The ‘Whales’ Song


Before working on the new Imax documentary film “Whales,” co-director David Clark had never seen the mammals up close. By March 1996, he was swimming with them.

“I had the experience of their songs thumping my chest and vibrating through my body,” said Clark, an 18-year documentary veteran and a two-time Emmy Award winner.

For those who want to feel the “thump” of a whale song but may never get to swim with the animals, the California Museum of Science and Industry will be showing “Whales” starting Feb. 21. Narrated by actor Patrick Stewart, “Whales” follows the elusive animals around the globe, making stops in Argentina, Alaska, Hawaii, California and Newfoundland.

Beautifully filmed in large-format Imax style, the movie takes the audience along for a swim among schools of dolphins (a species of toothed whales) and larger whales and a play session with a mother and her calf, among other things.


As might be expected, the film’s most spectacular moments take place when the camera delves deep into the mammals’ water world. In one shot, a whale’s large, glossy eye stares out at the audience; in another, a curious calf swims close to the camera as its mother looks on from a distance.

“Here you get an opportunity to get underwater and get eye-to-eye with one of the most enigmatic species that has ever existed,” said Iain Kerr, consultant on the film. Kerr is captain of the filmmakers’ 94-foot sailboat, the Odyssey, and vice president of the Whale Conservation Institute.

Though the film is entertaining, that wasn’t the only goal of the filmmakers. According to Clark, a major reason why he and others on the project created “Whales” was to educate the audience about the plight of the creatures, many of which are still hunted despite conservation efforts.

“While there is a lot of information there, we’re not lecturing,” Clark said. “Our belief was that if we just showed the glory of these creatures, somehow the audience would come away with the feeling that we ought to do what we can to save them.”


Clark and company had incredible luck filming the whales. When the film’s other co-director, Al Giddings, who also directed photography for “Whales,” attempted a whale project 30 years ago, he saw 12 whales in three months. In the month these filmmakers spent in Maui, they saw 107 whales in 30 days.

“The bottom line is that it’s nature and you don’t know what you are going to get until you get it. . . . You could come back with nothing,” Clark said.

In filming the whales, the filmmakers had to be careful that they didn’t disturb the creatures in the process. This meant that Giddings couldn’t, for example, use scuba gear because tank bubbles might have frightened the whales. Instead, Giddings, who once owned the world record for holding his breath (11 minutes, 40 seconds), would take a deep breath and swim down 60 feet to get a shot. When he ran out of breath, he would leave the camera and swim to the surface. The camera, specially designed to be buoyant, would slowly follow him up--taping all the way.

Watching the movie makes “you realize that it all hasn’t been done before, it all hasn’t been explored,” Clark said. “There is [still] plenty to be touched by out there.”


“Whales” screens at the California Museum of Science and Industry Imax Theater, 700 State Drive, Los Angeles, daily at 11 a.m., 1, 3, 5 and 8 p.m. starting Feb. 21. Information: (213) 744-2019.