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NATURE: Ocean Giants: Giant Lives

Airs Wednesday, March 28, 2012 at 8 p.m. on KPBS TV

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.

Doug Allan and Didier Noirot filming off the coast of the Bahamas.
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Above: Doug Allan and Didier Noirot filming off the coast of the Bahamas.

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.

"Giant Lives" airs at 8 p.m. on Wednesday, March 28, 2012- In the first part, 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.

Doug Allan braves freezing conditions to film the world's longest-lived whale, the bowhead.
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Above: Doug Allan braves freezing conditions to film the world's longest-lived whale, the bowhead.

Aerial shot of the largest animal on the planet, the blue whale; Sea of Cortez, Mexico.
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Above: Aerial shot of the largest animal on the planet, the blue whale; Sea of Cortez, Mexico.

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.

Didier Noirot risks getting close to male humpbacks as they battle over a female; Hawaii.
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Above: Didier Noirot risks getting close to male humpbacks as they battle over a female; Hawaii.

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.

Off the coast of Monterey Bay, California, killer whales attack migrating grey whales.
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Above: Off the coast of Monterey Bay, California, killer whales attack migrating grey whales.

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.

The second episode, "Deep Thinkers," airs at 8 p.m. on Wednesday, April 4, followed by the final episode, "Voices Of The Sea" on Wednesday, April 11 at 8 p.m.

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Video

Preview: Nature: Ocean Giants

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