The Maine premiere of Canadian filmmaker Nadine Pequeneza’s new documentary “Last of the Right Whales” is taking place at Portland’s Nickelodeon Cinema on April 27, just days before rules designed to protect the species from fishing gear are supposed to take effect.

The film, featuring unprecedented footage of the endangered and lesser-known whale species and the people seeking to save it, is the appropriate mix of heartbreaking, awe-inspiring and infuriating. It’s especially relevant to Mainers, as the habitat of these 70-ton mammals includes the state’s lobster fishing waters, and, as Pequeneza explains, apart from collisions with shipping vessels, the North Atlantic right whale is most imperiled by the vertical, fixed-line traps used by lobster and crab fishers. 

There are now fewer than 400 North Atlantic right whales left on Earth. In the year Pequeneza began filming “Last of the Right Whales,” 17 of the massive animals were found dead from interactions with humans. In the film, we see dedicated whale spotters, rescuers and biologists (some who specialize in performing autopsies to determine the whales’ cause of death), breaking down to weep at the unthinkable sight of another dead whale. As part of the effort to track and preserve a terrifyingly tiny population of enormous animals, the human subjects of Pequeneza’s film get very attached. The whales are spotted, named and traced in their Atlantic coast migrations, the film focusing throughout on one called Snowcone, and her calf. I won’t spoil their fates – maybe because I can’t bear to. 

As Pequeneza puts it, right whales “don’t have a public image at all, really.” Unlike the majestic, impossibly huge blue whale or the humpbacks with their enigmatic songs, right whales are mostly unknown to the average person. “Last of the Right Whales” seeks, as part of its mission, to rectify that, as Pequeneza and her crew were granted unprecedented permission to approach right whales in their effort to document the little-understood animals’ behaviors and appearance. 

Basking on their sides with their baleen filtering the massive number of tiny plankton they need to survive, the right whales captured by Pequeneza’s cameras are, like all whales, an improbable sight. Their huge size couples with a serene and inscrutable gentleness as these mysterious creatures dive and surface, occasionally popping up for a curious look at the boats trailing them. 

Five-year-old male entangled in rope with visible wounds in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

That unknowable serenity shatters in the film when Pequeneza’s team spots a right whale ensnared in the thick ropes of a fishing line, the animal’s incredible power working against it as its momentous thrashing causes the unforgiving rope to lacerate its flesh. It’s harrowing, as are the efforts of whale rescuers to free the whales, as their tiny boats must get perilously close to the terrified animal, rescuers hurling grappling hooks to hopefully snare the ropes enough to cut them loose. 

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As Pequeneza notes, and long history teaches us, what seems like a story of whales and conservation is actually a story about how we relate to our world. “It’s really a film about us,” said the filmmaker whose career has documented issues from social and economic justice to environmental disaster. “It’s about how we, as a society, protect – or don’t – the world we live in. My filmography might look diverse, but I think it’s all integrated.”

Part of Pequeneza’s film is dedicated to showing how some fishers are changing in order to help preserve the few remaining right whales, including a fishing fleet shown trying out a new type of lobster and crab trap that does away with the fixed vertical lines so deadly to ocean life like right whales. As Pequeneza notes, however, “Not every fisher is eager to change. Fishing is a unique job. Not a lot of people understand it. From their perspective, they don’t want people who aren’t fishers and who don’t know what it’s like telling them how things should be done.”

The Maine Lobstermen’s Association has filed a lawsuit against the National Marine Fisheries Service arguing that its 10-year conservation plan to protect right whales, primarily by requiring commercial fishing gear modifications such as using breakaway rope and deploying more traps per line, is not based on the best available science. The new gear restrictions are set to take effect May 1 despite ongoing legal challenges by the lobster industry and repeated protests by government officials.

At the same time, a proposal to create a $30 million fund to help lobstermen comply with new federal requirements designed to protect endangered right whales received overwhelming and bipartisan support in the Maine House last month.

The Canadian government has begun subsidizing the experimental new technology, allowing fishers there to begin the process of changing methods. Pequeneza notes that there’s currently a bill under consideration in America to do the same, but that both governmental and public support is needed to make the North Atlantic right whale a priority commensurate to the species’ vulnerability. As Pequeneza puts it starkly, “We are responsible for killing the few remaining right whales.”

Or, maybe we won’t be. Pequeneza herself lays out the situation with measured hope. “We have the technology,” said the filmmaker. “We can do this. I think it’s possible.” What is necessary for these gentle giants to continue to exist is for humans to recognize that we are a part of this ecosystem, and that we, as the dominant species, have a responsibility to mitigate the damage we cause – even if it’s inconvenient, or more expensive. I’d like to think we’re capable of such far-sightedness, even if pretty much all of human history suggests otherwise. 

North Atlantic right whale Snowcone and her calf in the Florida calving grounds.

Part of Pequeneza’s hope rests on her film’s ability to relate to these “prehistoric-looking” animals. And that makes sense – humans tend to feel more protective toward creatures they can connect to. Pequeneza’s cameras catch right whales in ways few have done before, and if one whale spotter catches herself anthropomorphizing the clear mother-child bond between Snowcone and her calf, it’s in that moment of understanding that, perhaps, humans can be roused to do the right thing.  

“Last of the Right Whales” will have its Maine premiere at 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 27, at the Nickelodeon in Portland. The 93-minute film will be followed by a 30-minute Q&A with whale experts, including those featured in the film. For more information, check out the film’s website, lastoftherightwhales.com.

Dennis Perkins lives in Auburn with his wife and cat.


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