PRODUCTION NOTES for CALL OF THE BABY BELUGA
by Suzanne Chisholm and Michael Parfit, Co-directors
The relationship between humans and whales is amazing story of both death and and love. We’ve always been fascinated by that story and the complex social animals at its heart. We spent several years documenting the story of Luna, a solitary orca on Canada’s west coast, and our filmmaking work over the past fifteen years has focused on the human relationship to our planet.
All whale species worldwide have been impacted to some extent by human activities, but perhaps none more so than the belugas who live in the St. Lawrence River, Canada’s busiest waterway. A story about the endangered beluga whales of the St. Lawrence was a natural one for us, so we pitched it to CBC’s flagship nature program, The Nature of Things.
With support from the Canada Media Fund, we did some preliminary work on the film in the summer of 2014. Michael and I are a two-person film crew. (And we happen to be married to each other). We loaded our cameras, camping gear and toddler son Christopher into our single-engine Cessna 182, and flew from our home on a tiny off-grid island in British Columbia to Tadoussac, Quebec.
In Tadoussac, we met with Robert Michaud, the scientific director of GREMM (Group for Research and Education of Marine Mammals). Robert has been studying this population since 1983. He took us out on his research boat, the Bleuvet (named for the French word for a yearling beluga calf, which is often bluish in colour) and we had the good fortune to see belugas almost right away.
Most Canadians don’t realize that the St. Lawrence River’s estuary offers some of the best whale-watching opportunities in the world. It’s a unique ecosystem, and it is literally the only place on the planet where you can see both belugas (an arctic species) and blue whales (who usually like warm water) in the same place, at the same time.
We didn’t see any blue whales, but we saw lots of white ones. Belugas are adapted for arctic living, so it’s strange that these whales are here at all. They are leftover relics from the Ice Age, and they have found an abundance of food here because of an unusual upwelling of cold water, created by strange underwater topography, which creates ideal conditions for marine life.
Once there were about 10,000 belugas here, but hunting, pollution, and environmental changes in the ecosystem have left just 900 survivors. There are many striking things about this group of belugas, but most troubling is the fact that despite the end of hunting and a cleanup of many of the contaminants in the river over the past few decades, the latest research shows that the population is declining.
Public appreciation for the belugas has grown exponentially since the days when they were hunted, but the belugas’ greatest allies are the dedicated scientists and conservationists who are working diligently to protect them. Thankfully, much of the belugas’ critical habitat is now protected via the efforts of the Saguenay-St. Lawrence Marine Park.
In addition to our warm welcome from Robert and the GREMM team, we enjoyed excellent cooperation from the Saguenay-St. Lawrence Marine Park personnel, who provided us with filming permits. We spent a couple of weeks in the summer and fall filming and interviewing scientists like Robert Michaud from GREMM, Nadia Ménard from the Marine Park, Véronique Lesage from Fisheries and Oceans, and Stéphane Lair from the University of Montreal. We then we produced a full proposal and short demo reel for The Nature of Things. By December, 2014, the project was greenlit for production. We were Quebec-bound.
Our experience in the past — with film, books and magazine articles — has shown us that spending lots of time in the field is vital to capturing the essence of a story. This is of especially true with filmmaking, when having the right footage is crucial, but it’s also true in a general sense: you can’t just go to a place for a few days and expect to get to know all the people and issues. And this beluga story involved not only people, but whales, landscapes and issues that were not necessarily simple or straightforward.
We knew we wanted to be based in Tadoussac for most of the scientists’ research seasons, but since Tadoussac is a very popular destination with tourists – and thus short of summer accommodations – we instead rented a house in nearby Sacré-Coeur for five months in the summer and fall of 2015. We had a few trips to the area for winter filming, house-hunting, and a spring trip to interview key characters like Dr. Véronique Lesage on Ile-aux Lièvres and Dr. Pierre Béland in Rimouski. Finally, in June, 2015, we arrived in Tadoussac with our car (driven all the way from British Columbia), toddler, dog, and special filming permit from the Saguenay-St. Lawrence Marine Park. We were ready to stay.
Of course, in documentary filmmaking in general, and wildlife filmmaking in particular, things often don’t go exactly as planned. Two days after we arrived in Quebec, we found ourselves heading even further East: to Liverpool, Nova Scotia, to cover the story of a young beluga who had shown up in the harbor, alone. Robert Michaud and his team were interested in identifying the young solo wanderer. Was this whale from the endangered St. Lawrence group, or perhaps from the Arctic?
We loaded our car (again) with cameras, toddler and dog, and this time we were also carrying a specialized cross-bow from Robert’s team, which could help researchers in Nova Scotia collect a biopsy of the lone beluga. We arrived in Liverpool just in time to accompany the team from Marine Animal Response Society out on the water. It turned out that the little beluga went right up to the boat, so the team didn’t even need the cross-bow.
It also turned out that after genetic testing done by Dr. Tim Frasier at St. Mary’s University in Halifax, the wayward whale was identified as a St. Lawrence whale.
In Liverpool we filmed Catherine Kinsman of the Whale Stewardship project, who has worked with solitary belugas since 1998. There are management issues associated with these so-called “solitary sociable” but to us, one of the most fascinating things is the underlying mystery: why do some belugas venture so far from their home and families?
We headed back to Quebec. In early July, the third member of our team arrived for the summer: David Parfit. David is Michael’s son, and he handles our location sound, music composition, and also some of the filming, including most time-lapse photography. Our team spent the days filming Robert and his team as they ventured out daily on the water on the Bleuvet. We also spent time on the Parks Canada research vessel, the Alliance, filming the work of ecologist Nadia Ménard and her team.
One of the most unexpected – and dominant – features of our filming was the use of drones. Drones, or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) are a relatively new thing in the filmmaker’s arsenal. They allow for filming from the air, and besides the new visual perspective these small flying cameras provide, they are also an unprecedented tool for observing and researching wildlife.
Michael and David made many early-morning drone-filming trips to Pointe-Noire, where the Saguenay River flows into the vast St. Lawrence estuary, and where belugas love to hang out. Michael piloted the drone, and David quickly became drone-catcher extraordinaire. They also brought the drone on all the trips on Robert’s research vessel, capturing footage that showed behavior of belugas that even Robert, in his 30 years of working closely with these animals, had not seen before.
Michael is an accomplished pilot (he has flown more than 7,000 hours) and although the skills required for drone operation are not identical to those required for flying a small plane, the caution, focus, and understanding of flight principles are vital. It’s also crucial to be considerate of other people, and most of all, to exercise extreme care while flying the drone in the vicinity of any animals.
Our filming permit from the Park specified certain restrictions, which we followed very carefully; we can say with sincerity that the presence of the drone did not seem to negatively impact the belugas – or park visitors. Many of our shots were taken from directly above the belugas, and they never seemed to even notice the drone, even when it was relatively close. If we consider how belugas could have reacted to a low-flying helicopter, it’s clear to us that drones will be an increasingly important tool, not only for filmmakers, but for the researchers – like those portrayed in our film – whose ongoing work is the only hope for the survival of this fragile population.
Belugas are an arctic species. Travelling to the Arctic was a natural part of making this film, especially because some fascinating beluga research is happening right now, in a remote place in Nunavut called Cunningham Inlet. Dr. Valeria Vergara, a research scientist from Vancouver Aquarium, is studying the vital contact call that beluga calves and their mothers use to communicate with each other. For the past couple of summers, she’s worked in the pristine Arctic, recording and studying beluga vocalizations. In mid-July, Michael and David flew from Quebec to Nunavut to film Valeria’s groundbreaking work. They stayed for a week at Arctic Watch, and filmed hundreds of belugas from Valeria’s land-based research station.
One of our personal goals when we film wildlife is to be non-invasive and respectful of their habitat; that often means making a deliberate choice to not pursue shots that might otherwise be cool. Again, the drone proved invaluable, as it allowed us to record Valeria’s work without disturbing her research subjects. Her research is an important part of our film, especially because the following month, she came to Tadoussac to work on a pilot project with Robert Michaud.
AND SOUTH AGAIN
Michael and David returned to Quebec with amazing footage, which we started cataloguing right away. We had our production office set up in the sprawling basement of our rental house in rural Sacré-Coeur. With several computers and dozens of hard drives humming away, film editing is a different world than it used to be when you captured footage from video tape.
Evenings were spent in the office, and days were spent out on the water, or hiking out to beautiful Baie-Ste-Marguerite, a small bay about 25 km up the Saguenay Fjord from Tadoussac, where belugas congregate and tend to stay for extended periods of time. To access the bay from land, you have to hike about 3 kilometres along a well-maintained trail. The trail leads to the Halte de Beluga, an observation platform where naturalists from SEPAQ (Quebec’s provincial park system) are stationed for the summer. At the overlook, visitors can watch the belugas from land in a completely non-invasive manner.
Lugging all our camera equipment out on the trail became a chore, so the hefty jogging stroller that used to carry Christopher (our 3 ½ year old) soon became a work-horse for hauling cameras, tripods, drones, and batteries out to the Halte de Beluga. (Christopher, meanwhile, proved capable of doing the hike on his own two feet and on his tiny bicycle.)
The month of August saw many visitors to Tadoussac. We hosted Valeria Vergara, who flew from Vancouver with her daughter Martina. It was fascinating to film Valeria’s acoustic work with Robert. We were also pleased to meet Leone Pippard, who travelled from New Brunswick to talk about her groundbreaking beluga work, which dated back to the 1970s, when she first arrived in Tadoussac in a funky camper. Leone was instrumental in raising awareness of belugas. She helped get them on the endangered species list, and perhaps most importantly, she pushed for the creation of a park to protect critical habitat. Leone maintains a good friendship with Robert, more than thirty years after first meeting him.
We realized, after watching Leone and Robert meet up with each other at Pointe Noire, that this story of the St. Lawrence belugas is one of longstanding collaboration and cooperation between the many human players, and is characterized by persistence and passion. We soon came to think of this group of scientists and conservationists as superheroes, each fighting long odds, in their own way, for the survival of these urban whales, the belugas.
One sunny day in August, while Michael and David were out on the boat with Robert Michaud and his team, and I was in the office doing mundane producer paperwork, I got a phone call. A dead beluga had just washed ashore at Les Escoumins, about a 45-minute drive away. I loaded my cameras, and drove to Les Escoumins, arriving just before Robert and the guys arrived by boat.
The dead beluga was a female, and her carcass looked perfect; she was obviously young. She would be taken the following morning to the necropsy lab at the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine at the Université de Montréal, where Dr. Stéphane Lair would determine the cause of her death. This was an important part of the story, so we decided that Michael and David would go and film the necropsy. As it would happen, the necropsy was scheduled for the evening of Michael’s and my 20th wedding anniversary, so we didn’t exactly have a fancy dinner with champagne.
August vanished, and with the onset of September, David had to return to British Columbia, but Michael and I were not ready to leave. We extended our house rental into October. In September we spent several days out on the water filming Véronique Lesage, who works with a team from GREMM to collect beluga skin samples. The samples help Veronique analyze beluga pregnancy rates and beluga diets, and some of the samples are sent to Tim Frasier’s genetics lab in Halifax, Nova Scotia, for further analysis.
The results of Veronique’s study won’t be available before our broadcast, but her ongoing work reminds us that the process of science is slow and tedious. Robert and Veronique also started a project to attach satellite tags to belugas, to try to find out their winter range; unfortunately, none of the tags stayed on the whales long enough to record the belugas’ winter travels – another reminder of the difficulty of working with wide-ranging wild cetaceans.
By October, it was time to say au revoir to Quebec and make a beeline home to British Columbia, where we would finish the film. We all left a piece of our hearts in Quebec. We loved being there, and we all got very attached to the mighty and magnificent St. Lawrence River, its people, and its animals.