Using tenacity and resilience to uncover What Killed the Whale

Friday, June 10, 2022
by Heather McCorriston
Assistant Producer - Factual
Heathermccorriston (1)

What Killed the Whale? wasn’t a bad first development to be handed when I started at STV Studios in January 2020. Treating a stranded whale as an environmental crime scene captured my imagination as a life-long environmentalist. I got into television to share vital stories from the natural world; this film would do that.


Director of development, Lucy Hazzard, and I firmed up complex multi-agency agreements with institutions including the Zoological Society of London and Defra, giving us exclusive access to the postmortem teams covering every inch of the UK coast. I was ecstatic when we secured a commission in March 2020.


But then the pandemic hit. There was no way a film this unpredictable could work under restrictions, so Channel 4 reluctantly decommissioned it. We were devastated. As it became clear that the roots of the pandemic were grounded in environmental issues, I obsessed over What Killed the Whale? It suddenly felt more important than it was just months earlier.

Three months on from our decommission, as the UK emerged from the first wave of the pandemic and development ramped up again, nearly 50 whales had stranded on the UK coastline. I couldn’t accept that we weren’t highlighting this silent crisis. So I kept on at it, noting all the whales that were stranding and getting in touch with our experts each time. I kept a file of news articles that mentioned strandings and was across every 2020 whale research paper. To complement the access we’d maintained through the initial lockdowns, I secured access to the UK-wide network of stranding response volunteers, allowing us to get onsite before our postmortem experts, and also giving us the opportunity to capture emotive moments with a whale that had just taken its final breath.


By April 2021, over 100 whales had been stranded on our coast since the decommission. Now, with an even stronger proposition and 100 more cases to investigate, we took it back to Jonah Weston, Channel 4’s science commissioner. We finally received that green light on a film that I truly believe can make a difference to the health of our ocean, because that’s the incredible thing about TV - it allows us to tell stories that can genuinely bring about change.