Sidney filmmakers debut doc on endangered Beluga whales

Sidney-based film directors Michael Parfit and Suzanne Chisholm will debut their Call of the Baby Beluga on CBC’s The Nature of Things.

Sidney filmmakers Michael Parfit and Suzanne Chisholm used drones to capture images like these of Beluga whales in formation in the St. Lawrence River.

Sidney-based film directors and producers Michael Parfit and Suzanne Chisholm will debut their Call of the Baby Beluga tomorrow night on CBC’s The Nature of Things. The husband and wife team have worked hard on their one-hour documentary about endangered beluga whales of the St. Lawrence River.

The two are known for their award-winning film, Saving Luna, which came out in 2008. It was about an Orca named Luna on Vancouver Island who got separated from his pod and tried to befriend people on the west coast. The film was a feature film shown in theatres around the world and on television in around 40 countries.

Their new film begins with a baby Beluga whale washed up on a beach, with scientists deciding to try and save it — which Parfit says usually doesn’t work. Following the efforts of several Canadian scientists and conservationists, the film shows how the fate of one orphaned baby Beluga rests in the hands of those who populate this land.

Parfit said the film really keeps the viewer hooked on wondering what will happen with the little baby Beluga.

So why this fascination with these creatures?

“We’ve done these kinds of stories for a long time. We’re very interested in the whole relationship between people and the natural world,” said Chisholm.

Owners of Mountainside Films, the two have done human culture stories and some environmental issues, which have taken them to all seven continents. In terms of the directing process, the two travelled to the St. Lawrence River, Canada’s busiest waterway, for four to five months and went out on boats with different researchers.

“The key was the drone,” said Parfit. “We were very worried about how we were going to film the Belugas before we started and after we started.”

He added because the water is really murky, there are times one can see only a metre into the water, which presented a challenge for them to actually see the whales. He said they are also an endangered species and very skittish.

To help overcome the challenge, they were able to use small drones.

“We were able to fly over the Belugas and they paid no attention at all,” said Parfit.

The drone itself however was a challenge on its own to fly.

He and their son David, who does the music in the film, had to team up to work with the drone — David acting as the catcher as they had to launch it off the boat.

The drones have a built-in homing system, from which they get a signal on a GPS. When it takes off, the crew records where they are. If they get low on battery power or if they lose the signal, which was not uncommon, they just go back to where they came from. Parfit said that is fine on land, but not so much on a boat.

“So every day we flew the drone. When the drone is in the air, you’re not having a good time, you’re just really focussed.”

“It’s very stressful,” added Chisholm.

Another challenge was one typical of wildlife photography: the scheduling.

“You can’t tell wildlife when to be where,” Parfit said. “So we would go places carrying a drone day after day after day and there wouldn’t be any whales there, and that’s just what you do.”

Close-up shots of the Belugas were captured by luck . They are very curious creatures, said the filmmakers, sometimes coming up to the boats.

With what was once more than 10,000 Belugas in the St. Lawrence, hunting, contaminants, cancer and more negative effects have left only 900 survivors to date, according to the filmmakers.

Parfit said there has been a clean up of the Great Lakes and rates of cancer dramatically decreased, which he said is a good news part of the film.

“It’s not a gloom and doom film. It’s really interesting,” he said. “The other piece of the puzzle we try to show a lot in the film is the sort of commitment of these scientists.

“They’re basically accepting the fact that they aren’t going to know whether what they are doing is successful, but they’re still pouring their lifes’ work into trying to figure out why these animals are not recovering so that they can maybe help them survive.”

Chisholm said one of the interesting things they’ve noticed is in the last 30 to 40 years, the human attitude towards whales has changed greatly, with people really studying them or taking part in activities to just see a fin.

“People worldwide are realizing these are intelligent social animals who have a lot of behaviours that are kind of like ours,” she said, adding the thing about the St. Lawrence Belugas is people want to protect them.

“And we, as humans, are trying to find what it is they need,” she continued, saying scientists are all working to try to identify what it is they need to thrive, as they have a tremendous value to the whole ecosystem.

“And in some ways, it does give you hope that human beings can adapt to the needs of the planet because you’re seeing how people are making decisions.”

The film will also be streaming on CBC.ca/natureofthings.