The pioneering science that unlocked the secrets of whale culture

For a new documentary series on whales, underwater photographer Brian Skerry sought to capture whales’ “human traits”—and had to shed his scuba gear in order to access their intimate realm.

In the waters off New Zealand, an orca seemed to offer a stingray to photographer Brian Skerry, dropping it at his feet. The orca eventually picked up the untouched ray, later sharing it with another whale. Orcas are known to share their food—and to be picky eaters, having distinct preferences for prey that may differ from neighboring orca pods. It's a trait that illustrates whale culture, the idea at the heart of a new documentary series.
Photograph by Brian Skerry

Sigourney Weaver was in her Manhattan apartment, James Cameron in his New Zealand house, and photographer Brian Skerry underwater, all over the world. Yet as each worked on Secrets of the Whales, each was struck with the same overwhelming sensation—awe.

They were moved by an orca trying to feed Skerry a stingray–there’s no other interpretation for what it’s doing–and empathetic belugas that adopted a wayward narwhal. The unprecedented scenes were captured for the original documentary series from National Geographic that premieres on Disney+ on Earth Day, April 22. Four episodes—“Orca Dynasty,” “Humpback Song,” “Beluga King,” and “Ocean Giants”—provide an intimate glimpse into how whales live.

Set to Raphaelle Thibaut’s score, which grows quiet as animals communicate and rises with intensity as they hunt, the series reveals dramatic stories of nature, nurture, and sophisticated culture—with Weaver as narrator, Cameron guiding the storytelling, and Skerry and scientists following the marine mammals. Secrets of the Whales is the result of three years of research, of working with experts who study different species, understanding migratory patterns—and having kismet strike.

“Nature is always going to surprise you,” says Cameron, a National Geographic Explorer at Large. “You won’t get what you want. But … you’ll get surprises you didn’t factor in.” The project was built on the idea that whales have a culture that may not be so different from our own. 

“Before Brian started this, he’d seen what he thought was evidence of real culture,” Cameron says. “Not just intelligence and not just that which natural selection has created.” (Read about James Cameron’s latest exploration project.)

Skerry’s work in photography and video makes it clear that different species have distinct ways of communicating and hunting. Also a National Geographic Explorer, Skerry gets incredibly close to these majestic creatures, such as that female orca. She had just stunned a stingray to feed her family but instead presents it to him.

“I am lucky they sent me the films ahead of time,” says Weaver, who also portrayed National Geographic researcher Dian Fossey in the 1988 film Gorillas in the Mist. “Whatever Brian Skerry was doing, what he was capturing,” she says, “I would forget to narrate and drop my jaw.”

Astonishment is audible in Weaver’s voice as we see, for the first time, a sperm whale nurse her calf, and when 2,000 belugas converge in Canada’s Cunningham Inlet for a raucous reunion.

Weaver typically narrates documentaries from a studio. During the pandemic, however, her New York City apartment had to do. Construction was being done just outside her building, so Weaver limited recordings to weekends, and, with her assistant, crafted makeshift sound buffers.

“We took all of my clothes,” she explains. “Even some old costumes I somehow acquired. And we put hanging rods, and we used towels, blankets.”

A longtime environmentalist, Weaver grew up near Long Island Sound and always loved the water. Cameron, who directed Weaver in Aliens and the Avatar movies, persuaded her to learn scuba diving. She recalls an amazing night dive. “We lay on the floor of the sea, and these beautiful manta rays glided right above us.”

The Beatles of the whale world

Cameron’s enchantment with the aquatic world only grew with Secrets of the Whales. Well-versed in marine life, the Oscar-winning director and producer has logged thousands of hours underwater, even discovered dozens of species. Still, Cameron was enthralled by what Skerry’s film captured, such as the songs of humpback whales.

“The fact that it’s a small group of male humpbacks off Western Australia that actually composed the song that is going to be the song for the entire population of the Southern Hemisphere of humpback whales, that’s not just culture–that’s pop culture,” Cameron says. “That’s the Beatles! I mean, somebody is writing the music, and then everybody gets that damn tune caught in their head, and they can’t stop singing it.” (Listen to humpback whale songs in the premiere episode of the podcast Overheard at National Geographic.)

Watching this series may inspire viewers the way Jacques Cousteau did for Cameron and Skerry. The legendary underwater explorer was a TV staple when both were kids. Cousteau’s adventures encouraged them, and both learned to scuba dive at local YMCAs, which helped form their careers. 

Quick to deflect credit for Secrets of the Whales, Cameron calls himself the “narrative guru,” there to frame the documentaries dramatically. These stories touch us because they’re universal: birth and death, playing and hunting, teaching and learning.

“There’s an intimacy to the way the camera got in there and the way Brian got in there with these animals,” Cameron says. “And I think there’s an emotional intimacy to the way she [Sigourney] describes what you’re seeing.”

“This one was a game-changer”

Skerry says the idea for this project, which took him to 24 locations worldwide, was percolating for a decade.

“I was looking for that narrative, and I looked for a number of things in a number of scientific papers,” Skerry says. “A big part of my career is on conservation. This one was a game-changer.” Science was revealing what could be called human traits in whales. With that, he says, “we might get people to see the oceans in a different way.”

He worked with National Geographic to create a magazine article that’s the cover story for the May issue, the television series, and a book. After decades of photographing marine life, logging more than 10,000 hours underwater, he knows what works, and how working with whales is different.

With most of his underwater photography, Skerry scuba dives. “With whales, scuba doesn’t work—the bubbles scare the whales,” he says. For this project, “95 percent of what I was doing is known as free diving.” It’s just a mask, snorkel, fins, and a wet suit. “You take a deep breath and maybe stay underwater for a couple of minutes.”

Sometimes whales appear to pose for him. Even after living this for three years, Skerry remains gobsmacked by his experiences.

The moment that stands out for him is “the newborn nursing from its mom,” he says, his voice catching with emotion. “I made the first picture of a sperm whale calf nursing.”

Like any mother doting on her newborn, it’s a tender scene. Weaver recognizes why we’re able to relate.

“To be able to move around in the water so close to the mothers and the babies and to do it in such a way as to never feel we are intruding on the whales or harming them,” she says. “I just feel the spirit this was shot in is a great gift to us because it is so respectful and admiring.”

Weaver reflects on how her narrator role evolved as the series progressed. “I was less a narrator of scientific facts—I was more of a storyteller. And it was as if I were saying, Come with me! I know this family I want to introduce you to,” she says. The emphasis was on “bringing the viewer along with me. The images are so amazing you want to present it in a matter-of-fact way.”

The National Geographic Society, committed to illuminating and protecting the wonder of our world, has funded Explorer and Storytelling Fellow Brian Skerry’s work to increase awareness about the sea since 2014. Learn more about the Society’s support of ocean Explorers.

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