Whales in Popular Culture

Whales in Popular Culture

These huge creatures have played some appropriately large roles in popular culture.

Happy Feet

Released in 2006, this highly successful Australian-American animated film follows the adventures of a group of emperor penguins. They seek help from a rock hopper penguin, Lovelace, who has the plastic rings from a six-pack stuck round his neck. In one part of the film, a pair of orcas (killer whales) threatens the penguins. In reality, orcas are known to sometimes play with their prey before eating it. In the film, they do just that, tossing Lovelace from one to the other, until eventually the plastic rings are released from Lovelace’s neck. This is just as well, as he was at that moment in danger of being choked by the rings. It is perhaps open to interpretation whether the orcas were just playing as an appetiser, or whether they were intending to save him.

A video game of Happy Feet was also released in 2006, based on the film’s themes of rescuing penguins, music and dancing, and learning lessons about helping others.

Whale Wars

This was a weekly American reality television show, documenting the Antarctic voyages of Paul Watson and his crew as they tried to stop Japanese whaling vessels from hunting whales. Since the 1986 International Whaling Commission’s moratorium on whale hunting, Japanese hunters have claimed that hunting for scientific research exempts them from this. The series ran for 7 seasons from 2008 on the US Animal Planet channel. Although there was fierce debate about the methods Watson used (including ramming whaling ships) the programme raised awareness of the issue of whale hunting.

A spin-off programme, Viking Shores, saw the crew reporting on whale hunting in the Faroe Islands. This series took a more objective view than Whale Wars, by listening to the points of view of those for and against whale hunting.

Namu the Killer Whale

This 1966 family film tells of a killer whale helped by a marine biologist (Hank Donner). The whale’s partner was previously killed by a fisherman afraid of the ‘killer’ reputation of orcas, and when Hank realises Namu’s true, gentle nature, he hides the whale from the fisherman who is seeking to also kill Namu.

Unfortunately, the cetacean star of the film did not have such a heart-warming story. He was discovered trapped in salmon fishing nets and was sold to the Seattle Marine Aquarium. One of the first orcas to be taken into captivity, he died within a year of being captured.

Free Willy

Perhaps the most well-known of whale films, this is a 1993 American film. The family drama tells the story of a boy, Jesse, who gets into trouble for vandalising a theme park. As part of his punishment, he has to help clear up the damage he has caused. He meets Willy, an orca, the latest acquisition by the park. Whale and boy develop a bond, and for a while Jesse helps train the whale. When the park’s owner decides to sell Willy, Jesse plots to rescue him and return him to the sea.

Free Willy
Free Willy

As in the case of Namu (above), the whale star did not fare well. Keiko the orca was freed in Iceland in 2002 but found it hard to fully adapt to the wild and died the following year.


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