Whale strandings have all the makings of a drama, as a
couple of documentary-makers discovered. Tom McKinlay
There was no way student film-makers Sara Kaltz and Vanessa
Marshall could stand back and watch as a pod of stranded
pilot whales struggled to survive on the sandflats of
The dispassionate distance of the documentary-maker is one
thing. Idle indifference would have been quite another.
So the pair, who travelled to New Zealand's stranding
hot-spot at the top of the South Island for their documentary
Once A Pod Of Whales, pitched in.
"We did talk about that beforehand. We said, 'oh, we
shouldn't help and stay objective'," Kaltz recalls.
"But what happened was, we only had one [university] camera
... and it was an all-day thing, so there was a lot of
"You couldn't just sit there and watch everybody else work.
You felt that guilt, so we were able to help.
"That gave us a new perspective on our film, too."
Kaltz and Marshall's documentary will screen at the Regent
Theatre in Dunedin alongside five others on Friday, all made
by students of the University of Otago's Centre for Science
Communicationfilm-making course, for their master's degrees
in science communication.
The spur for Kaltz and Marshall was a course the latter had
done with Project Jonah, a pro-whale organisation, that among
other things, organises whale rescues.
It was quite a change of pace for zoology graduate Kaltz,
whose previous mammalian encounters had been at a big-cat
Having decided to look at whale strandings, and base
themselves at stranding central in Collingwood, Golden Bay,
near the spit, the pair booked accommodation for the summer,
when the whales most commonly come ashore. But before they
were due to leave a text came through from Project Jonah to
say a pod of pilot whales had lost its way. And they were
In the event, the documentary-makers witnessed two strandings
at the spit, the second involving 99 pilot whales, of which
only 17 survived.
The scene as it presented itself at the second stranding was
initially quite traumatic, Kaltz says.
"When we first got there, there were not a lot of people and
some people were stressed, trying to get blankets on all the
whales to keep them cool and keep putting water on them. Then
after a few hours word got out that there was a stranding and
more and more people kept coming and all of a sudden there
were more people than we needed.
"It was sad that the whales were on the beach but then nice
seeing people coming together and donating their time to
There is still some mystery attached to whale strandings.
Kaltz says the latest theory is that seismic waves mess with
whales' navigation organs. Both earthquakes and seismic
surveying in the ocean are possible triggers.
"In both those situations there are seismic waves in the
ocean and it could give whales the bends, or symptoms that
are similar to the bends."
Whales' navigation organs are necessarily sensitive, says
Kaltz, and as a result, according to the theory, can become
The film has a soundtrack performed by Dr Richard Nunns, an
authority on traditional Maori instruments.
Instruments on the soundtrack include one made from the rib
of a southern right whale and another from an albatross wing.
Strings were added to the mix later.
In the course of making the documentary Kaltz and Marshall
talked to Project Jonah chief executive Kim Muncaster,
Department of Conservation ranger Simon Walls, who works the
Farewell Spit beat, and members of Golden Bay iwi.
The different perspective each had was an interesting part of
the project, Ms Kaltz, who is originally from Michigan, says.
"Especially when you talk to iwi, they have that cultural
connection. The people we talked to said they wanted to keep
the traditions alive, so they keep going to the strandings."
For Project Jonah, the motivations were different.
"All sorts of people do the [Project Jonah] course, they are
passionate about whales, and about doing your part and trying
to save the whales, and conservation.
"Simon was really interesting because he has been working for
the department for 30 years.
Whenever a stranding happens in Golden Bay, and they happen a
lot, he goes to every stranding.
"So his perspective was that, he loves whales, but at the
same time he is sick of going to these strandings," Kaltz
The University of Otago Centre for Science Communication, in
association with NHNZ, presents the 2012 premiere of films
from the centre's film-making students at Dunedin's Regent
Theatre, on Friday, November 16, from 7pm.
• Bluewater: A film exploring the consequences of a
recent change to an Australian marine park on the users and
the marine life that call the park home.
• Meating Expectations: A film looking at in
vitro meat, the problems it could solve and the problems it
• Against The Current: A small community
struggles to fight a multinational company proposing massive
expansions to salmon farming in the Marlborough Sounds.
• A Shot Of Inspiration: Follows a Dunedin
entrepreneur on his journey to come to terms with the
challenge of crafting a top coffee liqueur.
• Favela Beat: The story of how the once
shunned samba culture came to represent Brazilian identity.
• Once A Pod Of Whales: A film examining the
impact humans have on whale strandings in New Zealand.
(All films are 25 minutes long.)