Nature: The Whale Detective

Air date: 01/08/2020

Nature: The Whale Detective

Premieres Wednesday, January 8 at 8 p.m. on PBS (check local listings), and the PBS Video app

In September 2015, a 30-ton humpback whale breached and just missed landing on wildlife filmmaker Tom Mustill and his friend Charlotte Kinloch as they kayaked in Monterey Bay, California. Both survived the incident, but the traumatic experience haunted Mustill (Nature – Giraffes: Africa’s Gentle Giants) and left him wondering if the whale was deliberately trying to hurt them or trying its best not to. To find the answer, Mustill returns to California to investigate, meeting with whale experts and those who have survived similar close encounters. What he discovers raises far bigger questions, not just about what happened that day, but also about humans’ relationship with whales and their future.

Noteworthy Facts:

  • Humpback whales have no teeth and their throats are only slightly larger than a human throat, making them only able to swallow smaller fish. As mammals, they also breathe air, give birth to live young and maintain a high body temperature.
  • Inside a humpback’s pectoral fins are the biggest arms on the planet. Their big tail fins are called flukes, which can propel their 30-ton bodies into the air in what is known as a breach. In addition to breaches, there are four other types of whale splashes, although the meaning and significance of each splash type is not known.
  • Monterey Bay is a massive whale feeding ground and has become one of the whale-watching centers of the world. Whales have made an incredible comeback considering humans killed around 3 million of them during the 20th century.
  • Whales still face major threats from plastic and fishing gear entanglements and have been turning up injured or dead in record numbers, with a 300 percent increase in humpback entanglements alone in the last five years.

Buzzworthy Moments:

  • Surviving his breaching accident led Tom Mustill to an obsession with humpback whales and a determination to discover why the whale, called “Prime Suspect,” seemingly attacked him. Viral videos of the accident from witnesses, a database of whale tail snapshots from hundreds of citizen scientists and scientific research aid his investigation. However, he soon learns that many humpback mysteries remain, including how long they live, total population and the purpose of their songs.
  • During Mustill’s investigation, a dead fin whale is discovered and transported to an uninhabited island set up as the designated location for whale carcasses. Whale expert Dr. Joy Reidenberg helps perform a necropsy to understand what caused the death. She discovers that the whale was killed from an accidental impact with a ship.
  • In a never-before-filmed sequence, Mustill accompanies a group dedicated to disentangling whales as they undergo the dangerous process of trying to cut free a whale trapped by a rope while not harming themselves or the whale.
  • There is some evidence that humpback whales exhibit altruistic behavior. In one viral video, we see a humpback tuck a diver under its fin to protect her from a shark and swim her to safety. Humpbacks are also the sworn enemies of killer whales, and in one scene they chase away a group of killer whales, appearing to protect a dead body of a gray whale calf that the killer whales just killed. Humpbacks have also been spotted coming to the rescue of seals, sea lions and dolphins.

Long TV Listing:
A filmmaker investigates his traumatic encounter with a 30-ton humpback whale that breached and just missed landing on him while he was kayaking. What he discovers raises far bigger questions about humans’ relationship with whales and their future.

Short TV Listing:
Follow filmmaker Tom Mustill as he investigates his traumatic encounter with a humpback whale.

Running Time: 60 minutes

Series Overview:
Currently in its 38th season on PBS, Nature is a voice for the natural world, bringing the wonders of wildlife and stories of conservation to millions of American viewers. The series has won more than 700 honors from the television industry, the international wildlife film communities and environmental organizations, including 18 Emmys and three Peabody Awards. Nature’s award-winning website,, features full episodes, short films, behind-the-scenes content, nature articles, educational resources and more. The series is available for streaming simultaneously on all station-branded PBS platforms, including and the PBS Video app, which is available on iOS, Android, Roku, Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV and Chromecast. PBS station members can view episodes via Passport (contact your local PBS station for details).

Production Credits:
Nature is a production of THIRTEEN PRODUCTIONS LLC for WNET and PBS. For Nature, Fred Kaufman is Executive Producer. Bill Murphy is Series Producer and Janet Hess is Series Editor. The Whale Detective is a Gripping Films production for THIRTEEN PRODUCTIONS LLC and BBC Studios in association with WNET. The documentary is produced, directed and presented by Tom Mustill. Sabrina Burnard is editor and Tim Burgess is principal photographer.

Support for this Nature program was made possible in part by The Arnhold Family in memory of Henry and Clarisse Arnhold, Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III, The Fairweather Foundation, the Kate W. Cassidy Foundation, Kathy Chiao and Ken Hao, the Lillian Goldman Charitable Trust, Charles Rosenblum, the Filomen M. D’Agostino Foundation, Rosalind P. Walter, Sandra Atlas Bass, Doris R. and Robert J. Thomas, The Hite Foundation, The Sun Hill Family Foundation in memory of Susan and Edwin Malloy, by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and by public television viewers.


About WNET
WNET is America’s flagship PBS station: parent company of New York’s THIRTEEN and WLIW21 and operator of NJTV, the statewide public media network in New Jersey. Through its new ALL ARTS multi-platform initiative, its broadcast channels, three cable services (THIRTEEN PBSKids, Create and World) and online streaming sites, WNET brings quality arts, education and public affairs programming to more than five million viewers each month. WNET produces and presents a wide range of acclaimed PBS series, including Nature, Great Performances, American Masters, PBS NewsHour Weekend, and the nightly interview program Amanpour and Company. In addition, WNET produces numerous documentaries, children’s programs, and local news and cultural offerings, as well as multi-platform initiatives addressing poverty and climate. Through THIRTEEN Passport and WLIW Passport, station members can stream new and archival THIRTEEN, WLIW and PBS programming anytime, anywhere.

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A humpback whale dives while a kayaker looks on in Monterey Bay, California. Credit: © Michael Sack Sanctuary Cruises

A humpback whale breaches very close to whale watchers. Credit: © Tom Mustill

A humpback whale breaches very close to whale watchers. Credit: © Viralhog

Dr. Joy Reidenberg, an anatomy expert, holds up a plate of baleen which acts as a food filter inside a humpback’s mouth. Credit: © Tim Burgess

The first humpback whale breach filmed in super high speed. Credit: © Tom Mustill

Filmmaker Tom Mustill and Charlotte Kinloch holding onto other whale watchers’ kayak after surviving the whale breaching onto them. Credit: © Michael Sack Sanctuary Cruises

Filmmaker Tom Mustill interviews a fellow whale-near-miss survivor. Credit: © Tim Burgess

The moment a humpback whale breached onto Filmmaker Tom Mustill and Charlotte Kinloch. Credit: © Michael Sack Sanctuary Cruises

A curious young humpback whale approaches cinematographer Howard Hall. Credit: © Michele Hall

Cinematographer Howard Hall films a mother humpback and her calf in Mo’orea. Credit: © Michele Hall

Tom Mustill investigates the clues that may help him discover the individual whale that almost hit him in 2015. Credit: © Gripping Films

Tom Mustill investigates the clues that may help him discover the individual whale that almost hit him in 2015. Credit: © Gripping Films

The number one question on Tom Mustill's mind: Who is the whale that breached and almost hit him on that fateful day? Credit: © Gripping Films