Ocean Watch

Susan Scott

It’s the right whale
for Hollywood

WARNING TO READERS: Today's column discusses some plot points of the movie "Whale Rider." You may not want to read this until after you've seen it.

Last week, I saw the new film "Whale Rider," a New Zealand production about the traditional spiritual life of a modern Maori family. The story is based on an ancient Maori myth. The critics loved it, but it irritated me.

"What kind of whale do you think that is?" I whispered to my husband after the first underwater shot of a whale. Its stubby pectoral fins looked like paddles, and it had no dorsal fin. The animal reminded me of a giant manatee.

"Right whale, I think" he said.

I didn't know right whales visited New Zealand, but since he lived there once, I gave it to him -- at least until I got home and looked it up.

He was correct. Southern right whales, so named because they were once the right whales to kill, breed near shore off New Zealand, as well as off Argentina and other locations.

And breed they do. Females often mate with one male after another and sometimes with two simultaneously. A ménage-a-trois among 200,000-pound whales is a little hard to picture, but these animals are equipped for it: Right whales have extremely long penises and their testes are the largest in the animal kingdom. A pair weighs about 1 ton.

Right whales also mate year-round. Since calves are born only in winter after a 12-month gestation period, this leads to speculation that mating among right whales is often "social in nature."

But back to "Whale Rider." Right whales are baleen whales, meaning they sift plankton from the water with baleen plates in their mouths. So when the movie repeatedly features dreamy footage of right whales, and then makes a big deal about a whale-tooth necklace, I raised an eyebrow.

"Right whales don't have teeth," I whispered.

"They didn't say the tooth was from a right whale," my husband said.

"They implied it."

He sighed.

I shut up.

But when a character climbed onto an enormous beached whale, and the two of them charged out and saved a whole beach full of stranded pod mates, it was too much for both of us.

My husband and I stared at each other.

"This wasn't meant to take literally," he said.

"I know, but still. Baleen whales aren't even group stranders."

The whales that strand themselves are the ones with teeth. Pilot whales do it most often, followed by false killer whales and sperm whales.

When baleen whales beach themselves, they are nearly always alone and either deathly ill or mortally wounded.

Mass strandings in toothed whales are not usually a result of illness.

Instead, the whales become disoriented in some way and end up on the beach. And often, even when people help the stranded whales back to deep water, they beach themselves again.

"Whale Rider" takes itself too seriously. For good marine fantasy, I far preferred "Finding Nemo." Those script writers had a great sense of humor, and they did their homework, too.

See the Columnists section for some past articles.

Marine science writer Susan Scott can be reached at


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