HALIFAX — There has been no shortage of media coverage of the plight of the endangered North Atlantic right whale, but documentary filmmaker Nadine Pequeneza felt there was still something missing in the fight to save the species.
“You can’t really appreciate something unless you at least see it and get to know it,” Pequeneza said this week ahead of the theatrical opening of her latest film, “Last of the Right Whales.”
“So we hope this film introduces people to the North Atlantic right whale, makes them aware of what’s at risk here.”
There is plenty at risk. The U.S.-based North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium reported in October that the species’ population dropped to 336 in 2020, an eight per cent decrease from 2019, when the population was estimated at 366 animals. In fact, the species has been on a downward trend since 2011, when there were 481 whales, according to the consortium.
For Pequeneza, the documentary brings viewers closer to the mysterious animal and explores how humanity can be a part of the species’ resurgence.
“For most North Atlantic right whales, the majority of deaths are not from natural causes, they’re from human activities, shipping and fishing,” the Toronto-based Pequeneza said in an interview. “Our hope is that we … raise awareness about the species and the threats that they’re facing and how we are responsible for the potential extinction of this species.”
“Last of the Right Whales” is opening this weekend for screenings in select Canadian theatres to coincide with World Whale Day on Sunday. The film documents the efforts of several groups and individuals to protect and restore the population of the dwindling whale species hurt by entanglements in fishing gear and ship collisions.
This month, Oceana Canada called on the federal government to impose mandatory speed limits in the Cabot Strait, between Cape Breton and Newfoundland, to prevent ship strikes as right whales migrate to feeding grounds in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
Climate change is pushing zooplankton on which the whales feed into cooler waters off Canada’s east coast and bringing the animals farther north. Oceana also noted that since 2017, 21 whales have died in Canadian waters, and at least eight of those deaths resulted from collisions with ships.
Viewers are shown the realities of what the species is up against, including the fresh entanglement of a young male right whale and a necropsy performed on a beach after a whale was struck and killed by a vessel.
One of the figures featured in the documentary, Canadian Whale Institute researcher Moira Brown, said in a recent interview that the film allows viewers to see not only the obstacles facing the species but the dedicated group of people trying to reverse the damage that’s been done.
“There is just a tremendous effort to work together to try and solve this problem,” Brown said. “It’s tough to watch the way these animals are suffering, but I think we’ve gained some ground since 2017 and 2019 …. I think it’s also a demonstration of how humans can turn things around.”
Another key figure in the documentary is Nick Hawkins, a wildlife cameraman and photojournalist. In the film, Pequeneza follows Hawkins as he tries to give people a clearer look at the species through his photography.
“I really felt that there was this big gap between that highly technical knowledge that researchers were putting together and the general public, so I started looking at how I could fill that gap,” Hawkins says in the documentary.
He echoed the sentiment during a recent interview, saying he hopes the movie and his own work help to connect people with the experiences of the right whales.
“There’s so little good footage and good images of North Atlantic right whales,” Hawkins said. “We’ve gradually been building and trying to bring this issue out there …. It’s going to take a lot of effort and a lot of continued attention on this issue for us to change the future of the species.”