The Witness Is a Whale

By Diana Reiss By Diana Reiss September 29, 2021

In their film, The Witness Is a Whale, filmmakers Nick and Cheryl Dean take us on a remarkable journey to understand the private lives of whales and their societies in the sea as revealed through the behavior of these magnificent giants. This stunning wildlife documentary is also a riveting detective story revealing espionage and deception that spans over 60 years. Through meetings and connections with leading marine mammal scientists, they discovered the massive illegal and secret slaughter of over 200,000 whales by the Soviet Union and Japan during the Cold War, an act described as “one of the greatest environmental crimes of the 20th century.”

In a state archive in the Soviet Union, an undercover Soviet researcher risks all and tells the shocking truth exposing the role of the KGB, secret codes, and dishonesty at the highest levels of government to cover up the massive slaughter of whales. A poignant moment in this film highlights a change in perspective of retired whalers who now spend their time assisting conservation groups watching whales and celebrating their comeback.

This film explores the profound ecological impact of centuries of whaling on the oceans today and the necessity and urgency for protecting whale populations globally. The film is a clear and powerful call to action in the name of whales and us. The Witness Is a Whale is nominated for best long-form film in the “Science in Nature” category at the 2021 Jackson Wild film festival.

I had the opportunity to interview Cheryl and Nick Dean about their film.

whale watching: Nick and Cheryl Dean filming Southern right whales. “As filmmakers and science communicators, we have to be able to convey that whales do indeed have points of view,” says Cheryl.Courtesy of Nick and Cheryl Dean

What moved you to make The Witness Is a Whale?

Nick Dean: We came across the story of the illegal Soviet whaling about seven years ago. Both of us were absolutely astounded when we first heard about the magnitude of the Soviet illegal whaling. We approached the scientists in the article and explained what we were interested in doing and they were enthusiastic. We went to a marine mammal conference and interacted with the scientists. We had one too many beers and the idea just developed from there.

Your film reveals what was going on in Soviet Russia, involving secret documents and the coverup of illegal whaling. It’s like an espionage thriller.

Nick Dean: We always saw the film as a detective story. We were going down this rabbit hole and it just became more interesting. The more information we were getting, especially from the Soviet scientists, the stranger it became.

Decades of scientific discoveries have revealed that whales and dolphins have large, complex brains and are socially aware. They live in cooperative, cultural societies. In many countries, whales are embraced; people have respect and empathy for them. Yet others, as you show in your film, see them as commodities for cash. How did you feel while making the film?

Cheryl Dean: It was a challenge to remain dispassionate as we were interviewing people. Alexey Yablokov, one of our Russian protagonists, was an incredible person, really imposing, very passionate, and idealistic. He talked about the curse that we perpetrated on the oceans and how whales were sublime creatures that we were destroying before we were even beginning to understand them. Alexey was horrified and that’s one reason why, way back when, he started trying to get this information out in the open.

In Kaliningrad, we went to a reunion of some of the old whalers. One of them talked about how to target sperm whales. They would intentionally target a sperm whale calf, a baby, and they would wait for the rest of the family to come up from feeding. They would hear the calf vocalizing and then the rest of the family would come around to try to protect it. Then the whalers would just swoop up the rest with their harpoons and the entire clan would be taken.

There’s something more important that makes us human. It’s the appreciation of life, the energy that we get from witnessing healthy wildlife.

Nick Dean: As we all know, Japan continues to whale, albeit on a smaller scale today. Their cultural attitudes are quite different to the kinds of attitudes we have here. That was illustrated by Joji Morishita, who was chair of the International Whaling Commission for a few years. He talks openly about how in Japan whales aren’t considered special animals. They’re just something to be harvested from the seas. They’re just another animal. There was absolutely zero recognition by him of how intelligent the animals are, of their cultures and minds, or why we shouldn’t be whaling. Clearly there’s a huge cultural divide and he showed no interest whatsoever in recognizing the other side of the coin. That’s why Japan left the IWC, so they could continue commercial whaling.

Cheryl Dean: What I hadn’t predicted, and found wonderful, was the crew of former whalers from New Zealand. After World War II, in the 1950s and 1960s, they were seen as hard-working folks helping to get food. They had a lot of pride in their work as whalers. Fast forward, and within one lifespan, during their lifetimes, they’re ardent conservationists. Now they watch for whales in Cook Strait from the same lookout tower they had used when whaling. Rather than sending down boats with harpoons, they are photographing and counting the whales. We said to one of the men, “The humpbacks are recovering. Should whaling be resumed?” He paused and thought about it. He replied, “No, I don’t think so. Look how happy they are. They’re not causing anybody harm. They’re flippy, flappy.” He was talking about their actions. He said that while they were hunting the whales, when they passed through the Cook Strait, they never breached, never were lollygagging around, never were playing.

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One of the themes in your film is that despite the recovery of some species, there is still an urgency to protect whales worldwide.

Nick Dean: Many people think the Save the Whales campaign is done and dusted. We finished, everything’s good, whales are recovering. It was a tremendous success because most commercial whaling has stopped. But there are many other threats to whales and there are many whale populations in grave danger. A prime example are North Atlantic right whales. Hundreds of years ago, they would have numbered in the tens of thousands. Now there are around 350 animals. Their population is decreasing largely due to ship strikes or entanglement in fishing gear, bycatch, and probably noise. Unless something is done to alleviate those stressors, that population will most likely be extinct in a few years.

Cheryl Dean: It’s not just the whales themselves. As much as all of us may love and appreciate whales and dolphins, they play a vital role in the ocean ecosystem.

Your film mentions the “whale pump,” which plays a vital role in returning carbon, nitrogen, and other nutrients to surface waters via feces. Can you explain how this works in more detail?

Cheryl Dean: Conservation biologist Joe Roman, and his colleagues, were the pioneers of the idea of the whale pump. Sperm whales spend most of their time deep in the water hunting for giant squid and other animals. After eating down there, they come to the surface and poop out the nutrients. A lot of those nutrients contain iron and other ingredients vital for plankton and for all ocean life. Those nutrients are not found at the surface. The whales bring them up from the bottom. Where there’s an active, healthy whale pump, you’ll have more phytoplankton, and phytoplankton is the basis for at least half of the oxygen on the planet. Every other breath we take is due to phytoplankton in the ocean.

Would you say that by saving the whales we’re saving ourselves?

Cheryl Dean: Absolutely. We’re all interconnected on this planet. We all have a role to play in making sure that nature is kept intact, that these ecosystems can function properly. But I think it goes beyond saving ourselves. Yes, we need to breathe. But there’s something more important that makes us human. It’s the appreciation of life and the appreciation of the spirit, the energy that we get from witnessing healthy wildlife. I don’t think that should be neglected.

Nick Dean: Another reason for encouraging the regrowth and re-population of whales is strictly financial. There are many communities that are entirely dependent on whale watching, and that is incredibly sustainable. People love to go out and watch whales and they bring money to communities. The old whaling community of Kaikoura in New Zealand is worth many tens of millions of dollars every year. It’s just taken over from the old whaling community and it supports local communities.

What did you leave on the cutting room floor that you wish you would have been able to include?

Nick Dean: I was particularly intrigued by the KGB and how they were watching the whalers. There were stories about their roles that didn’t make it because of space constraints. One is how the representative for the International Whaling Commission from the Soviet Union was in a KGB assassination unit, and how he was following members of the IWC around. They were instructed not to go back with him to his hotel room because of his background in assassination.

Science has shown that these are intelligent creatures, and they can understand what’s going on around them.

During filming on and in the water, using drones, using a variety of different devices, was there a particular moment or experience that stands out in some personal way?

Cheryl Dean: There was a time when we were filming in the water in Argentina and there was a mom and baby right whale. Babies are curious and playful, and the baby wanted to play. Mom was sleeping because she’d probably been feeding him for quite a while. We’ve seen young whales interact and play with sea lions down there. As agile as we try to be, we had nowhere near the agility of a sea lion. The young whale kept coming closer and closer, trying to get a better look at us, see what we were. We kept backpedaling—all the while filming—and basically got chased out of the water onto the stern of our boat. The really cute thing was the baby kept going back and forth across the stern of our boat, like a puppy dog saying, “Come back and play.” If we had a big ball that we could have thrown for him, he would have gone and chased it. I don’t know how to play with a baby whale, but that type of experience, being able to see that kind of interaction and that curiosity and eagerness to inspect another creature in its domain—those types of moments stay with us.

Nick Dean: Mine was diving with sperm whales. There’s something inherently alien about sperm whales to me. They’re unlike any other whale. And of course the way they perceive their environment is different from you and me because they’re auditory creatures. They see on the surface, but they spend 95 percent of their time in the deep oceans where there’s no light, and so they perceive everything through sound. We were filming and the whales would come up and ping us. When you have a sperm whale 20 feet in front of you and it’s echolocating on you, you feel it. It’s incredibly loud. And then it looked at me and I realized I have no idea what this thing’s thinking, absolutely no idea. You see a dog or even a dolphin and you think they’re playing. Sperm whales, I have no idea. It was an awesome experience.

How do you think science can better serve whale conservation?

Nick Dean: Using animal cultures as a way of promoting conservation is one way, and science can help do that. Humpback whale populations, for example, have different behaviors than killer whale populations; they’re not monolithic. If you’re interested in promoting conservation, then you should be thinking about animal species as separate units and let the culture and the behavior of those animals drive those units.

Cheryl Dean: Science has shown that these are intelligent creatures, and they can understand what’s going on around them. When killer whales were being captured for captivity, there would be inevitable deaths, as some of them got drowned in the nets. You’ve got screams and cries from the ones targeted, and you’ve got family members trying to save them. You can’t just look at the one killer whale that’s brought into captivity and put into a tank and say, “Oh, this killer whale has a really poor life.” It’s that whole family has been impacted and traumatized. We’ve done so much more harm than the sheer numbers can even begin to cover.

How do you think your role as filmmakers plays out on the global stage?

Nick Dean: That’s a tough question to answer. I think bringing to light stories about whales and whaling that people wouldn’t otherwise have heard will hopefully change some people’s perceptions. It would be great if our film was screened in Japan. Maybe we could help change minds and help bring some political pressure on the Japanese politicians who continue to support whaling.

Cheryl Dean: As the title, The Witness Is a Whale, implies, this is coming from a whale’s point of view. As filmmakers and science communicators, we have to be able to convey that whales do indeed have points of view. They’re not automatons. They have some level of cognition and we’re trying to communicate that to people by showing their behavior, by making the whales compelling characters that people can relate to. Seeing that is going to be much more impactful than just a person describing it.

Dr. Diana Reiss is a marine mammal scientist, a cognitive psychologist and professor in the Department of Psychology at Hunter College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. She is also Director of the Animal Behavior and Conservation MA and Certificate programs at Hunter College. The focus of her research is dolphin cognition and communication, comparative animal cognition, and the evolution of intelligence. Dr. Reiss’s professional efforts have also included the rescue and rehabilitation of stranded marine mammals. She applies her research in advocating for global protection for dolphins and whales—in the past in the dolphin-tuna net issue, and she is currently working to bring an end to the killing of dolphins in the notorious drive hunts in Japan. Dr. Reiss’s work has been published in numerous international and national journals, featured in science magazines, television programs, and newspaper articles. In her book, The Dolphin in the Mirror, released in 2011, she shares her personal and professional experiences with what she calls “magnificent minds in the water.”

Lead image: Still from The Witness Is a Whale, produced by Spindrift Images, Terra Mater Factual Studios and Mark Fletcher Productions​.