BBC Earth releases Ocean Giants this week as part of its Nature series, which airs on PBS in the United States. This 173-minute, three-part documentary, the first Region 1 Blu-ray / DVD combo to be released by the BBC, explores whales and dolphins. Narrated by John Benjamin Hickey (The Big C, Flags of Our Father), Ocean Giants discusses the cognitive, emotional, and hunting abilities of marine mammals. This informational material is accompanied by stunning video, some of which is the first of its kind to be captured on film.
The filming crew in Ocean Giants is led by Doug Allan and Didier Noirot. Both may be familiar names to fans of BBC’s Natural History programming. Allan is part of the team that won a BAFTA Award for work on the very successful Human Planet, in particular, the Arctic episode. He has also worked on Planet Earth, Life, and Frozen Planet, among others. Noirot, too, shares credit for Frozen Planet and Life, with a number of other series to his name. So both are experienced, and do a capable job in crafting this show.
The first of the three episodes on this disc is called “Giant Lives,” which concentrates exclusively on whales, with a focus on the largest of them. Fans are treated to shots of blue whales in the Indian Ocean, right whales in Argentina, and humpback whales battling for a mate in Hawaii. The harrowing story of gray whales traveling from Mexico to Alaska with their pups is tragic, as they battle the killer whale hunting parties. Some discussion is made as to how size matters for these creatures. Mostly, the point is to showcase some remarkable video, some of it underwater, though with the larger and more aggressive species, only above the surface footage is available.
Perhaps to make up for that, at certain times during the series, animation is shown, instead. Not everything is easy to get with a camera, no matter how experienced the operator, so it’s nice that illustrations are included to supplement. These are used sparingly, and are not distracting, but rather, enhance the points they support.
Part two, entitled “Deep Thinkers,” splits its time between dolphins and whales. Bottle-nosed dolphins are the stars, playing with bubble rings in central America, hydroplaning in western Australia, and beating mud to trap fish in Florida. A big focus of the dolphins’ intelligence concerns getting food, as many of them have developed ingenious ways to do so. In the case of the Floridian variety, their talent has been passed down for generations, making it an impressive tradition. These skills are practical, but there are also some purely fun experiments, like how dolphins have learned to recognize themselves in the mirror at an aquarium.
When thinking of the smartest animals on the planet, dolphins naturally leap to mind. Whales, not so much, but it turns out that this is a misconception. Humpback whales are featured, in that they trap herring, as several dolphin species do with their own prey fish. Some attention is also given to gray whales in Mexico and their empathy towards people. They will swim up to the boats and interact, seemingly for no gain of their own. It’s quite an unexpectedly advanced trait. What’s more, dolphins and whales have spindle cells, which is something formerly believed only humans possessed. The possibilities for their minds, with the presence of these cells, are extraordinary.
Finally, episode three is called “Voices of the Sea.” Having established that some dolphins and whales show signs of higher intelligence than most species on the planet, attention turns to some of the abilities they have that humans do not. There is a lot here about echolocation and bioelectical signals. The systems these animals have are quite elaborate. It has long been known that these sound waves can be used for communication, but they can also be used to hunt prey. This comes in quite handy, especially, for the boto dolphins who live in the muddy Amazon river.
What isn’t known is exactly how the signals work, or how they can malfunction, which leads to sperm whales beaching themselves in Australia. Also a mystery is why humpbacks sing near Hawaii. Some answers will likely remain unknown to the human race, the two species being so different, without a lot of further study.
In short, there is a lot of rich material here, especially for those who know little about our ocean-dwelling cousins. They are not just amazing and mysterious creatures, but highly intelligent ones, who have made rich lives for themselves in the vast seas.
The Blu-ray picture quality is mixed in this set. At times, things are crystal clear, with each tiny wave and swell in the ocean visible, as is each scratch on the skin of a whale. At other times, a dark, murky picture is the best that can be captured. Some interview segments of the episodes are presented in standard definition. For as many different cameras as were surely used to film this series, it’s remarkable that the flow is as good as it is. But don’t expect perfect quality throughout the entire thing.
The sound is much more consistent, with animal noises, people talking, and natural background sound well blended. There are no stand out moments where volume needs to be adjusted, nor is anything said ever garbled too much. Unfortunately, Ocean Giants is only presented in stereo sound, instead of taking full advantage of the Blu-ray’s surround capabilities. But given the conditions this piece is filmed in, it may not have been practical to expect surround sound.
There are no special features for Ocean Giants. That doesn’t really matter, as parts of the episode focus on the crew making the shots, as well as their subjects, so any behind-the-scenes stuff is integrated, rather than separated. Perhaps it would have been nice to include more footage that has been cut, but for a single disc release, it’s adequate.
Ocean Giants is available on Blu-ray now.