New Brunswick

New documentary shines light on 'last of the right whales'

Last of the Right Whales tells the stories of several people in Canada and the United States who are committed to studying and saving the North Atlantic right whale.

Director Nadine Pequeneza wanted to know more during an unusually deadly year for North Atlantic right whales

An overhead shot of a North Atlantic Right Whale cow with her calf from the documentary "Last of the Right Whales."
An overhead shot of a North Atlantic right whale cow with her calf from the documentary Last of the Right Whales. (Last of the Right Whales)

If it hadn't been for the tragedy that befell the North Atlantic right whales in 2017, a new documentary looking at the plight of one of the region's most endangered species might never have been made.

Last of the Right Whales tells the stories of several individuals in Canada and the United States who are committed to studying and saving the North Atlantic right whale.

Nadine Pequeneza, the Toronto-based director of the film, said that before the news of the increasing number of whale deaths in a single year, she was not even aware the animal was in danger.

"It was one after the other, and it really caught my attention because initially it wasn't reported the cause of death, and the necropsies had to be performed," said Pequeneza. 

The species has long been in decline, but the picture changed dramatically when 17 whales were found dead in 2017, including 12 in Canadian waters. 

Since then, another 17 right whales have been found dead in Canadian and U.S. waters, for a total of 34 deaths.

"When it came out that it was ship strikes and entanglements that were actually causing these deaths and they were preventable, I really started to look further into it and then saw the whole history of the incredible struggle that this species has had throughout its history since its contact with humans," Pequeneza said.

Taxing production

The documentary crew had to overcome a number of hurdles to shoot the film.

Like much of everything else in life, the effort was affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, which limited when the film could be shot and how many crew members could be present.

Nadine Pequeneza, the film’s director, said the crew had to clear a number of hurdles to get the documentary made. (Dan Abramovici Photography)

But even before that, the filmmakers had to satisfy a number of conditions to even begin shooting.

Since it required shooting in various locations from the Florida Keys to the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the team needed approval from two governments.

"We had to show DFO that we were doing this in a way that would benefit the whales," said Pequeneza.

Harsh conditions

Then, of course, there's the difficulty of filming whales in the North Atlantic.

"The North Atlantic, in particular, can be very rough, and you need calm waters to film, especially when you're using an aerial drone," said Pequeneza.

The difficulty of filming on the ocean is compounded by the need to keep a distance from the whales.

Canadian wildlife photographer Nick Hawkins used this remote-control vehicle to get up-close footage. (Last of the Right Whales)

Pequeneza said one of the film's human subjects, Canadian wildlife photographer Nick Hawkins, was instrumental in getting much of the impressive footage featured in the documentary.

"Nick constructed his own remotely operated vehicle to get a camera close to the whales, which is a very interesting storyline that we follow throughout the film," said Pequeneza

'Tough to see'

The film contains a number of scenes that would be disturbing to whale lovers.

This includes a whale tangled in fishing rope, violently thrashing and in distress, and footage of whale necropsies as scientists try to uncover how each died.

Pequeneza said the scenes were difficult and emotional to film.

"It's tough to see, and I know it's going to be hard for the audience as well," said Pequeneza.

"I don't say that to turn off the audience. They have to see these things."

The film will be shown at theatres in Saint John, Moncton and Miramichi later this winter.

The documentary will also air on CBC TV sometime this fall.

With files from Information Morning Fredericton