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a sobering message drowned by the action-film editing



Last year a sei whale was beached in Fife, Scotland. What it was doing there, hundreds of miles off course, was a mystery. But such strandings are increasingly common, according to What Killed the Whale? (Channel 4) around 100 cases are reported in the UK each year, a figure that has doubled in the past decade, and the pattern is being repeated around the world.

To find out what killed this particular animal, presenter Dr Ella Al-Shamahi took part in a whale autopsy. This is actually the second whale autopsy that Channel 4 has broadcast, after 2009’s Inside Nature’s Giants. I guess they’re a ratings winner.

In scenes not to be viewed while eating your TV dinner, the animal was sliced and diced before our eyes, its intestines (more than 70 metres of them) strung out across the beach. “The smell is something,” said Al-Shamahi, with what I suspect was some understatement. The presenter is listed in National Geographic’s explorer directory as a stand-up comic, in addition to being a paleoanthropologist and archaeologist. Fortunately, she steered clear of jokes here.

With two marine experts, Dr Andrew Brownlow and Rob Deaville, Al-Shamahi talked us through the dangers facing whales as a result of human industry. They can be entangled in fishing gear or hit by ships. They ingest pollutants. And they can be pushed out of their normal habitat by noise pollution, such as military sonar or marine traffic. 

All of this was sobering stuff, well-explained by the experts. But the producers did not have the confidence to leave it at that. They deployed the full range of tricks: a near-permanent soundtrack of dramatic music, datelines ticking across the screen, and cliffhanger moments leading into each ad break (there were a lot of ad breaks). I can only assume that the programme-makers want a young, environmentally-conscious audience to watch this, and worry their attention will wander unless the information is dressed up like The Bourne Identity.

In the end, they weren’t quite sure what killed this particular whale, although it was suffering from malnutrition and had a weakened immune system. Al-Shamahi had a simple answer as to the cause of death: “It’s me and it’s you.”



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