Oh Baby Beluga in the deep tea-coloured river

There’s a moment in tonight’s The Nature of Things documentary, “Call of the Baby Beluga,” when a researcher involved in studying and protecting the remaining wild belugas in the St. Lawrence chokes up. “Is there a safe place anywhere on the earth for a little lost whale? And then the larger question: is there a safe place on the earth for 900 of them? I really want to believe …”

Husband and wife directing team Suzanne Chisholm and Michael Parfit of Mountainside Films (of Saving Luna fame) use the emotional story of a stranded baby beluga to tell that larger story. A group of scientists, drawing on their knowledge and their humanity, are determined to save Baby by putting it in the path of wild females who could adopt it.  The larger question is whether our knowledge of animal behaviour can help us protect our natural world.

Parfit points out  the scientists involved in protecting the whales may not see the ultimate results of their efforts until “long after their professional careers are over — in some cases long after their lives are over. They are devoted to something that feels like it matters. That’s the story of the little whale. They know they themselves will probably not know how it turns out.”

“With all these issues we’re facing with the planet, we’re doing for the next generations.”

The directors incorporated older footage of Baby’s story that had been filmed by the scientists involved, and captured some stunning new footage, including drone shots showing the whales in action from above.

Suzanne Chisholm-Michael ParfitWhenever they could fit on board, co-directors Chisholm and Parfit would hop on the researchers’ boats. Occasionally it was Parfit with his  son David, who composed the film’s music and acted as official drone catcher. “That’s an anxious endeavour,” dad Michael says.

Their little drone would fly over the belugas, capturing the footage from a perspective even the scientists hadn’t seen, and then “David would catch it. He almost got scalped once.”

Parfit  explains that the usual underwater footage is captured by a diver, so “the beluga behaviour is related to what the diver is doing. And if the whale decides to leave in a hurry, you can’t follow.”

Thanks in part to the drone, then, the documentary shows in remarkable visual detail how belugas are tactile and social creatures, constantly touching and turning towards each other,  with strong bonds between groups of males and “alloparenting” among mothers who share parenting duties for sometimes unrelated calves.

While the scientists worked together to try to use that alloparenting trait to Baby’s advantage, the filmmakers used the little one’s story partly to show, in Chisholm’s words, “what we can do as humans and a society to make the world a better place, not just  for belugas in the St. Lawrence but for the animals we share the world with.”

Where once there were about 10,000 belugas in the area, hunting, pollution and environmental changes have seen those numbers dwindle over the past  several decades to 900.  But thanks to  scientific research into issues such as how sound from ferries and boats affects the whales, steps to protect them have been implemented.

“The coolest thing for me was seeing how in my lifetime, the human attitude toward belugas has changed,” says Chisholm. “People love these whales – our whole relationship with them has evolved. You think of that little baby, 30-40 years ago people would have left her to die.”

“Call of the Baby Beluga” airs Thursday, January 28 on CBC’s The Nature of Things.