature films, and I wanted to link them together with the whales they so love.

Visit: www.grippingfilms.com Tom on twitter.com/tommustill & instagram.com/tommustill

Tom Mustill and Charlotte Kinloch
Tom Mustill and his whale-experience partner Charlotte Kinloch

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