Secrets of the Whales explores language, social structure of giants of the deep

National Geographic photographer Brian Skerry spent three years documenting the cultural lives of whales. His journey is the subject of a new four-part documentary series on Disney+, Secrets of the Whales.

Intrepid film crews tracked various species of whales all over the world, capturing their unique hunting strategies, communication skills, and social structures for Secrets of the Whales, a new four-part documentary series from National Geographic, now streaming on Disney+.

The project started with National Geographic Explorer and photographer Brian Skerry, who spent three years traveling around the globe documenting the culture of five different species of whale: orcas, humpbacks (aka “the singing sensation of the ocean”), belugas, narwhals, and sperm whales. The Massachusetts-born Skerry recalls visiting the beaches of New England as a child and being fascinating by nature documentaries about the ocean. “There was something especially awe-inspiring about whales,” he told Ars. “There are so many secrets. If I spent the rest of my life just [filming] whales, I would be very happy.”

Skerry pitched a one-hour documentary to National Geographic about his project, which turned into four hours when producer, writer, and director Brian Armstrong (Red Rock Films) signed on, along with Oscar-winning director James Cameron as executive producer. “It started off as a photographer profile [of Skerry], but the scope became so big,” Armstrong told Ars. “[We realized] it’s about the whales and their culture—a big breakthrough topic. It’s subtle, but you’ll notice when we do introduce human characters, you’re usually looking out from the whale’s point of view as we get into their world.”

Narrated by actor Sigourney Weaver, the final documentary series uses some of Skerry’s original footage, as well as additional material from subsequent NatGeo shoots. Among the many notable moments, the crew captured a baby sperm whale suckling from its mother (a first); humpbacks on the coast of Australia breaching to communicate with each other; a baby humpback learning how to blow bubbles to create a “bubble net” to corral tasty fish; and the first cross-species adoption ever recorded, as a pod of beluga whales accepts a lone narwhal into its pod.

Ars sat down with Cameron, Skerry, and Armstrong to learn more.

Ars Technica: What is it that drew you to this project? 

James Cameron: First of all, what’s not to love about whales? That’s a no-brainer. But really, it was the challenge and the fascination of maybe finding out something new that cetacea specialists didn’t know. Because if you’d go out there with enough people and put enough cameras out there, and you have enough observation time, you’re going to see behaviors that have never been seen and/or recorded before.

I think the show acts as an intermediary between a body of knowledge that’s already known and a public that might not really understand that whales have culture, that they have language, they have music, they have complex social bonds, they have complex social behaviors. They have these highly active, very high-processing brains, the largest brains on the planet, much larger than ours.

We’re only just beginning to understand how complex their culture is, because they’re not tactical. We’ve got our monkey hands, and we build things, and we love our machines. Whales don’t do it that way. They interact with the same world that we do in a completely non-tactical way. Because we don’t speak their language, it’s only slowly revealed how they’re thinking and how they’re processing. To me, that was a fascinating opportunity, so I didn’t hesitate. When National Geographic started to develop this project, I said, “Hey, guys, I’d love to be involved.”

Ars Technica: There’s always a certain degree of serendipity at play when it comes to documenting nature in the wild. How do you prepare to make sure you’re ready when those rare critical moments occur? 

Brian Skerry: I spent years doing research and talking to scientists, figuring out what the story could be. Where can we go? What time of year? What’s the likelihood of seeing these things? You try to narrow down those odds in your favor. At the end of the day, you have a shot list of things that you hope you can get to tell the story—the bare minimum. But if serendipity works in your favor, you get a stingray dropped next to you in New Zealand, or you get a sperm whale mom nursing its calf and trusting me to get close. So serendipity is everything, but that usually only happens for me if I am able to spend a lot of time. Three years and 24 locations sounds like a lot, but in the whale photography biz, it’s not a lot of time, really.

Brian Armstrong: For most of our sequences, we get it all in one day. But it might take us a month to get that one day. It was a bit like roulette. We went to places where we thought we would most likely be able to at least get some good images of whales and hope that we’d get lucky. We had this young humpback that was learning how to [make a bubble net]; it was trying and not succeeding. We decided to just stick with it and see what would happen over a couple of days. When that little calf finally made its perfectly shaped bubble net, we were just overjoyed with goosebumps. Those are the golden moments that you really hope for in a series.

When we got back into the edit suite, we were like, “How do we lay this out and how do we craft it?” We threw the script out. The whales apparently didn’t read it. They had other things in mind. In a way, the narratives were led by the whales themselves. Let’s see what the whales gave us, and then we’ll craft our stories based on that.

“We threw the script out. The whales apparently didn’t read it.”

Ars Technica: Is there perhaps a risk that we’re anthropomorphizing the whales too much, effectively casting them in our own image?  

Brian Armstrong: Previously, it’s almost been taboo to talk about animals as having emotion, having culture. Darwin spoke about it 100 years ago in Origin of Species, but we kind of ignored that. It’s only more recently that scientists have looked more closely at what these whales are doing. When you see a mother orca carrying around a dead calf for days and days, how do you explain that? You don’t want to anthropomorphize, but it [looks like] mourning. It’s grieving. That opened the door to let us have this emotional connection to them.

James Cameron: As proper cetacean researchers, you have to be very, very careful about not reading too much into the tea leaves. But I think the examples that we’ve documented are pretty resoundingly obvious. I think the danger in anthropomorphizing [whales] is to assume they think like we do, just because they evince behaviors that are similar to our behaviors. They may not. I’m very curious to learn more about whale thought and philosophy and perspective, because they’re non-tactical. They operate in their world in a different way. They don’t build things, so they don’t control their world. They live in harmonious balance with their world. 

The big question to me is “why do they need intelligence?” Sharks have gotten along fine for 250 million years with a very limited set of programs that run very well. And they haven’t pushed up the evolutionary ladder to have complex intelligence, culture, emotion, and so on. Why does that serve the whales so well? Why is intelligence emerging in a non-tactical species? I think we understand the positive feedback loop between language, tool use, [being] bipedal and upright, freeing our hands to do other things. We understand that positive feedback loop that led to us. What’s the positive feedback loop that led to whale intelligence, culture, emotion?

I think that the degree to which we can make a case that they are sentient, emotional, intelligent beings is the degree to which we have the moral requirement to keep them alive, to curb our rapacious behavior with respect to the ocean and make space for them in our world. We’ve grabbed the tiller on the biosphere, for better or worse, but we’re not particularly good stewards yet. We haven’t gained that wisdom. So I think they can teach us a lot.