[Inside Nature’s Giants – “Sperm Whale” – will air via PBS stations on Wednesday, January 18th.]
The first episode of Inside Nature’s Giants doesn’t waste any time before winding up elbow-deep in whale viscera. Within a few minutes of the show’s premiere – which features a dissection of a sperm whale that died along the southeast cost of England – expert anatomists Joy Reidenberg and Mark Evans stand in widening pools of whale blood, oil, and gore as they work to quickly and efficiently probe the peculiar secrets of the world’s largest toothed whale. This is dirty work. And, as this UK import shows, it’s a hell of a lot of fun.
The program is not for the overly squeamish. You are forewarned – do not sit down to watch this show with a big bowl of spaghetti. While many natural history shows shy away from gore, Inside Nature’s Giants wallows in fluids and viscera with a focus on the scientific. That is a good thing. If you want to learn about the extreme adaptations of whales and other charismatic creatures, being able to see the actual organs and structures is the only way to go.
Even better, Reidenberg and Evans are genuinely enthused to show off their favorite aspects of the stranded whale. Both presenters are often wide-eyed and nearly breathless as they describe how whales work. At one point, Reidenberg races to cut through the whale’s tough blubber to show off her favorite part of the whale’s anatomy before the beached mammal is towed away – an internal organ known as the “monkey’s muzzle” that is partially responsible for creating the clicks the whale uses to communicate and find prey. Whereas other documentaries might be content to simply state that such an organ exists, Inside Nature’s Giants cuts through the body of the animal itself to show you the fascinating structure.
And, while some viewers may not share my sense of humor, the show has more than a few amusing moments. Evans rummages through the whale’s stomach as if expecting to find a present inside, and, as the whale is being pulled away by the tail, Reidenberg enthusiastically rushes up to the whale to show off the animal’s flexible, prehensile penis. At another point, when the show explains that the digestive systems of sperm whales produce a stinky, waxy substance called ambergris which has historically been a sought-after ingredient in manufactured fragrances, the narrator tells viewers “You can still smell the rectum of a sperm whale in the most expensive perfumes.” Inside Nature’s Giants is not a grim exploration of an animal’s guts, nor is it the televised equivalent of poking something dead with a stick. The joy of Evans and Reidenberg is infectious – exploring the natural history of whales through muscles, tendons, guts, and other bits of soft tissue is wonderful.
What particularly sets Inside Nature’s Giants apart, however, is the show’s emphasis on evolution. The show mentions vestigial traces of the whale’s ancestry – such as a rare tooth found in the whale’s upper jaw – and focuses on particular adaptations essential for such a gargantuan deep-diver, one of which is hinged ribs that allow the whale’s body to compress under pressure. It feels good to see a show so unabashedly consider the evolutionary history of its animal star. Biologist Simon Watt pops up every now and then to investigate some of these adaptations in living whales, and evolutionary theorist Richard Dawkins also provides a smattering of natural history tidbits (as well as few bible verses).
Within the greater science communication ecosystem, documentaries are among the biggest failures. There is an incredible amount of dreck on so-called science channels. Inside Nature’s Giants is refreshingly different. The program is one of the few within recent memory that I have actively enjoyed, and I am delighted by the show’s novel approach to providing viewers an in-depth look at the natural world. You might say the show has gotten under my skin, though, I’m pleased to say, not literally.
The first episode of Inside Nature’s Giants airs on PBS stations on Wednesday, January 18th. Episodes featuring a python, a great white shark, big cats, a giant squid, and a camel will follow.