Scientists are discovering that killer whales, among the most social and intelligent of marine animals, have unique family structures and behaviors, passed from one generation to the next. National Geographic photographer Brian Skerry traveled the globe to document killer whale pods—where he found that diving with these special creatures can lead to strange and wonderful situations.
BRIAN SKERRY (PHOTOGRAPHER): We’re up there just about the time the polar night occurs, so that means it’s going to be dark essentially 24 hours a day. The sun never gets above the mountain peaks, so the light levels are extremely low. And you're in a boat in these little coves, or, you know, at the edges of fjords. It's cold, it's dark, it might be snowing.
PETER GWIN (HOST): Brian Skerry has been an underwater photographer and explorer here at National Geographic for more than two decades.
SKERRY: And then when I think the time is right, I take a deep breath and I slide underwater.
GWIN: He’s on a mission to see a pod of killer whales off the coast of Norway. Also known as orcas, these are some of the largest, most powerful predators in the ocean. They hunt everything from humpback whales and sea lions to squid and salmon and even tiny herring. It should be said that there are no reports of orcas killing humans in the wild, but still these are school bus-size creatures, and Brian wants to get up close, like uncomfortably close.
SKERRY: So you're kicking really hard to get down those first few feet, those first few meters. And then as the suit compresses, you start to sink like a stone and it might be a couple thousand feet deep below you. So you’ve got all of that on your mind, but then you hear these orcas—they all of a sudden just sort of materialize out of the green haze in the background.
They are intimidating animals. Orca, in my estimation, are arguably the most intelligent animal in the ocean, and are capable of just about anything. They're scary smart. They are 30-plus-feet in length, and they have this massive bulk and they have teeth and they are super geniuses. They can mess you up if they wanted to.
I'm trying desperately to control my heartbeat because they can sense that. They pick up—they’re acoustic animals, they're very tuned to those things. So if I seem nervous or threatening or agitated, they might not come near me. So I'm trying to think of anything. I'm thinking of home. I'm thinking of, you know, a big cheeseburger. I'm thinking of anything that's going to calm me down.
GWIN: Orcas are freakishly smart. They're actually members of the dolphin family. And scientists have identified that they live in groups, with their own distinctive cultures and dialects. So they’re curious about what Brian, this weird, rubber-suited animal, is doing in their water... some adult orcas and a calf emerge from the darkness.
SKERRY: I remember the adults being a little standoffish. They slowed down, and they sort of checked me out. But the calf broke away from the adults and he came around and started doing these donuts around me—did these big circles. He was just—his tail was moving a mile a minute and he was just doing circles around me. He maybe never saw a human underwater before.
GWIN: I’m Peter Gwin, editor at large at National Geographic magazine. And this is Overheard: a show where we eavesdrop on the wild conversations we have here at Nat Geo and follow them to the edges of our big, weird, beautiful world.
Over the last three years, Brian Skerry has traveled throughout the world’s oceans photographing the complex world of whales for the magazine and working with a team of filmmakers to shoot The Secrets of the Whales, a Disney+ original series from National Geographic.
In this special Earth Day episode, he’ll introduce us to some of the different orca families he encountered in the waters around Norway and New Zealand, and how in many ways, these sea monsters turned out to be more like us than you might think.
More after the break.
GWIN: You gotta tell me the Cadillac story.
SKERRY: The Cadillac story, the infamous Cadillac story...yeah, well...
GWIN: To understand how Brian ends up nose to nose with orcas, you need to hear the Cadillac story. I actually overheard Brian tell this to a group of other photographers once. It’s kind of like his origin story. He grew up in a little textile mill town in Massachusetts, far away from the coast. So if he wanted to go diving, he had to get creative. So there were these stone quarries in his town that were flooded with water, and that’s where Brian would dive.
SKERRY: They were sort of dark and spooky and deep. Maybe 100-plus-feet deep. People would throw cars into those quarries. I think many of these were stolen cars. And you could easily get entangled in all of these piles of cars down there, if you, you know, God forbid, swam inside the front seat of a car that was upside down in 90 feet of black water, you know, could get hung up in there, and you really had to keep your wits about you and figure things out.
GWIN: Brian says that by the time he was in college, he realized that there was a semi-lucrative business to be had by going down and taking parts off these cars and selling them to anybody that needed a new set of tires or, you know, a 1976 Corvette hood or the rearview mirror off a Mercury, something like that.
SKERRY: I would go diving in these quarries. In the wintertime, go out with a friend of mine with an ax and chop through the ice or use a chainsaw. Sometimes the ice was two feet thick, and then with our wetsuits we'd, you know, slip into the water using lines and go down 80 or 90 feet, and with a tire iron, you know, take some tires off.
GWIN: OK, so on one of those dives, he hits the jackpot—a brand-new, white Cadillac. It’s upside down in about 100 feet of black water, but it’s got a fancy set of spoke rim wheels. And Brian knows these things go for like 1,500 bucks.
SKERRY: And I have to just, you know, for context, say that this town that I was living in, it was populated in those days largely by Italian Americans and Irish Americans—I’m of Irish descent, so a lot of my family lived in that area. But my dive buddy at the time was convinced that a brand new Cadillac that was sitting upside down in a quarry had to be organized crime. And he was sure that if we open that trunk, you know, upside down, popped it open with this pry bar—that a body was going to come tumbling out. So he was not into this at all, but I needed a dive buddy.
GWIN: This is like Goodfellas underwater, man.
SKERRY: Exactly, it's like the scene with Joe Pesci at night, going to have dinner with his mother at like 2:00 in the morning and the guy's in the trunk.
GWIN: So Brian dived down and tried to get the wheels off the Cadillac, but they’ve got these special wheel locks to keep people from stealing them. So he has to go back and do a little research. He finds out that there’s a special little key in the trunk that will unlock the wheels. But the trunk is also locked. So he gets a pry bar and dives back down into the pitch-black water, and with mafia stories running through his head, he jams the pry bar into the trunk and tries to muscle it open…
SKERRY: Sure enough, I got it open. And no, nobody rolled out and I kind of swam in upside down and stuck behind the spare tire was a tire iron. So I pulled it out, and like I was told, there was this little cable wrapped around it with this perfect key to unlock the locking lug.
So I stuck it in a socket wrench and a big breaker bar, whatever. And I went out and I spun off those four tires and I sold them for maybe a couple hundred dollars and the guy got a fifteen hundred dollars set of wheels and I got a couple hundred bucks, and we didn't have to bury any dead bodies. So, you know, it was all good.
GWIN: No FBI investigation to follow this expedition.
SKERRY: No, exactly.
GWIN: So that’s one way to get your start as a marine photographer—underwater repo man. After that, Brian takes just about any diving gig he can get, and he explores all kinds of shipwrecks and sunken German U-boats in the North Atlantic, and finally he becomes one of National Geographic’s go-to underwater photographers.
Since then he’s observed a litany of fascinating creatures in the ocean, but orcas are a breed apart.
For his recent project, he spent time in Norway, photographing families of orca working together. They corral schools of herring into these dense clusters called bait balls.
SKERRY: I was free diving down maybe 20, 30 feet in that very cold water. I've got a thick wet suit on—a free-diving wet suit, a lot of weight—I’m trying to control my heartbeat. I'm diving down. And here is this orca that is almost like a sheepdog. He's herding those herring. The herring have a bluish tinge to them. The water is dark green around them. The black-and-white whale is making this slice almost, through the outer edges of the bait ball. It's deforming the bait ball, and they're pushing them to to aggregate them as tightly as possible. And what we don't see in a picture like this is that there will be several other orca on the opposite side of that bait ball, doing the same thing: They're closing ranks, and they're corralling them. And then they will swim through and stun them with their tail and then go through and pick them off.
GWIN: What do you hear when you’re underwater like that? Or can you hear? What’s the audio world down there like?
SKERRY: It can be very vocal. These are animals that have to communicate to do these feeding strategies in this location. In fact, as that polar night emerges and it's dark all the time, they can no longer rely on just sight or visual cues and they have to communicate. So you hear these clicks and whistles and cacophony of sounds that are all around you. And again, you know, for me, it's this frenzy of activity. It's this three-dimensional bait ball of silver fish that are terrified. And they're pulsing in tightly together and then expanding.
I look down below my fins, into the darkness and I see white flashes of orca. I can hear them. I see their teeth as they're sort of smiling as they come around the edges of the baitball. And I'm, you know, desperately trying to frame a shot. I'm looking through my viewfinder and I'm spinning around in 360 on every axis. I'm looking up and down and around and over my shoulder. And my neck is stiff because I'm constantly spinning around.
GWIN: Brian is freediving, meaning no scuba gear—he’s holding his breath. But he can’t get deep enough to get a good shot, so he resurfaces and grabs his air tanks. But there’s a problem: scuba gear is noisy.
SKERRY: Whales are very acoustic animals. They are tuned in to sound. So if there's this big clunky thing down there blowing bubbles and the sound of the regulator is probably something they can pick up on, you're unlikely to get close to them.
The moment I switched from free diving to scuba, the orca attitude changed. The minute I got down there, it was like being scanned by a supercomputer. They just came up, and I felt that they were reading everything about me. They knew what I had for dinner last night.
They didn't threaten me. They didn't touch me. They didn't, you know, bare their teeth or or anything overly threatening. But I just felt this sense that, look, buddy, those fish are mine. So, you know, if you want to watch, that's OK. But make no mistake about it.
GWIN: One thing about orcas, they live in all the planet’s oceans—in frigid Arctic and Antarctic waters to warmer subtropical and tropical regions. And orcas in different places eat different foods. Just like some humans like spicy Indian cuisine and others prefer hamburgers, orcas have their own favorites too. And for each of these foods, orca have figured out unique hunting strategies to catch their prey.
SKERRY: Orca have this preference for international cuisine. They like ethnic foods. The orca in Patagonia have a taste for sea lion pups, and only a couple of families of orca in the world that live in that area have figured out how to come up on a beach and eat those little sea lions. In Norway, as we discussed, they like herring, so they figured out how to feed on herring.
GWIN: Brian made a trip to photograph the orca around New Zealand, and he discovered they’ve got a taste for a special delicacy.
SKERRY: The orca that live in New Zealand have figured out a strategy for their favorite food, which is stingrays. And they will move into these shallow mangroves and harbors and very deftly pick up a stingray. They actually turned it upside down and essentially put it to sleep and something called tonic immobility, which works with some species of sharks and rays. If you sort of turn them upside down, they go immobile, and then they can eat more easily, I guess, predate on them. They can eat them.
GWIN: During one dive, Brain looks up from his camera and sees a giant orca swimming right at him. She has a stingray in her mouth.
SKERRY: it's one of those moments that—wow, if I can get this, if I can get a picture, it's going to be extraordinary. As she's nearing me, she drops the stingray, sort of like in front of me, and then she just keeps swimming.
And I kneel a few feet away from the dead stingray, laying in the sand now. And I'm hoping maybe that she will come back. Out of the corner of my eye, my right eye, I see this giant bulk of a whale slowly moving in, and I'm just staying perfectly still. I'm not moving. I don't want to be threatening. I'm just sort of hunkered down there on my knees, holding my camera with two hands. And I see her go behind me. I lose track of her. She circles around back. And then a second later she emerges on my left side, and I see her in my left eye. She comes around and stops directly in front of me. She's now facing me with the stingray between us. So here we are at about 30 or 35 feet of water. I mean, if she stood on her head, her tail would have been out of the water. She's that big.
SKERRY: But she looks at me and then looks at the ray, looks at me, looks at the ray, does this several times, as if to say, are you going to eat that? You know, I dropped it there for you.
GWIN: Oh my gosh! (laughs)
SKERRY: And then when clearly I'm not going to do that, she just very gently bends over, kind of almost inverts her body vertically and picks the ray up and then slowly just raises her head, and now she's, you know, four or five feet in front of me with this ray dangling from her mouth that's partially eaten. And I shoot a couple of frames, and then she gently turns around and I see another orca come over and they begin to food-share. That's what they do. They—one will hold it. The other will come in and rip off a piece and they feed.
GWIN: Do you think she was doing that to you? That she was holding her mouth. So you might come up and take a bite?
SKERRY: You know. Maybe. I don’t know. I mean, it's very possible. I mean, who knows what they’re thinking. I don’t want to over-anthropomorphize the animals. But yet we know that they're very smart. We know they have culture. We know that they food-share. We know that she was, you know, doing this behavior right in front of me, holding that ray. Maybe she was, you know? Maybe I should have taken my regulator—I was using a scuba tank on that—and swam over and took a chunk out to, you know, just to be polite. But in any case...
GWIN: Very rude human, Brian.
SKERRY: I was. It was like that scene in Indiana Jones, right where right where she—the woman he’s with—doesn't want to eat the chilled monkey brains or something. Anyway.
GWIN: But being picky about their food isn’t the only behavior that makes orcas seem closer to humans.
Brian was shooting off the coast of Norway, during Thanksgiving, and he was really missing his family, when he came across an orca family.
It was an encounter that made him feel like there is so much more to learn about these intelligent creatures.
SKERRY: It was another one of these snowy, cold, dark days. I’ve got my suit on. We’re out on the ocean. And we come across a family of orca that seems to be moving in a very determined fashion. They're just sort of porpoising, they're sort of swimming in a very purposeful way.
I get in the water a couple of times and get a glimpse, and they have no interest in me. They’re just kinda moving, very quickly. And eventually, after a few jumps, after a few dives, I notice that one of them, an adult female, is carrying a dead calf, a dead baby. I’d seen this twice before with pilot whales where I saw them having this—what I call funeral procession. It was this mourning ceremony.
It was most likely the mother, her calf had died and she had it draped over the front part of her head, and she was swimming with this dead calf through the water.
GWIN: Some scientists think this may have been a kind of mourning, though others are quick to point out there could be other explanations. We still don’t fully understand this behavior, but some other whale species appear to do it too. In any case, it had a powerful effect on Brian.
SKERRY: I remember feeling like an intruder. I didn't want to overly intrude. And it was something that was—I was not supposed to be part of. But yet I did hope to get a picture. I wasn't going to press it too hard. And I did after several attempts. I did have one moment where I was close enough to make a frame—very grainy sort of frame.
But, you know, it was a mixed set of emotions, I mean, here it was Thanksgiving, I was thinking about my family back home and about missing Thanksgiving dinner. And here's this family of orca in the cold Norwegian Arctic mourning the loss of a new member of their family.
GWIN: Scientists estimate there are roughly 50,000 orcas left in the oceans, but populations in several areas are endangered. One of the biggest threats is food shortages due to overfishing, habitat destruction, and diseases spread by large commercial fish farms. The other is chemical pollution; tons of chemicals end up in the oceans and over time they accumulate in the fatty tissue of marine animals, especially those at the top of the food chain, including orcas.
These issues and others have given an urgency to Brian’s work.
SKERRY: These animals have identity, they have personality, they have traditions, they have language, and food preferences and singing competitions. And they have empathy. They care about each other. They celebrate each other. And my hope is that that becomes a game changer—that we begin to see ourselves not so different than the natural world, and maybe that helps us protect it.
GWIN: Wow, man, well said.
So there's one question that National Geographic photographers always get. It’s about their closest call.
GWIN: You just listed off like, I think probably several of my greatest nightmares. I mean, I gotta ask you, is there one event that was sort of the most scary, most, you know, tentative, you know, in terms of, like your survival?
SKERRY: You know, there's a handful that come up. And I should preface this…
GWIN: But there’s one that he still thinks about. In 2004, Brian was working on a story in Ireland. He and his assistant came up from a dive, planning to get back on their boat. No problem, right? But then, it wasn’t there.
SKERRY: And there was a very swift current that was sweeping us out to sea. The dive boat—there were a great crew, really, really great captain and crew. However, there was a big Atlantic swell that day. The sun was at our back so they couldn't see us, and they had the engines running.
They had a new deckhand on the boat that day. So when we were shouting to try to get their attention, he couldn't hear us. So they began, you know, sort of a search operation and we were just getting swept out to sea.
And the only thing sticking above the surface is our head and shoulders. So I was holding on to a D ring on the weight belt of my buddy Sean, because I knew we would eventually drift apart otherwise and that would have made things even worse. So, you know, you're drifting and you're drifting, and you go through this range of emotions.
In the beginning, it's sort of funny. It's kind of like, Oh, look, those guys, they're looking over there and here we are over here. I can't believe they can't find us. And then you get angry.
GWIN: OK, so now they’re just little blips on the surface, out there on the horizon. You know, and they can see helicopters and boats searching for them. But an hour passes. And then two. And nobody’s found them.
SKERRY: And then you start to resign yourself to, well, what if I don't get found? What if this is it? And you just want to desperately climb up on a rock and wave your arms and legs and hands and scream. But you can't, you're helpless. You know, I'm in a dry suit holding my underwater housing and just drifting.
GWIN: Brian and his wife had just had a new baby. And he’s thinking about the two of them back home, all alone. Meanwhile, a fisherman is taking some tourists out on his boat to see the islands nearby.
SKERRY: He had a group of elderly ladies on the boat, tourists that were sitting on these little wooden benches on the back deck of his old wooden boat.
GWIN: The fisherman turns on the radio and hears about the divers lost or dead at sea. And so, he starts looking around. And guess what? He found them.
SKERRY: So when he finally came upon us, he reached into his anchor locker and pulled out an old rope ladder. He told me later that he thought it would disintegrate. He'd never used it for decades, but he threw it over the side.
My assistant went up first and then I climbed up, and I've got my dry suit and my hood and my big thick mitts. And, you know, I look like some sea monster. But this was my James Bond moment—because all these ladies had their cameras, you know, up to their eye, ready to take a picture of me. So I pulled off my mitts and then I pulled off my hood and I just said, Skerry, Brian Skerry. And reached out to shake their hands.
SKERRY: I was shaken and stirred inside, but I had enough presence of mind to capitalize on the moment.
GWIN: Oh man.
And if you want to know more about Skerry, Brian Skerry, we have an article for you where he goes into detail about his 12,000 hours underwater.
And orcas are just part of Brian’s multiyear whale project. To learn more about the fascinating worlds of several species, including belugas, humpbacks, and sperm whales, check out his cover story on whale culture in the May issue of National Geographic.
All four episodes of the Disney+ original series, Secrets of the Whales, from National Geographic, streams Earth Day, April 22 on Disney+.
We’ve also published a book of Brian’s amazing photos called Secrets of the Whales
That’s all in the show notes, right there in your podcast app.
Overheard at National Geographic is produced by Ilana Strauss, Brian Gutierrez, Jacob Pinter, Laura Sim, and Carla Wills.
Our senior editor is Eli Chen.
Our executive producer of audio is Davar Ardalan.
Our fact-checkers are Julie Beer and Robin Palmer.
Our copy editor is Amy Kolczak.
Our episode was sound-designed and engineered by Ted Woods.
This podcast is a production of National Geographic Partners.
The National Geographic Society, committed to illuminating and protecting the wonder of our world, funds the work of National Geographic Explorer and Photographer Brian Skerry.
Whitney Johnson is the director of visuals and immersive experiences.
Susan Goldberg is National Geographic’s editorial director.
And I’m your host, Peter Gwin. Thanks for listening. And see y'all soon.
For more information on this episode, visit nationalgeographic.com/overheard.
Join National Geographic’s Earth Day Eve celebration on Wednesday, April 21st at 8:30 pm EST, with a star-studded lineup of environmentally conscious musical artists, including Willie Nelson, Maggie Rogers, Yo-Yo Ma, Ziggy Marley, streamed on NatGeo’s YouTube and NatGeo.com/EarthDayEve
Learn about orca behavior in our magazine piece, including orca greeting ceremonies and dialects.