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NATURE: Ocean Giants: Giant Lives

Airs Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2016 at 11 p.m. on KPBS TV

A blue whale engulfs huge volumes of water before filtering it out its prey; ...

Credit: Courtesy of ©Doc White/Naturepl

Above: A blue whale engulfs huge volumes of water before filtering it out its prey; Mexico.

Whales and dolphins remain a constant source of fascination. But how much do we really know about them? Whales and dolphins, known as cetaceans, may appear to be totally alien to us — but with their mental ability, group communication and the recent discovery that dolphins have individual names, they are closer to us than we ever imagined. This three-part series ("Giant Lives," "Deep Thinkers" and "Voices Of The Sea") provides new insights into the lives of whales and dolphins in a visually powerful, engaging and entertaining format. Two of the world’s top underwater cameramen—Doug Allan (“Planet Earth’s” polar specialist) and Didier Noirot (Cousteau’s front-line cameraman)—film breathtaking encounters. Teams of intrepid scientists equipped with the latest technology are making extraordinary breakthroughs in their understanding of these intelligent life forms — breakthroughs that may safeguard their survival.

In the first episode, "Giant Lives," we examine the world of great whales, such as the blue whale and the bowhead, the largest animals that have ever lived on our planet. To these mighty leviathans, size matters.

In the Arctic, giant bowhead whales survive the freezing cold wrapped in fifty tons of insulating blubber two feet thick, making them the fattest animals on the planet. And in addition to being the fattest, they may live the longest. Some tissue samples indicate the whales may be over 200 years old, old enough to have lived through the great age of whaling over a century ago.

But the biggest animal on the planet is the blue whale. Measuring a hundred feet long, and weighing in at 200 tons, it is double the size of the largest dinosaur. Surprisingly, scientists discover a group of “tropical” blue whales living in Sri Lanka’s warm waters, feeding on krill, tiny crustaceans usually found in cold polar seas.

Once again, size is the secret to success. Baleen mesh in their enormous mouths makes the process of catching their tiny prey extremely efficient. Filming blue whales is a rare opportunity, and underwater cameramen Doug Allan and Didier Noirot are thrilled at the chance to fulfill a life-long dream.

In Hawaii, thousands of humpbacks gather each spring to compete for mating rights in fights so violent they can lead to death. Explosions of bubbles expelled by the biggest males both announce aggression and screen a female from challengers. Then, after competitions that can last all day, the female elopes with her chosen male to mate in private. Despite best efforts, no one has ever seen humpbacks mating.

Off the coast of Argentina, however, are whales that seem to have no modesty at all. Twice the size of humpbacks, male southern right whales have a pair of enormous testicles and nine-foot penises, yet they are surprisingly gentle giants, whose annual love-ins have been studied for some 40 years. Unlike the violent humpbacks, these whales do not compete for females. All the males are allowed to mate, leaving the male with the longest penis and largest testicles to flush out the sperm of his rivals inside the female and win the mating game.

The size and strength of gray whale mothers are matters of life and death for their calves. Raised in the warm but barren waters off the coast of Mexico, calves must be escorted by their mothers through 6,000 miles of treacherous waters to reach the nutrient-rich seas of Alaska where they can feed. Along the way, killer whales team up and lie in wait for young gray whales. Only the most powerful mothers can protect their calves from the ferocious attack of killer whales.

Join PBS NATURE, as it dives into the world of whales and dolphins, and reveals the secrets of their intimate lives like never before.

This series originally aired in 2012.

The second episode, "Deep Thinkers," will repeat at 11 p.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2016, followed by the final episode, "Voices Of The Sea" on Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2016 at 11 p.m.

Past episodes of NATURE are available for online viewing. NATURE is on Facebook, Tumblr and you can follow @PBSNature on Twitter.

Preview: NATURE: Ocean Giants

This series provides new insights into the lives of whales and dolphins in a visually powerful, engaging and entertaining format.

Visit from an Infant Sperm Whale

An infant sperm whale, separated from its mother, swims remarkably close to cameraman Doug Allan, and as he approaches it calls out with a series of loud coda clicks.

The Humpback Mating Marathon

A group of humpback males compete for the affection of a female. After the fight, the losing males engage in some surprisingly gentle behavior.

NATURE: Ocean Giants Preview

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