New frontier: Hit series Secrets of the Whales reveals startling similarities with humans

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Marine wildlife photographer Brian Skerry was in New Zealand waters when he had a close encounter with an orca.

It was a mother orca and she was behaving quite motherly by teaching her offspring how to catch stingrays by flipping them upside down. When she saw Skerry, she must have figured he looked hungry so she offered him his own stingray.

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“She came over to me and dropped it in front of me,” says Skerry. “She was inviting me to dinner.”

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This meeting was featured in the first episode of Secret of the Whales, a four-part documentary series Skerry worked on with filmmaker James Cameron for National Geographic. The Emmy-winning series ran in 2021 and continues to stream on Disney+. It was also a book and a 40-page story in National Geographic magazine.

Filmed in 24 locations – from Dominica, the Azores and Sri Lanka to Greenland – over three years, it features insights into the lives of orcas, humpbacks, belugas, narwhals and sperm whales.

Secrets of the Whales
Emmy-winning Disney+ original series Secrets of the Whales takes audiences on an epic journey into the lives of whales. See highlights from the series alongside a 40-piece orchestra and live narration by Jann Arden. Arts Commons Presents Secrets of the Whales, April 21-23. Photo by Brian Skerry /Brian Skerry

Whales have long been the subject of scientific study, but Skerry’s approach was somewhat novel.

“It’s all based on the latest and greatest science, which reveals that whales have culture,” says Skerry, in a phone interview with Postmedia. “They have complex family structures and generational learning and they do all kinds of things that are very similar to humans. They take vacations at their favourite summer beaches. In the Canadian Arctic, they have singing competitions. They have food preferences depending where they live, within the same species. The way the French like certain foods, the Italians like certain foods, the Americans like certain foods, so do whales.”

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For the first time, Secrets of the Whales will be turned into a multi-media live spectacle that will not only feature Skerry’s jaw-dropping photography and footage but also a 40-piece orchestra playing compositions by Raphaelle Thibaut and conducted by Anthony Parnther, who has conducted recording sessions for films such as Avatar: The Way of Water and Star Wars: Mandalorian. It will be narrated live by singer-songwriter, actress and author Jann Arden. It will have its world debut on April 21 at the Jack Singer Concert Hall and will have repeat performances on April 22 and 23.

Skerry will be travelling for another photography assignment so will not be attending the concerts in Calgary. But Secrets of the Whales is a culmination of Skerry’s life-long obsession with the world within our oceans.

For four decades, including 30 years at National Geographic, Skerry has worked as a visual storyteller. His love of marine life goes back to his early years in small-town Massachusetts. It began as a desire for adventure, but working with scientists over the decades the photojournalist has developed a love and deep respect for the oceans.

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Secrets of the Whales
Secrets of the Whales. by Arts Commons Presents. Photography by Brian Skerry Photo by Brian Skerry /Brian Skerry

“The foundational story that I think I always try to tell is that we live on an ocean planet,” he says. “Even though we are terrestrial beings and see our world from that terrestrial-centric viewpoint, we very much live on a water world. If you look at Earth from space, most of it is ocean. Ninety-eight per cent of Earth’s biosphere – 98 per cent of where life can exist on Earth – is ocean. Every other breath we take – you and I right now regardless of where we live – is generated by the ocean. More than 50 per cent of the oxygen we breathe comes from the sea. What I’ve learned is that the ocean is directly connected to human life. Everything plays a vital role for every animal in the ocean, every animal on land there is a connection between everything.”

It’s the starting point for many of the stories Skerry has told over the decades, whether chronicling the struggles of the hard seal in frozen waters to dolphin intelligence or the decrease in the world’s fisheries. Certainly, the story of our oceans can seem exceedingly grim. We are killing 100 million sharks every year, we have destroyed 50 per cent of the world’s coral reefs, we are changing the oceans’ chemistry due to the greenhouse gases, he says.

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“Sometimes it’s those kinds of stories,” he says. “But what I’ve also learned is that what really resonates with people is to understand the problems but to have hope. And when science reveals these new things that we didn’t really know before – like the fact that whales have culture – I think it’s an exciting story to tell. That was the real motivation for me. Instead of always being the doom-and-gloom guy that is trying to help people understand the problems, I want to help people fall in love with the ocean, with this planet, and with this series I wanted it to be much more intimate.”

So the series includes what is believed to be the first footage of a baby sperm whale nursing from its mother, beluga whales teaching their babies the vocalizations used to communicate, and the orca grandmother teaching younger whales how to catch sea lions.

“These are the kinds of moments that I think can transcend between whale culture and human culture and we realize there are similarities, we aren’t so different,” he says. “We learn that if there is a grandmother living with the orca family, the children, the offspring, the calves tend to live about five times longer than if there was no grandmother. So having that generational learning and culture is very important to whales as it is to humans.”

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Whales are not a new area of study, of course, but whale culture is a largely unexplored field. Skerry credits two Canadian scientists for turning him onto the notion of it. That includes Ottawa-based Shane Gero, a biologist specializing in sperm whales. He was a student of Nova Scotia’s Hal Whitehead, another sperm whale biologist. Whitehead published a book called The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins. He says their work studying whale culture was pioneering.

“I started thinking about how I could bring visual context to that work,” Skerry says. “How can I translate that to the media masses out there to show them what is really happening in these whale families.”

When Skerry first began his underwater photography years ago, he would often have scientists caution him about anthropomorphizing animals and giving them human traits. There has been a shift.

“Today, those very same scientists will say ‘No they do have personalities. Even a shark or a fish,’” he says. “I think this is becoming a new frontier in wildlife science, to understand how animals do things. They are not all the same. I don’t think that’s a stretch. You can have five golden retrievers in your life and they all have characteristics inherent to the breed but they also have their own personality. Most animals fall into that category to a certain degree and whales, with the big brains that they have, absolutely do.”

Arts Commons Presents Secret Lives of Whales at the Jack Singer Concert Hall on April 21 at 2 p.m. and April 22 and 23 at 7 p.m.

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