Last year a sei whale ran aground in Fife, Scotland. What it was doing there, hundreds of miles off course, was a mystery. But such strandings are becoming more common, according to What killed the whale? (Channel 4) aAbout 100 cases are reported in the UK each year, a figure that has doubled in the past decade and the pattern is repeating around the world.
To find out what killed this particular animal, host Dr. Ella Al-Shamahi participates in a whale autopsy. This is actually Channel 4’s second whale autopsy, after 2009’s Inside Nature’s Giants. I think they’re an appreciation winner.
In scenes you can’t see while eating your TV dinner, the animal was sliced and diced before our eyes, its guts stretched (more than 70 meters) across the beach. “The smell is something,” Al-Shamahi said, in what I suspect was an understatement. The host is listed in National Geographic’s Discovery Guide as a stand-up comic, alongside paleoanthropologist and archaeologist. Fortunately, she stayed away from jokes here.
With two marine experts, Dr. Andrew Brownlow and Rob Deaville, Al-Shamahi told us about the dangers whales face from human industry. They can become entangled in fishing gear or hit by ships. They absorb pollutants. And they can be driven from their normal habitats by noise pollution, such as military sonar or marine traffic.
These were all sobering things, well explained by the experts. But the producers didn’t have the confidence to stop there. They implemented the full gamut of tricks: an almost permanent soundtrack of dramatic music, date lines ticking across the screen, and cliffhanger moments leading up to each ad break (there were a lot of ad breaks). I can only assume that the program makers want a young, environmentally conscious audience to watch this, and fear that their attention will wander unless the information is dressed up as The Bourne Identity.
In the end, they weren’t sure what killed this whale, though it was malnourished and had a weakened immune system. Al-Shamahi had a simple answer to the cause of death: “It’s me and it’s you.”