The Art of Whale Watching
Off the coast of Maui, an artist teams up with filmmakers to capture the essence of giant hump
John Seerey-Lester suspected his mind was playing tricks on him. Traveling with a film crew in a boat off the coast of Maui, the British-born wildlife painter heard the mournful song of a humpback whale from atop the deck. "I never imagined you could hear a humpback above the surface, " he says. "But when I realized the sound was actually resonating up through the bottom of the boat, I knew it was for real."
So did Al Giddings. The renowned underwater cinematographer immediately lowered himself over the side of the boat along with some special camera equipment, then dove in search of the singing male humpback. "I couldn't see him, but I could feel the vibration of his song in my chest," says Giddings, who returned to the surface minutes later without capturing the huge animal on film but nevertheless excited by the encounter. "It was an experience," adds Seerey-Lester, "that truly inspires."
In an unusual alliance of artists from different mediums,
Seerey-Lester shared a boat for several days in Hawaii last
winter with Giddings and other filmmakers to pursue a common
goal: to create works of art that help promote whale
conservation. For painter Seerey-Lester, the endeavor provided an
unparalleled opportunity to make field sketches for a portrait of
humpbacks. For cinematographer Giddings, it offered an equally
unparalleled chance to get close to the animals for a
giant-screen film on the great whales, which he is codirecting
for National Wildlife Productions (NWP), NWF's television and
Six years in the making and funded in part by a National
Science Foundation grant, Whales premieres this November
in giant screen theaters all over the world. "We're concentrating on
showing the behavior and social interactions of the baleen
whales--the filter-feeding species that are the largest of the
great whales," says Christopher N. Palmer, president of NWP
and producer of the film. "In doing so, we're letting these
magnificent animals speak for themselves in terms of why whale
conservation is so important."
In addition to their breeding grounds in Hawaii, humpbacks
were filmed at their summer feeding areas off Alaska. The film
also includes never-before-seen footage of endangered right
whales off Patagonia and of the largest mammals on Earth,
100-foot blue whales, swimming off California. The giant-screen
format, which includes 60-foot-high screens in many theaters,
"provides viewers with eye-boggling images," says
Palmer. "It literally pulls you right out of your seat and
into the action."
Every winter in Hawaii, the largest concentration of
endangered humpback whales in the North Pacific gathers to breed.
The male humpbacks, which grow as large as 50 feet and 45 tons,
are best known for their songs--perhaps the most complex in the
"When you swim up next to a singing whale, the song is
so loud that you feel as if someone is pressing you to a wall
with their open palms, shaking you until your teeth rattle,"
says biologist Roger Payne, one of the world's leading whale
experts and a science advisor to the NWP project. These songs can
last as long as 30 minutes and possibly function as a vocal
display by which a male attracts a female. In the waters off
Maui, hundreds of male humpbacks sing every year.
"Capturing whales on film is a creative challenge under
any conditions, but it was particularly difficult with the giant screen
format," says codirector David Clark. Much of the
responsibility fell on the shoulders of Giddings, the nation's
foremost deep-sea filmmaker.
Because whales are spooked by bubbles, Giddings had to shoot
all of the underwater giant screen footage without scuba gear. That meant
staying submerged without breathing for several minutes at a
time. (Giddings formerly held the Guinness record for holding his
breath nonstop underwater for 11 minutes.) The difficulty of the
task was compounded by the weight of a giant screen camera--about 250
pounds including its waterproof case.
To maneuver the camera, Giddings added slight buoyancy to its
underwater housing and dived to depths of 70 feet. Then, when he
could no longer hold his breath, he released the camera and swam
to the surface. Eventually, the camera surfaced on its own.
"It was a brilliant technique," says Clark, "that
few people in the world could pull off."
On board the film crew's boat, Seerey-Lester spent a week
making sketches for a humpback painting. "I think all of
us--painters, filmmakers, scientists--must continually work
together to help increase the public's awareness about the great
whales," says the Florida-based artist.
Al Giddings agrees. "Our goal with this project is not
to point fingers at anyone regarding whaling," he says.
"We want to let viewers make up their own minds about why
whales are so much more valuable to us alive than dead."
Creating Art to Help Protect the World's Whales
Whales is the first giant-screen film by National Wildlife
Productions (NWP). "A giant screen film can be a powerful
tool for conveying NWF's conservation message," says NWP
President Christopher N. Palmer. "It enables us to reach far
beyond the converted to a broader audience." Whales
will begin screening in giant screen theaters throughout the world this
November. Check local directories for locations and show times.
For More About the Artist ...
John Seerey-Lester's humpback whale painting is available as a
limited-edition print from NWF Editions. For more information and
the phone number of an art gallery near you, call 1-800-699-9693.
NWF Editions is a subsidiary of the National Wildlife Federation,
dedicated to sustainable conservation of global natural