Review: When Whales Walked

There’s a delightful little documentary about some of Earth’s evolutionary history on PBS called When Whales Walked. Looks like it was originally released in June 2019, though I just stumbled across it a little bit ago. It uses a combination of nature footage, extensive interviews with scientists, views of fossil digs and museum displays, and a bit of paleoart and CGI reconstructions to tell the tale of the evolution of crocodiles, birds, whales, and elephants. It’s just under two hours total, with roughly a quarter dedicated to each story. I rather enjoyed it.

You might think I’m here for the dinosaur content, with the origin of birds, but that’s a story I know reasonably well, and so while I think it was well-told, it was the least intriguing section for me personally. But I learned a bit about crocodiles, whales, elephants, and their ancestries, and it was all enjoyable and engaging. The interviewed scientists worked in a variety of fields, including biology and paleontology and genetics, and it seemed that the producers tried to seek out more diverse voices, even though I believe white men still represented the majority of speakers. The show hops around to a variety of locations, like an underwater cave in Madagascar in search of the remains of horned crocodiles, European fossil collections of ancient whale ancestors and Asian collections of early birds, and sites in Africa to observe living elephants and fossil digs of their ancestors.

There were some enjoyable depictions of various prehistoric creatures, but thankfully the show was more focused on letting scientists talk about how they’ve learned more about these animals and their connections, so it was as informative as it was entertaining. And the show managed to use the evolution of these creatures to point out how precarious their living lines are, how close to losing many of them forever we are. It made the prehistoric past immediately relevant to the present, and after seeing how special these animals are, the idea of losing them forever really hits home.

When Whales Walked is a great nature/science documentary that inspires curiosity and care. I’d recommend it to anyone!