By Mona de Crinis
Long before humans stormed the seas in search of treasures and territories to conquer, before cities of concrete and steel supplanted earth and stone, the whales sang. Traveling ancient deep-water paths known only to them, generation upon generation of North Pacific humpback whales seasonally navigated the warm, protected waters of Maui Nui and Alaska’s icy depths to feed, mate, bear young and rest. This age-old odyssey, for millennia as constant as moonrise, still continues to this day. What tomorrow holds, however, lays heavy in our hands.
Though mankind represents a mere tick on Earth’s evolutionary timeline, our presence on the planet carries the weight of a thousand eons. Insatiable and shortsighted, we plundered, pillaged and appropriated natural resources to satisfy our hunger for more — more power, more profit, more property, more product — upending environments and life-sustaining ecosystems in a relative blink of an eye. Like the morning after a drunken bacchanal, we’re now left wondering what happened and how we’ll ever clean up the mess we’ve made.
In the race against time to undo the damage done, Pacific Whale Foundation (PWF) stands out as a frontrunner in marine conservation. Founded in 1980 by environmental activist and visionary Greg Kaufman as a grassroots 501(c)3 nonprofit dedicated to saving the world’s whales from extinction, PWF is today globally recognized for its ongoing commitment to protect the ocean — the beating heart of the planet supplying food and oxygen necessary for all life — through science and advocacy. Conducting robust Research, Education and Conservation programs, the organization works tirelessly to mitigate current and emerging threats impacting the health of marine environments and wildlife.
Since its inception, PWF has evolved in step with an ever-changing social, political and environmental landscape. Over the last 40-plus years, the organization has experienced both growing pains and pandemic-related cutbacks, weathered economic recessions and soul-crushing setbacks, celebrated milestones and monumental successes, shaped public policy and perception, and influenced critical legislation.
Earlier this month at the 6th Annual World Whale Film Festival, PWF premiered the first in a proposed series of films chronicling the history of the nonprofit through the lens of five identified threats impacting marine wildlife worldwide — bycatch, marine plastic pollution, unsustainable tourism, vessel collisions with marine animals, and climate change.
Ocean Guardians, created by PWF Documentary Filmmaker Selket Kaufman, recounts the journey of humpback whales as they migrate between Alaska and Hawai‘i while illuminating PWF’s ongoing work to save the species and restore the delicate balance between humankind and marine life. Shot on location in Alaska and Maui, with additional visual support provided by a handful of PWF-aligned photographers and videographers, the film beautifully contrasts Alaska’s wild majesty with the tropical splendor of the Hawaiian Islands.
“We started with Ocean Guardians because we wanted to make clear exactly what we do, how we do it and why we do what we do,” Selket reveals. In addition to highlighting PWF’s commitment to advance its mission to protect humpback whales and other marine mammals, the film explores the synergistic relationship between the nonprofit and its social enterprise, PacWhale Eco-Adventures, and the latter’s role as an educational platform inspiring conservation and a funding source for PWF’s ongoing ocean research and advocacy.
“This first film purposefully focuses on the whales that return to Maui’s breeding grounds each winter after feeding in Alaska, because this is where the story of PWF begins,” she continues. “We wanted to set the stage for following installments of the series that will document PWF’s international presence, including our research in Australia, Ecuador and elsewhere.”
Narrated by “Ohana,” a first-time mother humpback whale preparing for her journey back to Alaska to feed with her new calf, Ocean Guardians is more than a call to action; it’s a story about perseverance, responsibility, the power of indigenous knowledge and elder wisdom, and, ultimately, hope.
“I wanted to bring a perspective outside of the organization and thought it would be cool to have a whale be that voice. Greg [Kaufman] was a voice for whales, so why not the whale herself,” explains Selket, referring to her earlier project, A Voice for Whales, which she created as a labor of love to honor Greg’s legacy and life’s work. Debuting at the 2020 World Whale Film Festival, the biopic brought audience to their feet and went on to earn the prestigious Award of Excellence at The Best Shorts Film Competition in addition to other deserving accolades.
As Selket was scripting the segment, Ohana organically emerged as the voice of reason for all of humanity. “Think about it. Whales have been here for millions of years, what they know and don’t know we can only imagine,” she suggests. “It’s like trying to grasp the fourth dimension. You just can’t.”
A seasoned voyager deeply connected to her environment, Ohana questions humanity’s intention for our earthly home and hopes her calf survives so she can pass down the knowledge of her many years. She reflects on the darkness of earlier times when whaling ships loomed above the waves.
“Things were much different then, the seas were red, I was young, and I didn’t understand what was happening. A lot of us that didn’t make it through my first journey across the Pacific. I remember hearing the cries of the others as the ships came near. My heart was heavy with sadness, and I will always carry those scars.”
A grainy image of an old whaling vessel illustrates Ohana’s memory of the suffering endured, an idea Selket says came while listening to recorded whale songs. “I kept hearing these clicking sounds that I hadn’t heard before,” she remembers. “I thought, what if this was how whales communicated the danger above?”
Later in the film, Ohana’s tone softens as she acknowledges the efforts of individuals and organizations, such as Pacific Whale Foundation, that took on the whaling industry and fought for her kind.
“My generation also witnessed a miraculous shift, when a movement began, a protest to protect us. All around the world individuals came together to stop our slaughter, they recognized the truth of nature and collectively worked together, and our numbers slowly began to increase.”
By giving voice to those that cannot speak yet understand the natural world in a way to which we are blind, Ohana reminds us that it’s not too late to open our eyes and choose a way forward rooted in respect and care for the planet and all who call it home.
Peppered throughout the film are the humans — researchers, scientists, conservationists, executives, ocean tourism operators — and others who share Ohana’s concerns and sentiment, including archived footage of the late Greg Kaufman as he implores us to teach one another how to better care for our planet. “If we can change human attitudes, we can reverse the damage that is being done,” he encourages.
Although much has changed since PWF launched its first research vessel decades ago, Greg’s indomitable spirit, unflinching tenacity and fierce love of the ocean and its inhabitants remain the organization’s driving force.
“We will further his legacy by continuing to be fearless,” pledges PWF Executive Director Kristie Wrigglesworth. “I think Greg would appreciate that. He was always rooting for the small guy — the underdog. That’s how a lot of people see themselves, as an underdog, as one person who can’t possibly make a difference. But Greg did, and I can, and you can, and everybody can. That is the only way. That’s the answer.”
Woven throughout Ocean Guardians is the message that together we can redirect the current course we’re on and restore the balance between nature and humankind. It starts with each one of us, and it starts now.
“At the end of the day, we hope this film empowers and inspires others to join us in protecting our ocean home,” filmmaker Kaufman concludes. “And through that collaboration and empowerment, find a path to a brighter, bluer future.”
Interested in viewing Ocean Guardians and other films presented at this year’s World Whale Film Festival? The online program runs through July 31 and offers unlimited viewing of select festival films. Visit www.pacificwhale.org/filmfest for more information or to purchase an online pass. All proceeds contribute to PWF programs that help protect whales, dolphins and other marine life.