Biochemical Soul Musings on Nature, Science, Evolution, Biology, and Education

12Apr/09Off

Waking the Baby Mammoth – a Tale of Science Bringing the Past to Life

Waking the Baby Mammoth

Waking the Baby Mammoth (Yuri to the far right)

"Only a handful have ever been found before. But none like her. Her name is Lyuba. A 1-month-old baby mammoth, she walked the tundra about 40,000 years ago and then died mysteriously. Discovered by a reindeer herder, she miraculously re-appeared on a riverbank in northwestern Siberia in 2007. She is the most perfectly preserved woolly mammoth ever discovered. And she has mesmerized the scientific world with her arrival - creating headlines across the globe. Everyone wants to know... how did she die? What can she tell us about life during the ice age and the Earth's changing climate? Will scientists be able to extract her DNA, and what secrets will it uncover?" - NGC

Waking the Baby Mammoth, a new program by the National Geographic Channel premiering Sunday, April 26th at 9PM, tells the tale of a single accidental discovery of a frozen baby mammoth in the Siberian tundra and how this discovery has enriched our understanding of these extinct magnificent beasts. (My quick review: 5 stars. watch it! it's beautiful and fascinating.)

However, this is not a standard paleontological nature show about mammoths in general or what life was like during the Pleistocene. Nor is this program purely about the science behind this bountiful discovery, though the arduous nature and reality of the scientific process is certainly one of the show's stars. In fact, one of the most fascinating aspects of this program is its focus on the one man and his strange culture (from an American perspective) that led to the discovery of one of the most important findings in mammoth biology. Waking the Baby Mammoth is as much an education on the hardy nature, harsh lifestyle, and animist beliefs of the reindeer herding Nemets nomads of Siberia as it is a show about the mammoth.

Without spilling too many details, the show begins with the incredibly fortuitous discovery of Lyuba, a 40,000 year old mammoth calf, by the nomadic Yuri Khudi (and his sons), a man whose animism dictates that disturbing the remains of the dead will lead to a curse. Too often with such paleontological findings as this, the preserved creature would be dug up and put on the market, leading to irreversible decomposition and the loss of a treasure trove of valuable information. However, Yuri had enough understanding and foresight to contact authorities in Russia, which began the intensive examination and retrieval of Lyuba (including a short drama during which Lyuba disappeared due to thievery). It is implied though not fully explained that Yuri had some inkling of what he had found - in fact he believed that the corpse had been put in his path for a reason, though he dared not disturb it himself.

The program subsequently follows a very well-done modern scientific storyline, detailing the scientific process and hurdles in understanding from whence Lyuba came, how she died, and what she can tell us about her Pleistocene life. That being said, apart from specific experiments involving high tech C-T scans, internal tissue extraction via some remarkable endoscopy, and dental examinations, the program does not delve overly deep into the intricate data. It's impossible to watch the work on Lyuba without feeling the anxiety the researchers must have felt in getting everything done right the first time on so precious a specimen.

From my own scientist perspective, I think the program goes as deep as it needed to portray the scientific importance of Lyuba's discovery. More importantly, the show succeeded best at precisely what it is intended to do: to bring drama and a deep emotional human connection to a quite amazing story. Throughout the program, we are presented with many truly stunning 3D animations of Lyuba and her mother. In cinematic form fitting with the story's message, Lyuba has been brought to life as an active furry baby mammoth tromping along next to researchers as they contemplate the frozen carcass' secrets. The visuals are beautiful, as the light shines off the baby's fur at just the right angles and her shadows dance in just the right way to really make her come alive - like a corporeal ghost watching her own ancient body bring her back to life in our own minds. Some of the more touching scenes involve Yuri himself near the end.  A full year after his initial discovery, he was finally given the chance to suit up in aseptic surgical gear and join the researchers in the lab to witness first hand what his discovery meant to the rest of the world so foreign to him. It's hard to imagine what must have been going through this relatively "simple" man's mind, but his own expressions make it clear that he had come to understand the importance of his discovery and its impact as a blessing - not a curse - on our understanding of life's history. In his final farewell we see him and the animated Lyuba together in a quite touching cinematic juxtaposition of this nomadic reindeer herder and his now eternal connection to baby Lyuba.

Waking the Baby Mammoth is a tale that depicts the contrasting of cultures, worldviews, and personal beliefs of humanity amidst the backdrop of a seminal scientific discovery. Where this program succeeds remarkably well is in making the viewer understand the integral importance of these disparate cultures and the fortuitous convergence of good fortunes that allowed Lyuba to give us a new view of a lifeform long lost to us.

It is in this sense that NatGeo has truly woken the baby mammoth and placed her firmly within our modern human minds and hearts.

Be sure to check it out on the National Geographic Channel on Sunday, April 26th at 9PM. Lyuba will also grace the cover of the May edition of National Geographic Magazine on newstands April 28th.

Christie over at Observations of a Nerd also has a glowing review up now.

Once again I'd like to thank Minjae Ormes (Digital PR Consultant for NatGeo) for 1) the opportunity to review the NGC programs and 2) for being so cool in our communications.

If your interested, also check out my recent review of NatGeo's Kingdom of the Blue Whale.

The National Geographic Press Release

A MAMMOTH SURPRISE.

NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CHANNEL'S WAKING THE BABY MAMMOTH FOLLOWS A GLOBAL FORENSIC INVESTIGATION INTO THE LIFE AND DEATH OF THE BEST-PRESERVED BABY MAMMOTH EVER DISCOVERED

Scientists Embark on a Paleo-Detective Expedition to Reveal the Secrets of this 40,000-Year-Old Phenomenon, as Centuries-Old Indigenous Culture Meets Modern-Day Science

"This baby looks like you could snap your fingers and she would wake up and walk."

Narrated by Award-Winning Actor Victor Garber,
Waking the Baby Mammoth
Premieres Sunday, April 26, 2009 at 9 p.m. ET/PT

(WASHINGTON, D.C. - APRIL 1, 2009) Only a handful have ever been found before.  But none like her.  Her name is Lyuba.  A 1-month-old baby mammoth, she walked the tundra about 40,000 years ago and then died mysteriously.  Discovered by a reindeer herder, she miraculously re-appeared on a riverbank in northwestern Siberia in 2007.  She is the most perfectly preserved woolly mammoth ever discovered.  And she has mesmerized the scientific world with her arrival - creating headlines across the globe.  Everyone wants to know ... how did she die?  What can she tell us about life during the ice age and the Earth's changing climate?  Will scientists be able to extract her DNA, and what secrets will it uncover?

Now, from behind the headlines, National Geographic Channel's (NGC) Waking the Baby Mammoth sets out around the world on a cutting-edge forensic investigation into Lyuba's life and death, 10,000 years after most populations of her species became extinct.  Narrated by award-winning actor Victor Garber, the two-hour special premiering Sunday, April 26, 2009 at 9 p.m. ET/PT tells Lyuba's incredible story with insight from her indigenous Siberian rescuers and the scientific community so captivated by her, as a centuries-old nomadic tribe meets modern-day science in this fascinating cultural exchange.  The discovery of this baby mammoth gives researchers their best chance yet to build a genetic map of a species that vanished at the end of the last ice age.  Through her DNA, Lyuba could finally explain why the prehistoric giants were driven to extinction, share clues about their migrations, and perhaps shed light on climate change.  Could she even some day help to resurrect mammoths?  With research funded in part by the National Geographic Society, Lyuba's journey will also be the May cover story of National Geographic magazine.

Filmed on three continents, Waking the Baby Mammoth presents a 21st century paleo-detective expedition that takes viewers from the tundra of remote Siberia to cities in Japan, Europe and North America as we join a nomad and leading scientists to "awaken" this startlingly lifelike baby.  We travel back to the ice age with Lyuba via CGI animation and then fast-forward to the present to reveal the latest innovations in woolly mammoth research, including advanced computed tomography (CT) scanning and DNA analysis, searching for clues to her species' life, extinction and scientific future.

Waking the Baby Mammoth first follows paleontologist Dan Fisher and mammoth "hunter" Bernard Buigues back to the spot where Lyuba was discovered in May 2007.  She was found on a snowy riverbank by Yuri Khudi, a nomadic reindeer herder in Russia's remote arctic Yamal-Nenets region.  Named after Yuri's wife, Lyuba was turned over to the scientists at the Salekhard Museum in Siberia, which is where the next chapter in her journey began.

The film next accompanies Lyuba to Japan's Jikei University School of Medicine, where her body undergoes three-dimensional computer mapping that produces detailed images of her internal organs and structure, providing scientists with insight into the possible cause of her death.  With all but her tail and woolly coat of fur, the CT scans showed that the 200-pound baby was in excellent health when she died, with healthy fat tissue and no damage to her skeleton.  The scientists conclude that Lyuba met her end by drowning or falling into deep mud, as there are large amounts of sediment packed into her trunk, mouth and trachea.  They believe that her final muddy resting place became part of the region's permafrost, preventing decay and keeping her remarkably intact, down to her perfect trunk and largely unblemished skin.

Researchers have long debated whether woolly mammoths' extinction was due to climate change or overhunting by humans.  Now they hope to compare her DNA with that of other mammoths from the ice age to trace the migrations of mammoth populations over time and help solve the mystery of her species' disappearance.

Finally we travel with Lyuba to the Zoological Institute in Saint Petersburg, Russia, to follow the scientists as they conduct an autopsy and analyze her tissue, bone and teeth to reveal insight into the structure of mammoth organs and muscles.  Their study is able to confirm Lyuba's age, her diet, the season of her death and environmental conditions for her mammoth herd in Siberia during her short life.  In fact, they are even able to extract pollen that remained in her lungs, which can be used to reconstruct prehistoric plants that grew on the site where Lyuba died.  The bone and tissue samples that are collected will also be used for future DNA analysis and shared among mammoth research teams worldwide, so experts across the globe can learn from her.

For mammoth scientists, discoveries like this truly come once in a lifetime.  As Alexei Tikhonov of the Russian Academy of Science says, "Lyuba is a creature straight out of a fairy tale.  When you look at her, it's hard to understand how she could have stayed in such good condition for 40,000 years ... This is the most amazing discovery since we've been studying mammoths."

For more information on the best-preserved baby mammoth ever discovered, visit natgeotv.com/mammoth beginning in early April 2009.

Waking the Baby Mammoth is produced by Woollyworks, Inc.  Producer is Adrienne Ciuffo and director is Pierre Stine. Special thanks to The International Mammoth Committee.  For National Geographic Channel, executive producer is Chris Valentini; senior vice president of special programming is Michael Cascio and executive vice president of content is Steve Burns.

National Geographic Channel

Based at the National Geographic Society headquarters in Washington, D.C., the National Geographic Channel (NGC) is a joint venture between National Geographic Ventures (NGV) and Fox Cable Networks (FCN).  Since launching in January 2001, NGC initially earned some of the fastest distribution growth in the history of cable and more recently the fastest ratings growth in television.  The network celebrated its fifth anniversary January 2006 with the launch of NGC HD which provides the spectacular imagery that National Geographic is known for in stunning high-definition.  NGC has carriage with all of the nation's major cable and satellite television providers, making it currently available to nearly 70 million homes.  For more information, please visit www.natgeotv.com.

MEDIA CONTACTS:

Russell Howard, National Geographic Channel, 202-912-6652, RHoward@natgeochannel.com

Chris Albert, National Geographic Channel, 202-912-6526, CAlbert@natgeochannel.com

National Broadcast: Dara Klatt, 202-912-6720, Dara.Klatt@natgeochannel.com

National & Local Radio: Johanna Ramos Boyer, 703-646-5137, Johanna@jrbcomm.com

National Print: Christie Parell, The Fratelli Group, 202-822-9491, CParell@fratelli.com

Local Print: Licet Ariza, The Fratelli Group, 202-496-2126, LAriza@fratelli.com

Digital: Minjae Ormes, Independent Digital Consultant, 917-539-7646, Minjae.ormes@gmail.com

Photos: Christine Elasigue, National Geographic Channel, 202-912-6708, celasigu@ngs.org

9Mar/09Off

Under the Sea 3D – A Stellar Review

Under the Sea 3D

Under the Sea 3D

This weekend my wonderful wife arranged a date night for us. And how awesome does it make her that it consisted of the single most breathtaking documentary I've ever seen - "Under the Sea 3D," a stroll through the evolution of life at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences, followed by a heaping plate of crab legs at the 42nd St. Oyster Bar in Raleigh? (no the irony of that last part is not lost on me - but hey - I loves me some crab legs!)

This post is both a review and a shout out to everyone who has not seen "Under the Sea 3D" at your nearest IMAX to immediately drop what you are doing and go watch it (check out its nifty flash site as well).

I'm not being overly hyperbolic here - this film (directed by Howard Hall) is utterly stunning.

There is basically no narrative in this film. But for what it wants to accomplish, I don't think any documentary I've watched has achieved its goal so succinctly.

The film begins with nothing more than sequence after sequence of mesmerizing coral reef habitats and creatures. It's narrated by Jim Carrey (who is great - I found myself forgetting that it was even him most of the time - there were no characteristic Carrey antics here).

But the key to this film is in the fact that the footage itself leaves you begging for more. Everyone in the theater watched in wonder - their mouths forced open by the alien creatures - usually only realizing later that they've been slack-jawed like goons for five minutes. The three dimensionality is pulled off to such a great extent that the creatures seem like they are moving and living mere inches from your face. I have never been scuba diving (and can't due to my marine unworthy inner ear), but I have been snorkeling - and I consider it one of the most amazing experiences of my life. That being said, the detail in this film far exceeded any real-life ocean experience I've had.

Each of the reef scenes is so filled with action - shrimp scuttling in the background, various fish doing their things, corals waxing and waning in the current - that you literally will want to watch it again just to focus on different aspects of each scene (not to mention the fact that the IMAX screen fills your entire field of view - it's impossible to see it all in one sitting).

Aside from the imagery which is hands down among the best I've seen, the conservation message is presented in the absolutely perfect way for its target audience (basically - everyone in the world and especially kids or the uneducated). Conservation or the ills facing the marine world are not even mentioned until your mind has been boggled by the crazy critters of the sea.

Only after bringing you into a state of constant awe does Jim Carrey begin hinting that things aren't alright. The message ramps up to the inevitable images of dead reefs, bleached by ocean acidification. However, I don't think it ever became overly preachy.

Under the Sea 3D

Under the Sea 3D

In fact the conservation message ended on an overly optimistic high note (overly from a scientific perspective) but one necessary if we ever want the general populace to care. Basically it paints the current state of the conservation movement as a hopeful paradigm shift in human society. It plainly states that humankind is beginning to realize its mistakes and that most people are coming around. Whether or not this is true is irrelevant because it leaves you thinking "hey, caring about CO2 and the oceans and biodiversity is the normal smart thing now. I want to be part of the informed and enlightened crowd. I want to care too."

In other words it doesn't just say "The oceans are screwed. It's all our fault. We should all be ashamed of what we've done." It says "the better angels of human nature are trying to turn it all around. And they are giving the world hope." And because of the tone, one cannot help but naturally want to be one of those better angels.

For you marine biologists, the very simple message will seem quaint. But I'm sure you will understand the necessity of this sort of film serving as an initiator for conservationist thinking.

I honestly believe that every person on the planet should watch this film. Especially the children.

Oh, and did I mention that there are TONS of cuttlefish in it?

Don't even think for half a second that the following trailer comes close to doing the 3D beauty justice!

26Feb/09Off

Kingdom of the Blue Whale! – National Geographic

Heart the size of a Mini Cooper.
Mouth big enough to hold 100 people.
Longer than a basketball court.
Weighing as much as 25 large elephants.
It is the largest creature ever to inhabit the earth.
But we know precious little about it.

Kingdom of the Blue Whale - National Geographic Channel

Kingdom of the Blue Whale - National Geographic Channel

Yes, I am now an advertising pawn of big media. But it's a particular medium that I have no problem advertising for (and it will soon be obvious why). Thanks to the National Geographic Channel’s awesome Digital Consultant, Minjae Ormes, today I received an early screener DVD of their new TV program "Kingdom of the Blue Whale," which premieres Sunday, March 8, at 8 p.m. ET/PT.

Shiny Happy DVD (and press release)

Shiny Happy DVD (and press release)

Recently, Christie at Observations of a Nerd reviewed an early copy of NGC's Darwin Specials. She had a minor problem with one aspect of it, which I then expounded upon. I saw the problem as a critical one in which they incorrectly spoke about the mechanisms of evolution. I should note that having watched "Morphed" the rest of program's quality more than made up for my criticisms. Nonetheless, I told NGC's Digital Consultant that I felt a little bad criticizing it, but that I felt I had to. She replied thusly:

"Given your experience and expertise, I wouldn't expect anything less. I think it is precisely your personal take on the programs that would more likely convince other people to watch the programs via word-of-mouth, so I always appreciate an honest and thorough review."

It is for this open attitude that I have no problem reviewing NGC's programs and advertising for them. After all, who doesn't love the National Geographic Channel in general? This blog is all about science outreach - and that's what I see these NGC programs as being all about (other than the whole money thing).

This review is a tag-team collaborative review between myself, the aforementioned Christie at Observations of a Nerd, and Allie Wilkinson of Oh, For The Love Of Science! (link will be updated once their reviews are posted). Christie is actually a marine biologist, and knows a ton about whales, so she will focus on the science aspect of the program, while Allie is a conservation buff, and will cover it from that angle. I on the other hand, know a little more than your average non-scientist Joe about cetaceans and conservation, but infinitely less than Christie and Allie, so I will mainly give my impressions of the presentation, visuals, cinematography, etc., though there will no doubt be overlap.

Kingdom of the Blue Whale

“Our oceans once churned with giants, diving deep through liquid space. Today they’re few...and fragile”

The above quote is the opening line, delivered by the smooth yet husky voice of none other than walrus-mustachioed Magnum P.I. Tom Selleck. First off, let me say that Tom Selleck makes a really great narrator - smooth and never overly melodramatic.

For those of you who don't want to read the whole review, here is all you need to know: Kingdom of the Blue Whale is stunning! It's beautiful. It's sad. It pisses you off. Then it wows you some more. Then it saddens you again. Then it's uplifts you and then leaves you thinking "we've got to save them!"

The roller coaster of emotions is most assuredly intended exactly as such, for the program involves more than one story, though it does have a singular narrative at its center.

The central story involves one that perhaps many non-marine biologists and non-scientists may find shocking: despite the fact that the blue whale is the largest animal ever to have existed on the Earth, we had never seen them mating, we had never seen an infant, and we didn't even know where the blue whale goes to get it on and have babies. In fact, the smallest blue whale calves we've seen were about 40 feet long! To quote the program:

“Their calls travel hundreds of miles…but we can barely hear them.”

“They eat thousands of pounds of food every day…but we don’t know how they find it”

These are some of the many questions that several different groups of researchers set out to answer in the film. One of the things I loved about it is that each scientific question - including the nitty gritty details of how and where lab experiments were done, how samples were obtained, who is doing the research - was cut and intermingled in between the main story arc which took place almost solely on the open ocean.

It was clearly edited in a way to best bring the details of science to the attention-deficit American audience. First woo you in with stunning imagery and a tale of high seas adventure (and the constant question: "will they find a baby blue?"), then feed you a little bit of the behind-closed-doors labor of science - studies of the inner ear, communication, some genetics, illegal hunting - followed by more of the story arc, and so on.

Tagging the Blue Whale

Tagging the Blue Whale

The one tiny potential problem is that it is fairly long (1hr 36min without commercials) with a lot of research talk, such as in a segment on a portable genetics lab in a Japanese hotel looking for blue whale meat from a meat market. But I must stress that this is NOT a problem with the program per se, but a problem with today's viewing audience. In fact, I am incredibly pleased that they included so many different scientific issues. In the end, I enjoyed every minute of it, and would recommend that everyone watch it.

As for the visuals, what can I say, but "wow!" The videography in this program is amazing. Especially when you consider how few blue whales exist in our enormous oceans. Most of the awesomeness can simply be attributed to the inherent magnificence of the whales themselves, but the filming crew definitely deserves mad props. The opening scene sets the pace with a great close up of a blue whale's fully expanded pleated throat gathering up krill. After watching shots such as these, one can't help but want much more - more than is actually available. The scarcity of underwater close-ups is made painstakingly clear simply by watching how these beasts live, where they're found, and the difficulty just in studying them.

The logistical hurdles of filming and studying these animals was portrayed wonderfully. Keep in mind that an adult female can weigh up to 200 tons! And the researchers can only study the whales in tiny boats - it's simply too dangerous to attempt it from the large base ship. They have to constantly maneuver to stay behind the tail and anticipate their movements. Luckily, the whales were completely unspooked by tagging and tissue sampling. It was almost funny watching them try to attach suction probes to study their movement and sounds. To do this, they had to match the whales' speed in a (relatively) tiny outboard boat. On other days they had to battle storms, which made it completely impossible to spot the whales' “blows”.

Flukes!

Flukes!

The program was filled with beautiful shots of whales from high above, whales from the surface, and even from below them. My favorite involved the "CritterCam" that was placed by suction cup on one whale. You could see the whale's nose aiming upward toward the surface - then a dark cloud became visible - krill! - the whale opened it's gaping maw and swallowed the entire mass.

The transitions were quite well done, with several excellent computer animated sequences. These sequences were few and not done to make the program flashy. All of the animated sequences were used to illustrate important points, such as one beautiful animation of the earth overlayed with migration routes and sea floor topography, which gave me a great sense of the immensity of the ocean and the whales' habitat. Another cool animation showed water, temperature, and nutrient flow to illustrate the core habitat the researchers were searching for: the "dome," a tropical area with specific temperature layers that serve as a prime "nursery" for many ocean species. Or to put it more accurately, "an upwelling of cold, nutrient-rich water generated by a meeting of winds and currents west of Central America".

And then there was my favorite animation: a sequence showing a whale fetus in the womb.

The program was not completely without laughs - especially when Tom mentioned that a nine-month pregnant female carries a fetus that's 18 feet long. It just sounds so ridiculous! Or when the collection of a single sample of whale feces is described as a "tremendous triumph."

In the end, like pretty much every nature documentary these days, it's impossible not to leave with a sense of sadness and dread. A feeling that no matter how much programs like this help, no matter how many conservation movements take up the cause, the blue whale as we know it may be ultimately doomed. But hope is certainly not lost. Some populations may be making a slow comeback. Only time will tell.

I have a ton of notes that I'm leaving out, but I'm certain that Christie will spill much more than I. Don't worry - there is still much cetacean goodness that I haven't given away (hybrids between blues and fins?).

I'll simply leave you with the following questions:

Will they find the blue whale mating grounds?

Will they discover if the blues feed during winter unlike most whales?

Will they find the elusive baby blue whale?

Hint: the "money shot" is incredibly breathtaking.

Stayed tuned next month when we will be reviewing the other NGC program you can see on the above press release: "Waking the Baby Mammoth."

And for those of you wanting even more information on these great beasts, the official press release is below.

NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CHANNEL EMBARKS ON AN EXPEDITION

TO REVEAL THE SECRET KINGDOM OF THE BLUE WHALE

Scientists Unravel Mysteries of Critically Endangered Blue Whales,

and National Geographic is the First to Film an Infant Calf Underwater

Narrated by Emmy Award-Winning Actor Tom Selleck,

Kingdom of the Blue Whale Premieres Sunday, March 8, at 8 p.m. ET/PT

(WASHINGTON, D.C. - FEBRUARY 18, 2009) They are the largest creatures ever to live on our planet - larger than any of the great dinosaurs - yet few people have seen one.  They are one of the loudest animals on land or sea - capable of making sounds equivalent to those of a jet engine - but we struggle to hear them.  They deliver the world's largest babies, but despite their immense size, most of the places where the great blue whales calve their young have been among the world's greatest mysteries.

Blue whales are so rare that even experts know little about them, but we do know their future is threatened.  Blue whales in the Eastern North Pacific once numbered close to 10,000, but more than a century of whaling took its toll.  Even though the hunting of blues has been banned since the 1960s, today only about 2,000 are left in what is thought to be the largest known population on earth.  In an effort to learn more about these behemoths and help to protect them, an international team of scientists supported by the National Geographic Society sets out on an expedition to unlock the secrets of the blue whale and investigate why more are dying than at any time since the era of whaling.

Narrated by Emmy award-winning actor Tom Selleck, on Sunday, March 8, 2009, at 8 p.m. ET/PT, National Geographic Channel's (NGC) Kingdom of the Blue Whale takes viewers on a journey with some of the world's preeminent experts to explore the little-known wintering grounds of these elusive gentle giants, chart their migratory paths and identify where this population produces their young - vital information if they are to be protected.  The team even hopes they will be the first ever to film an infant calf underwater.  National Geographic Magazine will also have coverage of this landmark expedition in its March 2009 issue.

Filmed during sea voyages off the coasts of California and Costa Rica, Kingdom of the Blue Whale follows a watery trail of clues over hundreds of nautical miles, as scientists unravel answers to ancient mysteries hidden in the darkest depths of the oceans.  Back closer to shore, we investigate the traumatic deaths of four blue whales in one season - far greater than the one expected every few years.  Is man to blame, and what can be done to prevent the loss of additional whales?

Stunning HD underwater cinematography, CGI of the developing whale fetus, satellite imaging and insight from experts all help tell this new chapter in the story of the blue whale.  Using National Geographic's cutting-edge Crittercam®, an integrated video-camcorder and data-logging system that attaches to the whale's back with suction, this special also features the exclusive footage of the blue whale gulping krill - from the whale's perspective.

Aboard Oregon State University's research vessel the Pacific Storm, scientists use state-of-the-art equipment to find, study and listen to the Eastern North Pacific blue whale population.  Beginning in California, Dr. Bruce Mate, director of the Marine Mammal Institute at Oregon State University, places satellite tags on individual blues to track their location anywhere in the sea and collects skin samples to determine the sex of the whales.  Simultaneously, John Calambokidis of Cascadia Research in Olympia, WA, uses a camera to photo-ID blues and a crossbow to collect small skin samples for further study.

Employing a different type of tag, Dr. Erin Oleson, formerly of the Scripps Institute of Oceanography near San Diego, CA, decodes the whales' sounds - and what they might mean - by comparing the acoustic signals to the behavior they exhibit.  To their delight, the scientists are able to tag 15 blues.  But sadly, the team also comes across several dead blues off the coast of Santa Barbara, leaving the scientists distressed and elevating the urgency to find what is killing them.

Armed with technology and driven to solve the mysteries of these giants, the scientists next journey hundreds of miles through remote and dangerous seas searching for the wintering ground of these leviathans in the vast Costa Rica Dome, an area of the Pacific Ocean where cold water from the deep rises to just below the warm, tropical surface - an ideal blue whale habitat.  There the team faces the real challenge of finding and observing blues, which spend virtually all of their lives underwater and surface for only seconds at a time to fill their closet-sized lungs before diving again.

The team locates the whales in almost 1,000 square miles of remote ocean rarely visited by humans, and succeeds in their bold mission to confirm three whale behaviors never witnessed before at the Costa Rica Dome - courtship, calving and winter feeding.  By learning more about this secret spot, they win a huge victory toward protecting the creatures and their most vital habitat.  The team also confirms that calves are born at the Dome by documenting a mother blue whale traveling with an infant calf, the youngest ever photographed underwater and one of the rarest sights in nature.  And they confirm that blues feed all year round in this location - a behavior never before observed here.  Prior to this discovery, scientists had suspected that blue whales fed here during the winter months, but were never able to conclusively prove it.  In addition, the team verifies that blue whales interact with one another by singing, a behavior previously exhibited only by single males swimming alone.

Kingdom of the Blue Whale also opens a window into why these animals have become one of the most endangered species on earth.  Today, our oceans are busier and noisier, and resources the whales depend on are disappearing.  And while blue whale hunting is now illegal, they remain under assault by another killer - huge oceangoing cargo vessels that power through the sea day and night.  Blues have been known to become victims of ship strikes on occasion, but the numbers of fatalities have increased in recent years.  In fact, the four dead blue whales found during the making of this film were apparently killed by ship strikes.  Whale experts are exploring whether the amount of industrial noise in today's oceans might be a cause of confusion for blue whales, which can play a role in their tragic, but avoidable, deaths.

Join the National Geographic Channel as it unravels the web of mystery surrounding the elusive behemoths of the sea and uncovers the keys to the blue kingdom and its future.  As we witness the vitality of the whale's most critical behaviors, we now understand the complete life cycle of big blues and where science can concentrate its efforts to protect them.  As whale expert Steve Palumbi says, "It's probably harder to be a whale like that than it's ever, ever been before ... I think we have the power to protect them and let them have that chance."  To give them that chance, we must protect our seas over the years and decades to come ... for baby blue and for ourselves.

For more information on blue whales, visit http://channel.nationalgeographic.com/episode/kingdom-of-the-blue-whale-3302.