The pioneering science that unlocked the secrets of whale culture

Jacqueline Cutler  1 day ago

The pioneering science that unlocked the secrets of whale culture (msn.com)


Race against time to find missing submarine before crew runs out of airA deadly fight 33 years ago shows just how destructive a war between the US and…

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.a bird swimming in water: Off New Zealand an orca seemingly tried to share a stingray with photographer Brian Skerry, dropping it at his feet. The orca circled the photographer who remained still a few times, and then picked up the stingray, later sharing it with another whale.© Photograph by Brian Skerry Off New Zealand an orca seemingly tried to share a stingray with photographer Brian Skerry, dropping it at his feet. The orca circled the photographer who remained still a few times, and then picked up the stingray, later sharing it with another whale.

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.Beluga Whales at Cunningham Inlet on Somerset Island in the Canadian Arctic. Female beluga whales come to this estuary region in summertime with their newborn calves to rest and play in the shallow water. It is essentially a beluga whale nursery and is unique with the whale world since here many moms and calves, sometime hundreds, gather in the same place at the same time. Other belugas are here too, juveniles and adult males. The adults without calves seem to gather a bit further away from the river, still rubbing on the shallow gravel bottom. The whales here rub their bodies on the gravel bottom, rubbing off old skin. This cultural aspect of beluga whale lives is a time to socialize in a place where they are mostly safe from predators (polar bears).© Photograph by Brian Skerry and Nansen Weber Beluga Whales at Cunningham Inlet on Somerset Island in the Canadian Arctic. Female beluga whales come to this estuary region in summertime with their newborn calves to rest and play in the shallow water. It is essentially a beluga whale nursery and is unique with the whale world since here many moms and calves, sometime hundreds, gather in the same place at the same time. Other belugas are here too, juveniles and adult males. The adults without calves seem to gather a bit further away from the river, still rubbing on the shallow gravel bottom. The whales here rub their bodies on the gravel bottom, rubbing off old skin. This cultural aspect of beluga whale lives is a time to socialize in a place where they are mostly safe from predators (polar bears).

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.Sigourney Weaver sitting on a table: Actress and narrator Sigourney Weaver© Photograph by Andrew H. Walker Variety REX Shutterstock Actress and narrator Sigourney Weaver

“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. https://products.gobankingrates.com/r/8419832115a196968580e15ce19723e6

“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.”James Cameron in a green boat on a body of water: On March 26, 2012, Filmmaker and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence James Cameron made a record-breaking solo dive to Earth's lowest point, successfully piloting a submarine nearly seven miles deep to the bottom of the Mariana Trench in the Pacific Ocean.© Photograph by MARK THIESSEN, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC On March 26, 2012, Filmmaker and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence James Cameron made a record-breaking solo dive to Earth’s lowest point, successfully piloting a submarine nearly seven miles deep to the bottom of the Mariana Trench in the Pacific Ocean.

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.”Brian Skerry photographs a pod of sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus) during a social gathering of these incredible animals of the coast of Dominica.© Photograph by Steve De Neef Brian Skerry photographs a pod of sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus) during a social gathering of these incredible animals of the coast of Dominica.

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

a fish swimming under water: Humpback whale male in the waters off the Cook Islands, singing at a depth of approximately 120-feet to attract a female for mating. Male humpbacks create complex songs and select specific locations in the ocean (typically near islands) where they sing. They most often invert their bodies vertically, with their heads pointed downward and tails upward and sing for up to twenty minutes before surfacing to breathe, then return to singing. The humpbacks songs have been studied f=by researchers for decades, but new information is being revealed about the complexity of the songs and how the most successful song (the 'winning tune') is adopted by other male whales and passed across the pacific ocean and even into the atlantic. Researcher Dr. Nan Hauser has worked here for 20 years and has documented thousands of individual animals, but rarely seems the same animal twice.© Photograph by Brian Skerry Humpback whale male in the waters off the Cook Islands, singing at a depth of approximately 120-feet to attract a female for mating. Male humpbacks create complex songs and select specific locations in the ocean (typically near islands) where they sing. They most often invert their bodies vertically, with their heads pointed downward and tails upward and sing for up to twenty minutes before surfacing to breathe, then return to singing. The humpbacks songs have been studied f=by researchers for decades, but new information is being revealed about the complexity of the songs and how the most successful song (the ‘winning tune’) is adopted by other male whales and passed across the pacific ocean and even into the atlantic. Researcher Dr. Nan Hauser has worked here for 20 years and has documented thousands of individual animals, but rarely seems the same animal twice.

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.)a bird swimming in water: MOTHER’S MILK This is one of the first images of a sperm whale nursing. Scientists had wondered how these mothers gave milk to their long-jawed young. Females have slits that contain hidden nipples. When a calf is hungry, it pushes its jaw into the slit and milk is released, allowing it to feed.© Photograph by Brian Skerry MOTHER’S MILK This is one of the first images of a sperm whale nursing. Scientists had wondered how these mothers gave milk to their long-jawed young. Females have slits that contain hidden nipples. When a calf is hungry, it pushes its jaw into the slit and milk is released, allowing it to feed.

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.”

2 thoughts on “The pioneering science that unlocked the secrets of whale culture

  1. ♥♥..
    ..watched the first episode (Orcas) last night..
    stunning..
    jaw-dropping..
    ..so well done..
    however (and this is just me!) I had trouble visually with the scenes re: killing the seals..
    ..I realized the whales have to..
    they’re not “vegan”/grins..
    ..but I’m emotionally succeptible to even nature “killing” one another..
    silly I know..
    I did listen to the “scenes” and Sigorney’s narration and perfect music during those scenes..
    I will go back for the second episode..
    ..am looking forward to the Humpback Whales..

    I remember in the early 90’s “teaching” (in HS Enlish) the book and obscure “made/for/tv” (staring Peter Strauss – always loved him from “Rich Man Poor Man – but I digress. grins ☺) movie “A Whale for the Killing” by Farley Mowat/had the movie on DVD/you can’t even find that movie anymore..
    anyway..
    ..I’ve still never recovered from that “fictional” (but soaked in the truth of man’s insensitivity toward sentient beings) of that story about the humpback whale trapped in the tiny cover in Nova Scotia fighting for her life and that of her calf..
    ..my heart still bleeds when I think of how it had to end..
    to teach how human’s are..
    ..and how (i.e. Peter Strauss’s compassionate character) we should be towards these amazing beautiful smart so very smart creatures..

    ..well I rattled on, Jim..
    thanks for letting me do so..
    ♥♥

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