Nigel Marvin meets a whale (Channel 5)
Interview Words : Peter Moore | 28 February

Watching whales with Nigel Marven

Wildlife adventurer Nigel Marven takes you on the longest mammal migration on Earth

In his new TV show, Whale Adventure with Nigel Marven,  starting on 12th March on Channel 5, wildlife adventurer Nigel travels over 5,000 miles following grey whales as they migrate up the Pacific coast of North America, the longest mammal migration on Earth. He tells Peter Moore how he used sailboats, skiffs, kayaks and scuba gear, to get up close and personal with the whales... and other creatures.

Your new series follows grey whales as they make their annual migration north.

Yes, the longest migration of any mammal, swimming 5,000 miles. It’s amazing that they’re born in a warm water lagoon and they have to migrate north to Alaska.

The show is a road trip as well, from Baja, through California, and up to Alaska. I pass LA, up to San Francisco and the beautiful Pacific North West and the Redwood forests, and onwards north. So it’s all the landscapes and creatures that the whales pass on their journey. And the whales are always in sight because they migrate very close to the shore; they hug the coast as they move along.

One of the things that I noticed is that you get quite 'up close and personal' with the whales, especially in Baja.

My closest encounters are in that first episode. There are a number of 'friendly' whales that breed there which bring their calves right up to the boat. I’ll never forget that, looking into the eye of a young whale and the calves. I was with one for an hour, tickling its tummy, and it’s rolling over like a puppy dog. Bizarrely, it liked its tongue being tickled, so I was sticking my hand in the whale’s mouth!

Everyone asks “What do they feel like?” It’s hard to describe, but if I was pressed I'd say soft and rubbery, and a bit like a peeled hard-boiled egg.

Did you feel a connection with them?

Of course. One minute I'm meeting a whale calf in a warm lagoon in Mexico, then three months later I’m watching a mother and calf  swimming among the ice floes in the Bering Sea.

I mean, what an amazing journey! That little calf begins life in a warm lagoon surrounded by the odd sea lion and tropical birds and then a quarter of a year later it’s swimming around with polar bears and walruses. It’s remarkable the distance they travel and the changes that they see.

How do the mothers prepare their calves for the long journey?

Basically, they go to the mouth of the lagoon when the tide is coming in and it’s almost like an underwater treadmill. The little calf swims next to it’s mum, almost like a marathon runner training to get ready for his swim. They leave at the end of April and they’re up in the Arctic July/August time. Then they make the return trip in October/ November. In its lifetime, a grey whale swims the equivalent distance to going to the moon and back. Phenomenal!

Did anything surprise you in your journey? Anything that you weren’t expecting?

The California condors. They have a nine foot wingspan. It wasn't that long ago that there weren't any left in the wild, but they've been bred in captivity and reintroduced into the wild. We were filming one soaring along the cliffs and then suddenly, it swooped down and landed six feet away from me!  It was the best things I've ever captured on film and it was quite by chance. It took my breath away. They’re very rare and it chose to sit right next to me. It was amazing

The biggest surprise, though, was how often we could see the whales. In Vancouver we came across friendly grey whales too, adult grey whales that came up to the boat and nudged it along.

Favourite places?

I loved Whidbey Island. It's a beautiful place that you can reach by ferry from Vancouver. There are five whales that spend the summer there, and they feed right up to the high tide mark just in front of the town.

The island has a whale bell that local people ring if there are whales around. People will even leave the movie theatre to come out and watch. When the tide goes down its like a scarred battlefield where they have rolled on their sides and sucked up the mud. The whole bay is pockmarked with these feeding pits made by the grey whales. It was great spending a summer with them there.

Are the whales still important to the native tribes they pass?

For sure. I met with a tribe called the Quileute, in Washington State, who still have this  remarkable ceremony where the young braves go out into the Pacific Ocean and give an offering of salmon to the grey whales that are passing by.

How do they do that? Do they hand it to the whale or do they just leave it near them?

They just put it near them. In fact, it’s not a great offering for the whales because they suck mud off the bottom and feed off shrimps!

You also hang out with the Inuits in Alaska. Their celebrations are very much tied to the whales as a food source, I’d imagine.

Yes absolutely. And, to be honest, I was in two minds about it all. The Inuits kill two right whales every year. It's sad that the whales are killed, but it's a long tradition and  very cohesive for the community.

Part of that is a tradition called the ‘blanket toss’, using a very small blanket made out of seal skins. They bounce three stories high and do somersaults and land on this quite hard platform of seal skins. In the past they used to jump up and see where the whales were spouting out in the sea. The whole village gathers for this blanket toss. And, of course, I had to give it a go and I was hopeless at it.

Does the series have a particular message?

I guess it's that wildlife encounters are not just for tough cameramen who can climb high into the treetops and film hanging by their ankles for 40 days. Anyone can go and see a grey whale and even touch a grey whale.

Channel 5Whale Adventure with Nigel Marven is a four-part series and will start 12th March, 8pm, on Channel 5.