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The Whole Story with Anderson Cooper
What Whales Tell Us. Aired 8-9p ET
Aired February 04, 2024 - 20:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
JIMENEZ: Bill, I'm going to take you up on that whale watching. See you.
WEIR: You got it, let's do it.
JIMENEZ: All right, and for everyone else, don't go anywhere. A new episode of "THE WHOLE STORY WITH ANDERSON COOPER," "What Whales Tell Us," is next right here on CNN.
Thanks for joining me this evening. I'm Omar Jimenez. It was a pleasure. I think we had a good time here. "THE WHOLE STORY" is next, followed by new episodes of "THE MANY LIVES OF MARTHA STEWART." Have a good night.
ANDERSON COOPER, CNN HOST: Welcome to THE WHOLE STORY. I'm Anderson Cooper.
(Voice-over): Fifty years ago humpback whales were considered an endangered species after decades of commercial whaling decimated the population. Around that same time scientists learned something extraordinary. Whales were communicating with each other, sometimes by song over long distances. In part because of that discovery scientists and conservationists rallied to enact laws to protect the whales, and it worked.
The humpback whale population has made a remarkable comeback. But now they face a host of new threats. Global warming is killing off their food source and human activity is causing thousands of whale deaths a year. From the stress of underwater construction noise to fishing entanglements and ship collisions.
In the next hour CNN's Bill Weir takes us to Antarctica, a place very few people get to visit, to study these remarkable creatures and show us why saving the whales may also be saving the planet because they are one of our best partners in battling climate change.
BILL WEIR, CNN CHIEF CLIMATE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Those are the songs of humpback whales. Now flying about 15 billion miles away from earth. On the off chance intelligent life out there wants to understand life down here. Before those songs were etched onto golden records and launched on the
"Voyager" probes, they were recorded in 1970. The same year humans listed humpbacks as an endangered species. And the way things were going, it looked like humanity had just sent the galaxy the sound of manmade extinction.
But in the last 50 years humpbacks have made a spectacular comeback. One of the great success stories in the history of conservation. Just in time to face some of the biggest threats of all.
JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: In just the last two months nine whales, nine, have washed up.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Nearly 20 reported up and down the East Coast.
WEIR: And now all species of earth's gentle giants are under enormous stress. Their water overheated by the kind of fossil fuel pollution that floats in the sky and the kind that floats in the sea. To survive they must compete for food with a growing number of krill fishing fleets. They must dodge our relentless supply chains and hide from the last of the whale hunters, who uses harpoons tipped with grenades, and sells the meat as pet food.
What do you say to people who believe that this is a special animal?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's likely a mom and a calf and then a third animal.
WEIR (voice-over): But on the side of the whales are scientists. Eager to venture to the ends of the earth to better understand the entwined futures of man and whale.
From lush and steamy jungles, to Antarctic ice, they follow the migrating humpbacks back and forth. And tonight we'll tag along, starting at the end of the world. Ushuaia, Argentina, the tip of South America and the most popular gateway to southern ice, where we are catching a lift on a boat called the "Ocean Endeavor."
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Good afternoon on board "Ocean Endeavor."
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: In 15 minutes we'll have a briefing in the ocean.
WEIR: Intrepid is the Australian travel company which opened this route in 2023 for the kind of tourist who loves penguins, seals and whales so much they'll risk three days of sea sickness each way just to visit them.
We are getting just a little taste of why it took so long for humanity to discover Antarctica. About 40 years after they discovered the planet Uranus. The Southern Ocean. Look at these. These are, whoo, about 20-foot seas. And this is mild if you're an old salt who sails these waters.
(Voice-over): Catabatic winds can come rushing off the ice sheets at 150 miles an hour, creating storms and seas so lonely the closest humans might be on the International Space Station. But just as quickly the drake passage can turn into the drake lake, which makes for a magical first impression.
You know, some days are more fun to get out of bed than others. Kind of like the morning when you wake up in Antarctica. Look at this. We made it to the bottom of the world.
I'm not a fan of the cliche, but I decided I'm going to describe this place as Alaska on steroids.
DR. ARI FRIEDLAENDER, MARINE ECOLOGIST, UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA SANTA: It's like when you go to Alaska they say there is the glacier.
FRIEDLAENDER: You come here, glaciers don't even have names because there are so many of them.
WEIR: There's one there, there, there.
FRIEDLAENDER: Yes. And it's continuous.
WEIR: There, there.
(Voice-over): It may be the wildest place I've seen on seven continents. And it is a very happy place for Ari Friedlaender, a marine ecologist with the University of California Santa Cruz. He fell in love with this ice and these animals over 25 years ago and has been chasing whales ever since.
FRIEDLAENDER: Did you see something?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I saw something come out of the water but I didn't see what.
FRIEDLAENDER: There he is right under us. There's one under us.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Oh, yes.
WEIR: Oh, my god. No way. Hello. Hello, big boy. Oh, my god.
(Voice-over): This is a minke, the smallest, stealthiest and stinkiest of the Baleen whales and as a result long the safest from whale hunters. That green stuff is a colony of algae called diatoms. And since they get scrubbed off on long migrations it's a clue that this whale has been hanging around out here for a while and we're likely the first humans it has ever encountered.
FRIEDLAENDER: There you go.
WEIR: Holy (EXPLETIVE DELETED).
FRIEDLAENDER: Big one.
WEIR: That was so cool. I think he wanted me to scratch his belly. FRIEDLAENDER: One of the video tags we put on a minke and it goes at a
point straight up and it's just looking at this ice and it sticks its nose up and then just kind of lays down. These big chunks of ice are bouncing off the tag. And then it just sits there, and it just logs in the ice for 10 or 15 minutes. And you'd never know it was there. Except for the few times it would take a breath, it was just completely still and at the same, you know, level as this ice.
We think that these bays and the sea ice offer protection because the killer whales when they go after minkes generally will chase them until they're exhausted and then try and kind of drown them. But they can't really chase them in this environment. Minkes can just hide out, you know, among the icebergs.
FRIEDLAENDER: And probably get away from them.
WEIR (voice-over): While always nice to visit with a stinky minke, this research team is mainly focused on humpbacks, including biologists Natalia Botero-Acosta from Colombia and Chris Johnson, who leads whale and dolphin conservation at the World Wildlife Fund.
CHRIS JOHNSON, GLOBAL LEAD, WHALE AND DOLPHIN CONSERVATION, WORLD WILDLIFE FUND: We've got a special computer on the base of this which allows us to take measurements of its width, its length, and get a health check on the whale.
WEIR: He spent over five years chasing sperm whales around the world with Roger and Katie Payne, who along with Navy engineer Frank Watlington captured the first whale song, released it to the public, and blew humanity's minds.
JOHNSON: It had a massive influence. You know, when we discovered that there was a creature in our oceans that their vocalizations were like songs to us, that broadened everyone's imagination. It really helped form the Save the Whales Movement, which led to the moratorium on commercial whaling in the mid-'80s.
WEIR: Without those recordings these whales might not be here to study. And we are surrounded. Perfect time to see who's healthy, who's hungry, and who's pregnant. With tools that include medieval weaponry.
WEIR: For four days this international team of whale scientists will spend every possible moment on the water, gathering as much data as they can. With cameras on drones to measure the body size of each animal from above and cameras with long lenses to identify individuals.
JOHNSON: Look at the dorsal on that shot. It's not a side on the shot there.
WEIR: By flukes as distinctive as fingerprints.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It has sad face.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Sad face.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Seriously, it has two lines and one arch.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You're looking the wrong way.
WEIR: Oh, yes. It's the sad emoji whales.
(Voice-over): For generations the only way to study whales was to cut up a dead one. But then non-lethal research took hold. And while this may look medieval, one of the biggest breakthroughs is the cross-bow biopsy. Developed by Ari's team at UC Santa Cruz, to measure everything from stress levels and toxins to most importantly --
FRIEDLAENDER: Got it.
WEIR: -- pregnancy rates.
FRIEDLAENDER: Beautiful. Perfect classic sample. That's the blubber layer. The skin will be sort of scaled back up inside this little tip here. We'll put it into that case and keep it sterile until we get back to the boat to process it.
WEIR: Yes. You were telling me that the pregnancy rate is a huge indicator.
FRIEDLAENDER: Absolutely. What else tells you about a population that's growing or shrinking is how many newborns you're putting into the population each year.
FRIEDLAENDER: Will tell if that was a female. If it is a female if she's pregnant or not.
WEIR: It's the first time I've ever seen somebody take a pregnancy test with a cross-bow.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes, you don't get many of those.
FRIEDLAENDER: There may have been some dads that asked for a paternity test with a cross-bow, said you get my daughter pregnant?
WEIR (voice-over): And then there is Ari's other favorite tool.
FRIEDLAENDER: It's got acoustics. It also has video.
WEIR: The underwater whale cam.
FRIEDLAENDER: As well as GPS and VHF. WEIR: The suction cups are designed to hold for a day. A radio
receiver will be used to find it, and with any luck they'll get a whale's eye view like this to better understand how they move, feed, socialize.
FRIEDLAENDER: Good morning. Would you like to participate in our whale research study? I'll take a non-answer as a yes.
I'm just going to put it right in front of the dorsal fin. OK, right to the dorsal fin now. Neutral. Neutral.
WEIR: Maybe they sense that we come in peace. But luck smiles on the team as they biopsy whale after whale, using the drone to measure how fat and healthy they look. And then they hit the jackpot.
Oh, we've got poo?
(Voice-over): Whale stool sample.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You got a good chunk or you want some more?
FRIEDLAENDER: That should be plenty.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Look at that.
FRIEDLAENDER: That's the goal.
WEIR: That's the goal.
FRIEDLAENDER: That is the goal.
WEIR (voice-over): New science finds that when it comes to earth repair whale poo has massive value. You see, when whalers wiped out 95 percent of the Baleen whales we lost the planet's biggest fertilizer pumps. One pod can take important nutrients from deep water and spread them across miles of ocean surface water, feeding the phytoplankton, which feeds the krill, which feeds everything from penguins to seals to whales.
They're the gardeners of the ocean, aren't they?
FRIEDLAENDER: Yes, it's a great point. And instead of thinking of a food chain as going from one end to the other and stopping, it's much more like a circle. And what we found out more recently is that when you have whales in an area they're consuming a huge amount of food and they're also putting back into their environment these essential nutrients that are typically limiting in the ocean.
So they're literally seeding the upper parts of the ocean with the opportunity for plant life to grow, and that's what feeds the whale food. So you're right, in a sense they're basically farmers. They're recycling nutrients. There's more food available to them the more they're around.
WEIR (voice-over): And with the advent of camera drone science is just starting to appreciate that they can also be the ranchers of the sea and round up a cloud of tasty krill with a bubble lasso.
FRIEDLAENDER: It's going to start blowing bubbles out of its blow hole pretty quickly in sequence around that group of krill, and it's going to start making the tightest possible circle. You can see its pectoral flipper, it's rolled over on its right side.
WEIR: It's almost like a machine with the precision.
FRIEDLAENDER: Yes. Like a locomotive. And now watch as it uses its pectoral flipper to actually create the last bit of the bubble net right there.
WEIR: Scooping them in.
FRIEDLAENDER: Yes. And then it opens and closes its mouth. Like a minke whale couldn't do that. A blue whale, a fin whale couldn't do that. These animals are supremely adaptive to be able to create foraging opportunities that are more efficient for themselves.
WEIR: To me this is just as impressive and groundbreaking as realizing chimpanzees use tools.
WEIR: This is tool use.
(Voice-over): When you add up the services they provide by restoring fisheries, helping plankton pull carbon out of the sky, and locking tons of carbon at the bottom of the ocean when they die, recent science puts the value of a single adult whale at around $2 million. It turns out that by saving the whales we're saving ourselves. But there are so many threats to overcome.
WEIR: When in antarctica, do as the whales do, right?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's right. No more (INAUDIBLE).
WEIR (voice-over): To be honest, I wasn't sure what kind of tourist I'd meet on a South Pole cruise with whale scientists.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I did it.
WEIR: You did it.
(Voice-over): Turns out, this kind.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Come on down.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Three, two, one.
WEIR: Wow. It's much worse than you think.
(Voice-over): Steve and Carrie were moved to take a very different kind of polar plunge.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Steve, you are a real gentleman, and I love that you always put me first.
WEIR: Vowing to stay together in sea sickness and in health.
(CHEERS AND APPLAUSE)
WEIR: But on the "Ocean Endeavor" nature is the main event. And the Antarctic Peninsula now draws over 100,000 nature lovers a year.
More people go through JFK airport in a single day. But all it takes is one invasive virus to upset this pristine ecosystem. So we must disinfect every boot and bag before every excursion. We finally get a chance to go ashore and are greeted by thousands of Gentoo penguins.
How can you not love penguins? My little boy is obsessed with penguins. And I'm obsessed with penguins because they walk like my little boy. They're like toddlers on land. And they're so chill and curious. We had a logjam with the passengers on the ship because one penguin was standing in the middle of a trail and you've got to be respectful of the locals. This is their neighborhood. We're visitors.
(Voice-over): But our delight turns to worry as we learn that these birds are building nests for chicks that have no chance of survival. The warming climate brought enough freakish spring snow this year that it delayed nesting season for weeks. Chicks born this late won't have enough time to grow feathers and fat needed to get through winter.
Of course what connects these little guys to the seals and the whales is krill. Little shrimp-like critters that need sea ice to both reproduce and to feed. And the problem is sea ice is going away out here and scientists are really concerned about what that means for the future of these ecosystems.
FRIEDLAENDER: In the first year of life these juvenile krill spend that under winter -- that time in winter underneath the sea ice, and they feed on the microbial and algal communities underneath that sea ice. So the more sea ice you have the more food you have. The less you have the less food you have. There is a ceiling for how much food is available for the whales. And the way that that manifests is in the pregnancy rates.
And so we have a very good understanding now that when you have a poor sea ice year the following year you're going to have lower reproductive rates, which means that there isn't enough food because in good ice years the reproductive rates are very high.
WEIR: And to gather as much fertility data as possible the Colombian member of the team, Natalia Botero Acosta --
(Voice-over): -- lives by the creed half crossbow, will travel, because humpbacks have the longest migration routes of any mammal. From the icy poles to the steamy tropics and back. Rinse and repeat. A whale nicknamed Frodo for his wandering ways has been spotted from Mexico to Russia to the Mariana islands and holds the record for a one-way trip of nearly 7,000 miles.
Meanwhile, most of the whales we met come up from the bottom of the world to the top of South America to mate and make whale babies along the Pacific Coast. The team tells me there's decent data out of Ecuador, Panama and Costa Rica. But armed guerrillas and drug cartels help make the Colombian coast a black hole for marine science for a long time. That is, until 2009 when Natalia found a jungle village called Coqui. Then she told folks she needed a place to study. The object of local fear and fascination.
NATALIA BOTERA-ACOSTA, DIRECTOR, FUNDACION MACUATICOS COLOMBIA: Thirty years ago they were terrified of whales. Like they were really scared. When they were fishing and saw a whale, back to town. Yes, they were really scared.
WEIR: Whale watching tourism began to shift that perception in the '90s. Then Natalia arrived and asked if she could set up a lab. Oh, and could she store blubber samples in the restaurant freezer? Yes. They welcomed her like family.
BOTERA-ACOSTA: When I first came here, even people from my hometown had no idea this place existed, like why was it important? Now less than a month ago it was designated as a biosphere reserve by UNESCO. But it has always been an aspect that I think a lot of people find fascinating, especially the kids, to like tell them like they're Colombian just like you and me. Yes, I think --
WEIR: They were born right over there. You can see it from your house.
BOTERA-ACOSTA: Yes. Yes.
WEIR (voice-over): She's seen the same whale in both places, which means she's seen the same whales act as differently as couch potatoes and spring breakers.
BOTERA-ACOSTA: It's a 100 percent difference. So in Antarctica when we saw the whales, you know, like sleeping and eating. It was very chill. Like you can approach a whale and like you see them sleeping and he's like logging like super near to the surface, very quiet.
Here they're very active. A bunch of males, 10, 12 males following a female and competing, you know, for that female, who's allegedly receptive.
WEIR: But these days scientists aren't just exploring whale bodies with cross-bow biopsies or beached whale necropsies. They're also trying to get into their minds with hydrophones and artificial intelligence.
BOTERA-ACOSTA: And that's like real time.
WEIR: This is live.
BOTERA-ACOSTA: Yes. There are some units that are called Gloop, or the nickname is G\loop. Because it's literally like gloop, gloop. We know that only males sing.
WEIR: Only males sing?
BOTERA-ACOSTA: Yes. And of course like the initial hypothesis was, well, it's to attract the females. Sort of like making a parallel with birds. But then that hypothesis has very little evidence behind it. So there's this whole different set of hypotheses. They serve like a mechanism for males to interact with each other and maybe arrange those competitive groups. That it's a mechanism for sort of like orienting themselves spatially, that it can provoke --
WEIR: Spatially. Like --
WEIR: I'm over here, you stay over there?
BOTERA-ACOSTA: Kind of, yes. Like establishing a territory. That it can promote ovulation for females. It's a whole different, you know, and it's also something amazing because people started realizing that these whales sing back in the '70s. It's been decades of studying song, but still a bit of a mystery.
WEIR: They're trying to translate what they're saying.
WEIR (voice-over): After sending the song of the humpback whale into space, how long before we understand the lyrics?
WEIR: If you head up the California coast or just Monterey Bay and take a right at the skeleton of earth's all-time heavyweight champion, you will find a whale of a database.
FRIEDLAENDER: Our biopsy data set is about 2500 animals at this point.
WEIR: A blubber base, as it were.
FRIEDLAENDER: Every sample comes back. It gets sort of labeled from the location as well as the species. So Antarctic Peninsula, 2019 season.
WEIR: The mascot of the University of California Santa Cruz is a banana slug. But I argue they should change it to the fighting humpback.
FRIEDLAENDER: We've got our biopsy, cross-bow armory over here.
WEIR: Oh, yes. Look at this.
FRIEDLAENDER: Yes. That's -- everybody's got their favorites. You know, we've got Goldilocks and the Vixen and the camo. They've got names.
WEIR (voice-over): Here you learn that whale scientists have to start by improvising their own tools.
FRIEDLAENDER: We now have a pregnancy test thanks to him.
WEIR: You invented the pregnancy test.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes.
WEIR: That's very cool.
FRIEDLAENDER: This is where these samples become numbers and become valuable data for us in terms of how healthy are animals, how much are they reproducing.
LOGAN PALLIN, POSTDOCTORAL RESEARCHER, UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA SANTA CRUZ: These are Antarctic samples, Antarctic humpback samples. You take a little bit of skin from them and learn so much are about them.
FRIEDLAENDER: The value of having been able to work with Logan for this long is like we've got 12, 15 years of data from the same species and the same place that we can now say with, you know, certainty these trends are occurring.
WEIR (voice-over): This is also where they analyze the whale cam video and telemetry data that comes from those suction cup tags.
Can you remember the first time you saw a whale cam of any kind? What was it like?
FRIEDLAENDER: 2009 we put a critter cam on a humpback whale in the Antarctic. And we turned the lights off when we got it back and we just like pushed play and we're like holy crap. And I remember it very clearly. And I was just like this just changed everything. You know? Like now we're seeing what the whale sees. Now we know why the whale is doing these things.
WEIR (voice-over): And now artificial intelligence is helping them spot patterns human eyes could never see.
FRIEDLAENDER: For example, when we look at those tags, we can analyze the data in a way that tells us like generally is the whale feeding. Is it traveling? Is it sleeping? These very broad behavioral states. But what we can do with AI is give those data to a programmer, have a computer go through those and find more repeated patterns and show us, hey, this thing found 16 different types of behavioral states whereas we thought there were three or four.
WEIR: Other scientists around the world are trying to use AI to interpret the bloops we heard with Natalia.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Splashdown.
WEIR: The Templeton Foundation funded this project in Alaska where a team from the university of California Davis and the Whale SETI Institute had a 20-minute conversation with a humpback.
First the science team played a whale call recorded in the same spot the day before.
DR. FRED SHARPE, WHALE BIOLOGIST, TEMPLETON WHALE-SETI TEAM: The first is a call called a thrup call. Thrup. It's a real basic signal the humpbacks use.
WEIR: Then a female known as twain responded 36 times. Matching the intervals and even waiting for responses from the boat. Twain's thrups appear to be local messages. But humpback song can travel hundreds of miles. Adding the dimensions of time and space to their language.
Meanwhile, Chris Johnson was part of a team that studied sperm whales, the big-toothed Moby Dick species that hunts giant squid instead of krill. They discovered that these guys communicate in regional dialects.
Can we think about it like Americans have different accents and dialects?
WEIR: Sperm whales have the same --
JOHNSON: Yes. They're part of the same country but, you know, you may find southern accents around this broad area from Texas to North Carolina and this more kind of general accent may be in Massachusetts and California. You know, it is similar to that. But what we're finding, say, in the Pacific and what we're doing in the Indian Ocean, some are really local. But some span the entire ocean.
And so we don't know what that means. We don't even know how -- what we're going to do with conservation. But it's incredibly exciting, these discoveries, that we continually make.
WEIR: If you could interview one of your subjects, what would you want to know? What would you want to ask a whale if you could?
FRIEDLAENDER: I'd probably ask, are you OK? I mean, first question. How are you doing? You all right?
WEIR: How are you doing?
FRIEDLAENDER: Oh, yes. I'd say sorry, right? If I could say one thing to a whale, I'd say sorry. And I work with a couple of these projects that are trying to use AI to understand the context and the meaning to animal communication, and I think I draw a line somewhere before then of I don't have a need to talk to a whale. I don't have a desire to do it. Personally, I don't know that it's appropriate. You know?
I think there are some limits to how and what we should engage with with animals. The whale shouldn't have to tell us these are the things you're doing to screw us, right? So I think --
WEIR: Wish you made a list of what --
FRIEDLAENDER: Exactly. We know what the problem is. I don't need a whale to tell me what the problems are.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Wow.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Oh, my god. Whoo-hoo!
WEIR (voice-over): Thanks to social media, we have an ever-growing video library of our biggest planetary neighbors.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: That was so cool. Did you get that? Please tell me you got it.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I (EXPLETIVE DELETED) got it on video.
WEIR: Type in hashtag whale, and one can scroll through the organic joy that comes in seeing them thrive.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Oh, my gosh.
WEIR: And the grim sadness that follows every time a carcass washes ashore. Two emotions easy to exploit for political points.
DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Windmills are causing whales to die in numbers never seen before. Nobody does anything about that.
WEIR: When we come back, a quest to understand what's really killing these whales.
WEIR: A century after whale hunters roamed the seas, Japan, Norway and Iceland are the only whaling nations left. And these days their most common target is the friendly little minke.
You say they were hunted last because they're the small little guys.
FRIEDLAENDER: Yes, they live in a habitat where, you know, it's hard to get to and the smaller whale is not worth nearly as much. But what they lack in commercial value they are incredibly emblematic of the sea ice ecosystem and the things that are changing here.
WEIR (voice-over): After a global whaling ban, diplomatic outrage, international lawsuits and the harassment of activists like Sea Shepherd, Japan stopped hunting big whales about a decade ago and lowered their quota from 1,000 to 333 minkes a year. In the so-called whale wars Sea Shepherd briefly surrendered in 2017, saying they could no longer compete with Japan's upgraded fleet and military-grade technology. But last year Sea Shepherd also upgraded with a new ship and is headed back to Antarctica on a new mission.
Meanwhile, up in Iceland, where whale watching has its own economy and tastes for pickled blubber are changing, the tiny nation of Vikings is down to their last whaler. A man we visited in 2015 just as he was bringing in his day's catch. And fair warning, you may find some of these images difficult to watch.
And that's the harpoon -- that's the gun at the front.
CHRISTIAN LAWSON, FIN WHALE HUNTER: This is the gun where you have to load the harpoon with the harpoon and then you screw the grenade on the front. That explodes inside. There is nothing in the gun now, you see.
WEIR: Christian Lawson is the heir to a family business that over the years has killed over 15,000 fin whales.
Wow. There's two of them.
LAWSON: Two fin whales, yes.
WEIR (voice-over): Back then Iceland decided they had enough of this animal in their waters to kill around 150 a year and in 2023 his two boats harpooned two dozen.
But as one of the richest men in Iceland he is not in this for the money. A disturbing amount of this whale will be shipped to Japan and sold as pet food. And he relishes the comparisons to Captain Ahab, the monomaniacal whaler in "Moby Dick."
What do you say to people who are watching this in America and other countries and they're just mortified because they believe that this is a special animal?
LAWSON: All animals are special. You know. Whale is no different to moose or deer to me. You know, you shoot them in the U.S.
FRIEDLAENDER: Pride comes before the fall, man.
JOHNSON: I mean, a lot of emotion on that. I see a dying industry when I see this.
WEIR: That just must piss you off. FRIEDLAENDER: Yes. The step that is challenging for me to take is to
tell somebody else what to do and what not to do based on their culture. You know, are my beliefs more important than his or better than his? I don't want to see any whales killed. I don't think it's necessary. I think it's unnecessary. Even if the only reason you're doing it is because your parents did it, your father did it, your grandfather did it, like I'm not going to tell him it's wrong to think that but I think it's wrong to do that. You know. And it's sad.
But like Chris said, it is a dying industry. I mean, when you can talk to a single person that is the industry, it's not like you had to -- you know, it's not like there's 20 ships going out there or 100 ships. It's a single person. At least you can identify that. But it's so unnecessary.
WEIR (voice-over): But while whales may be safer from harpoons these days, they now must compete with humans for their main source of food. Krill is sold around the world as an Omega-3 supplement as well as food for pets and fish farms. Last year a fleet of industrial trawlers was recorded charging into a pod of feeding fin whales in the Southern Ocean. It is rare proof of a hugely controversial practice that while legal inspired Greenpeace activists to lash themselves to the anchor of a krill trawler in 2018.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You have 10 minutes. After that I make my speed full ahead, full ahead.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Slow down and give us a chance to remove our people.
WEIR: They only relented after the captain warned he was about to take them into the high seas at full steam. But Sea Shepherd has now made krill trawlers their target and will spend this season tracking them across the Southern Ocean.
JOHNSON: This is Antarctic krill fishing on the Antarctic Peninsula. And we're seeing evidence of growing bycatch of the fishery of humpback whales. But we're also seeing the fishery setting on humpback whales, as well, which is a major concern to us. And right now there aren't rules against that. So this evidence is crucial.
WEIR: Is there a movement toward whale-safe fishing the way there was for dolphin-safe tuna? Is that a possibility?
JOHNSON: It is. It's going to take a lot of work, a lot of creative people coming together and a lot of money. With North Atlantic Right Whales 85 percent have been getting entangled in lobster gear and right now we have a technology called on-demand fishing. Unfortunately, right whales are very curious and they get entangled in these end lines. What on-demand fishing does, it removes that line. So whales won't get entangled in it.
And you have this technology where it releases a sack of air, it brings the pod to the surface or a whole serious of pods, and it's just triggered by an acoustic device by a fisherman, and that fisherman can see on an iPad the location of their gear on the bottom of the sea.
WEIR (voice-over): Since 2017 the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says that 12 out of 122 recorded cases of whale deaths or serious injuries on the Atlantic Coast were due to ship strikes. So Chris Johnson and his colleagues at the World Wildlife Fund also lobby for the protection of migration paths they call blue corridors. And he helped convince MSC, the world's biggest mover of shipping containers, to voluntarily alter their routes around migrating whales.
JOHNSON: Research shows moving a shipping lane 15 nautical miles south, it's the biggest most busy shipping lane between Asia and Europe, will reduce ship strikes by 80 percent.
WEIR: Sadly, dead whales have been in the news on the East Coast of the United States, and that it gins up all kinds of arguments over the causes of those sorts of things. What do you take -- what's your takeaway from what's happening there?
FRIEDLAENDER: It's hard to disentangle, for lack of a better word, when you have whales and when you have people together in our human activities that whales don't end up dead. You know, increases in shipping traffic we know lead to more strikes. Increases in fishing effort lead to more entanglement. The fact that those animals are all in one small place might indicate that, you know, those are animals that are feeding at that time of year.
Maybe that's the only place that food exists. And if that happens to co-occur with -- right in the Chesapeake Bay where there's massive shipping lanes or, you know, up in an area where there's a lot of, you know, net fishing or line fishing, it's really unreasonable to think those animals aren't going to engage or interact in that way.
WEIR (voice-over): After NOAA recommended a seasonal speed limit for certain ships in certain spots, former President Trump turned it into a campaign issue in South Carolina.
TRUMP: We were just discussing it with a lot of boat companies back there that create a lot of jobs and are having a hard time. With a boat speed limit of less than 11 miles an hour, about 10 miles an hour, in other words, like a slow golf cart.
WEIR: And then he shifted the blame to the development of offshore wind power, an industry still in its American infancy.
TRUMP: I saw it this weekend, three of them came up. They wouldn't -- you wouldn't see it once a year. Now they're coming up on a weekly basis. The windmills are driving them crazy. They're driving -- they're driving the whales I think a little batty.
FRIEDLAENDER: Yes, I don't think a windmill can kill a whale, to be honest. I think the relationship that we should examine is as you're building these wind farms the amount of ship traffic that's going out, you know, to and from shore is likely to increase the amount of ship traffic, but in a very localized area. The disturbance from putting in the pilings probably affects animals
in that area, but probably the animals will just leave that area. And then to me once a wind farm is in it's just a passive obstruction in the environment that's not going to impact a whale. So I don't quite see the logic, you know, right now about how wind farm development is impacting animals.
WEIR: And ultimately, it is the ice melted by fossil fuel pollution that could hurt all of these creatures most of all. Some faster than others. Those Gentoo penguins we spotted upon arrival, well, despite the overheating planet turns out they are thriving thanks to their willingness to adapt. While some penguin species refuse to move their nests and are dying out, Gentoos have been rolling with the changes and numbers have exploded.
FRIEDLAENDER: We think of humpbacks as being the Gentoo penguins. We see them everywhere. They live in urban environments. They migrate all over the planet. They're in every ocean in the world. That's the most adaptable species of whale that we think is out there. If anything can overcome an issue it's going to be a humpback whale. So when we see it in a species that we know is supremely adapted to take advantage of a lot of different situations when that animal gets stressed that's a concern.
What's happening now is that you're getting more and more bad ice years consecutively and fewer good ice years. Krill has a limit. Sea ice has a limit. And we've kind of -- we've gone over that tipping point to where things are now limited in this population. You can't evolve or adapt quicker than nature is changing.
WEIR: But there was one sign of human hope on our voyage. As Chris got word of the passage of humanity's first Global Oceans Treaty.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The breakthrough, which covers nearly two-thirds of the ocean, marks the culmination of nearly two decades of work.
WEIR: Nearly 70 countries have signed it. And if at least 60 ratify it back home, it could set the framework to protect 30 percent of the oceans by 2030, including blue corridors.
JOHNSON: The Global Oceans Treaty is so significant to us. The high seas are 60 percent of our oceans. This is -- you know, we've always referred to it as the tragedy of the commons. It's the area where it's lawless. You know --
WEIR: Nobody owns it, so nobody takes care of it.
JOHNSON: That's right. Nobody owns it, nobody takes care of this. So to have a framework to be able to implement law around protected areas, around the impacts that we have on our ocean, about the things that we do, that's the first step for us to really have benefit and protect our oceans for a long time.
WEIR (voice-over): I left this place wondering. Can the relationship between man and whale evolve in time to save both species?
WEIR: Yes. Nice shot.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Nicely done.
WEIR (voice-over): Too soon to tell. But the next time you're near an ocean spare a thought for the gentle giants. Somewhere out there farming the seas and singing their songs. Consider the countless human choices that led to the comeback of the humpback. And just how much they could still teach us about life on earth.