By Duncan Strauss
At this point, the number of documentary makers who specialize in wildlife films might be truly countless. Think of all such movies that turn up in theaters, air on PBS as well as on numerous cable networks, and now prominently appear on streaming services–and you’ll see what I mean.
But Tom Mustill boasts a trait that will forever bestow singular status among his doc-making brethren: In 2015, while kayaking with a friend, a humpback whale breached and just missed landing on them.
Of course, he made a film about it, The Whale Detective.
And in a January Talking Animals interview, Mustill recalled that fateful morning in Monterey Bay. He explained that he was on vacation from the U.K. with a group of friends, and on the final day, he and his friend Charlotte went on a guided kayak excursion in this bay south of San Francisco, home to many species of marine mammals.
“I’ve seen lots of whales, because I’ve always been very interested in them,” Mustill said, “but Charlotte is an accountant and she’d never seen a whale or a dolphin before. After a couple of hours the guide said ‘Okay, great. Let’s go back to shore now.’
“And I think we all felt like we had a great time, and so we started paddling back in towards the harbor. We were really close to the shore, and then suddenly an adult humpback whale just shot out of the water very nearby. It arched up into the air above us, and it became very clear it was going to land on top of us.”
I asked whether at that moment, things shifted into that sort of car-accident-slow-motion mode, when the whale was up in the air and they saw how close it was? Did he think, “Holy crap, this whale might well land on top of us”?
When the humpback whale breached on top of kayakers, including the Whale Detective Tom Mustill
“You put your finger on it, exactly,” Mustill instantly replied. “I’ve been in in one serious car accident, where fortunately everybody was okay, but that was the closest thing to it. It just became very clear that we were going to collide with the whale. And in the car accidents I was in, I remember just thinking ‘Oh, we’re going to hit that car,” and then we did.
“And so with the whale, it came out of the sea, and just by looking at its trajectory–it just happened so quickly. One moment, it’s this flat calm ocean, and then it landed on top of us, and dragged us underwater. I wasn’t scared, and I don’t think Charlotte was then, not because we were brave, just because there was no time to have any really emotional response. I just remember my brain thinking, ‘Ah, there’s a whale, it’s going to land on us–that means we’re dead.'”
I hasten to point out that Mustill is very much not dead–it’d be fairly difficult for him to recount this tale if he were. So while the whale did land on the kayak, it, very fortunately, did not land squarely on Mustill and Charlotte.
And as disorienting and surreal as this leviathan encounter was for Mustill, it generated a powerful if curious response in some of the onlookers.
As one measure of that, there’s a YouTube clip that went viral featuring a guy in a nearby boat reacting to this shocking episode. And while it was no doubt a dramatic sight–stipulated: it’s not everyday that someone witnesses a whale appear to land on two kayakers–the real-time utterances may project problematic priorities.
You hear the guy gushing about the whale footage he scored (“I got him! I got him on video!”), acknowledging that the humpback capsized the kayak (“He knocked it over!”), but expressing nothing in the way of concern for the two humans that were pounded in the process.
Mustill offers a profoundly kind interpretation of this person’s shouted glee and seeming indifference to the fate of the whaled-on kayakers.
“We were heading back to shore, so we were going away from where the whales were,” he recalled. “The video was taken by someone on a whale watching boat that was nearby. We think almost everybody else was pointed in the other direction. When a whale breaches, everyone turns to look at it.
“And I think because we were on the far side of the whale, and most people hadn’t seen it come out, they just saw a big splash. And they thought ‘we filmed a whale breaching,’ and there was a woman in the background you hear shouting ‘the kayak, the kayak.’ And I think she’s like the only person who’d realized that there were some people there.”
A generous view, to be sure. But this viral video (without its existence, “I knew that no one would believe” that this happened), and the experience itself–he and Charlotte were seriously shaken, but unhurt–prompted him to ponder, cinematically, what had happened to them.
What propelled this exploration was a nagging question that Mustill kept circling back to: Was the whale trying to hurt him and his friend–or trying not to?
In a bid to answer that question, and other questions, Mustill launched an investigation of sorts–hence, The Whale Detective. At times, the film plays as a true police procedural: photos and information are posted on the wall, with strings connecting them, and so on, to the point where you almost think: Has Dick Wolf launched another show in the Law & Order franchise?
Trailer for Tom Mustill’s The Whale Detective
Mustill pursued all sorts of leads, if you will, including striving to identify the whale in question, with the help of an organization called Happy Whale, which can accept photos from whale watching trips, and match them to catalogs of identified whales.
At first, there was no luck pinpointing the identity of the humpback that Mustill started calling “Prime Suspect.” But after filming was complete, Mustill got some news from Happy Whale: They’d found Prime Suspect, who was alive and well, and had returned to Monterey Bay–a great relief, Mustill said, given what they’d learned about the significant threats that whales face in that environment.
In the course of making The Whale Detective, Mustill consulted a number of other authorities, including the highly specialized realm of experts who disentangle whales from lines–the skill and danger involved in this work are monumental.
“It’s very dangerous–people have been killed doing it,” Mustill said. “I mean, if you think about it, a humpback whale is two to three times the size of a Tyrannosaurus Rex.”
Indeed, it was a creature that humongous that appeared to be bearing down on Mustill and his friend in their kayak. Which brings us back to the central question of whether the whale was trying to hurt them or trying to avoid doing so.
“Well, I asked pretty much everybody that I met,” he said, “and because I’m already a wildlife filmmaker, I know a lot of underwater videographers, and a lot of scientists and they all have their own theories. I think, despite what we’ve done to whales, with whaling and hunting them so remorselessly, and running them over by accident with our boats, in general, they do not seem to have animosity towards humans.
The Department of Parks and Wildlife whale disentanglement team successfully frees a humpback whale off the Geraldton coast on Thursday 28 August 2014
“There is very little evidence of whale attacks on people, and no unprovoked attacks. And so that was always the framing for what happened: it seemed like it would be extremely weird for a whale to want to breach onto a person.
“Also, a humpback whale’s weapon isn’t beaching. They fight using their arms–like, they karate chop–and their tails, which are much more powerful. So if a whale did want to do me in, [breaching on us] probably wouldn’t have been the way it would’ve wanted to do it.”
About the Author: Combining his passions for animals, radio, journalism, music and comedy, Duncan Strauss launched Talking Animals at KUCI in California in 2003. Since late 2005 the show has aired on Tampa’s WMNF. Producer-host Strauss lives in Jupiter Farms, FL, with his family, including four cats, two horses and one dog. He spends each day talking to those animals, and maintains they talk right back to him, a claim as yet unverified by credible sources.