Uncovering the "Secrets of the Whales," from beluga baby names to fascinating seafood preferences

Photographer Brian Skerry dropped by "Salon Talks" to discuss his new Disney+ series about the mysterious mammals

By Alli Joseph
Published April 22, 2021 8:22PM (UTC)
main article image
A beluga whale in "Secrets of the Whales" (Disney+/ Peter Kragh)

National Geographic explorer and photographer Brian Skerry knows a thing or two about capturing wildlife in their natural habitats since he's been doing it for over two decades. After three years of filming orcas, belugas, dolphins and other whales in 24 locations, Skerry and his team have created a beautiful new four-part docuseries called "Secrets of the Whales." 

He stopped by "Salon Talks" recently to discuss his experience and what he learned, such as how beluga whales use language.

"The science has been published recently, that shows that they are giving their calves names, but only after they begin to speak beluga-speak, that they've learned the dialects," Skerry said.  "In the beginning, they just take on the name of the mother, or they are given that when they're speaking gibberish. But when they actually start forming beluga-speak, then they get their own names."

Raised in Massachusetts, Skerry says he didn't live on the ocean, but his parents would take him to Cape Cod, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island beaches in the summertime. He remembered "coming home at the end of the day, being sort of all sunburned and salty and having this mix of emotions. On one end, I was at peace. It was very therapeutic and I was calm. But, on another part of my brain, I guess, I was fascinated." 

That fascination later turned into a successful career as a nature photographer, starting from his roots in a working class town with no connections to get him started in his chosen career. Skerry went to college for photography and filmmaking, hoping he could apply what he learned to taking photos in the ocean world.  Years later, after he came up with the concept for "Secrets of the Whales," he joined up with Academy Award-winning filmmaker and conservationist James Cameron, whom Skerry had known through other National Geographic projects.

"This was a unique opportunity where he could bring his unique set of skills to a project like this," said Skerry of Cameron. "He is this master storyteller. He creates stories from the ground up, fictional worlds, and then designs the equipment necessary to film them in 3-D. But he's also a pioneering ocean explorer who designs and builds his own submarines and understands the science."

Watch the "Salon Talks" interview with Skerry here or read the transcript below.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Tell me about the first time years ago that you ever had an opportunity to interact with whales.

The very first time that I ever encountered a whale underwater was an entangled humpback whale calf in Cape Cod Bay, Massachusetts. So I grew up in Massachusetts and back in those days, I was in my beginnings of underwater photography and diving. And this was about 1985 and I was out on a boat diving a shipwreck in Cape Cod Bay, came up from the dive still in my dry suit, and we heard on the marine radio, a lobsterman calling the Coast Guard. And he said he had a whale entangled in his trawl line. Now a trawl line of course, is a very, very long line that connects multiple lobster traps on the bottom. And evidently a whale had become entangled, which happens quite frequently.

So he was leaving. He said, there's nothing I can do. He gave out the position and we noted that position and we took the boat, went over there, didn't see anything on the surface at first. But lo and behold, this little humpback whale calf, little, maybe 20 feet or longer came up next to our boat sort of off the port side. So still wearing my big blue dry suit, I grabbed a knife, a buck knife that I used to carry around, and I jumped in the water. And stupidly, I mean, in hindsight, it was very dangerous what I was doing, trying to disentangle a whale, being inexperienced and doing that in the water. It was almost suicide.

But I went over and within about an hour, I was able to disentangle that whale. And it was, at the very end, the last piece of line was sort of cut into the whale's mouth and it was bleeding. And I sort of held it with two hands and steadily pulled it out. And that whale had, by that time, settled down and was looking at me with its big eye. It clearly knew I was there to help it. And then it paused for a few moments and then it just gently swam away, and I'll never forget it. It was a very life-changing sort of moment. And I spent the rest of my life figuring out ways to spend time with these animals.

What led you in to become a nature photographer and a photographer in general?

Well, I guess my story is that I fell in love with the sea as a child. Growing up in Massachusetts, I didn't live on the ocean, but my parents would take me to the beaches in the summertime of Cape Cod and New Hampshire and Rhode Island. And I have this memory of coming home at the end of the day, being sort of all sunburned and salty and having this mix of emotions. On one end, I was at peace. It was very therapeutic, and I was calm. But on another part of my brain, I guess, I was fascinated. And I saw this place as a realm that I wanted to explore, what was lying beneath those dark waves out there on the ocean. And I was watching Cousteau documentaries, reading National Geographic as a kid, the magazine.

So in the beginning, I just wanted to be an ocean explorer. I was about 15 years old when I started scuba diving. And that's all I really thought I wanted to do. But maybe a year or two after that, I attended a dive show, the oldest, longest running dive show in the world in Boston called the Boston Sea Rovers show. And as a teenager sitting in the audience, I was watching these underwater photographers and filmmakers present their work. And I often describe it as an epiphany where a light went on and said, "That's how I want to explore the ocean, with a camera."

Now it was a very lofty dream and I came from this little working class town in Massachusetts. I didn't know anybody in the photo biz or wildlife biz or any of that stuff. So I ultimately chipped away at it and went to college and studied photography, filmmaking with the idea of applying what I learned to the ocean world. So that was how it started. It was a long journey to get that first assignment for National Geographic, which came in 1998, but there was no looking back.

Obviously you've had a tremendous amount of success by now, but then you get to work with James Cameron. How did you connect with him to make this series?

When I created "Secrets of the Whales," the concept, it started as an idea that came about in my mind after 10 years. I had done a story about the most endangered whale in the world back in 2008, the North Atlantic right whale and compared and contrasted them with their Southern cousins. And I was totally enamored. I wanted to do a multi-species whale story, but over that decade, between that and "Secrets of the Whales," the challenge was to find the narrative. So I ended up doing a cover story in 2015 for National Geographic about dolphin intelligence and was looking at some of the ways researchers know dolphins to be smart. I was looking at it very scientifically, very clinically, not realizing in reality that what I was looking at was indeed culture, whale culture.

So by the time that story was done, I started talking to whale researchers who were talking about whale culture, my friend, Shane Gero, who studied sperm whales, and talked to me about this notion of culture, how genetically identical animals in the whale world are doing things differently, depending on where in the world they lived, like humans.

So I proposed the story to the magazine at first. Then when it got approved, I knew the scale and scope of what I wanted to do was much grander. I went to the National Geographic Society and wrote a proposal for a multi-year project, studying whale culture and documenting it. Then I went to TV when that was approved and asked if we might be interested in doing a documentary. And I was talking to one of the executives, Janet Han Vissering, who said, "No, no, this is more than one. It should be a four-part series." And we sort of developed that. They brought in Red Rock films, a production company that I worked with. And then because National Geographic has James Cameron among their stable of explorers, one of their ocean explorers, he got wind of this project. And I think became naturally interested. I had known James from previous years, but this was a unique opportunity where he could bring his unique set of skills to a project like this. He is this master storyteller. He creates stories from the ground up, fictional worlds, and then designs the equipment necessary to film them in 3D.

But he's also a pioneering ocean explorer who designs and builds his own submarines and understands the science. So to have him at the helm, as you described at this executive producer level, to be able to shape the narrative, to be able to understand the science, the storytelling, was an amazing opportunity. So it was a wonderful opportunity where he could be looking at the footage and weighing in on a periodic basis and shaping the overall dimensions of what we were trying to do.

While filming, I understand you and your crew discovered some new things about whale behavior and society like that belugas give themselves names so groups can keep track of each other?

Yeah, that's right. I think it's important to recognize that what I do, what we're trying to do, of course is give visual context to the researchers' science. This is fundamentally rooted in science. We're not just going off on some airy-fairy, mystical journey here, that what we're trying to do is the latest and greatest science that's revealing these human-like traits among these charismatic ocean animals. So the research that I did, that we did before ever going in the field, creates sort of a shot list. We're hoping to achieve certain things. We're giving that visual representation to the science of culture. How are we going to show that? The fact that animals do things differently. They have a preference for ethnic foods. In New Zealand, the orcas like stingrays and in the Norwegian Arctic, they like herring.

The beluga, the science has been published recently, that shows that they are giving their calves names, but only after they begin to speak beluga-speak, that they've learned the dialects. In the beginning, they just take on the name of the mother, or they are given that when they're speaking gibberish. But when they actually start forming beluga-speak, then they get their own names. And that these animals have song. Humpback whales create these complex songs and it's been described as the horizontal transmission of culture.

So all of those things are very, very important. And then we're going out into the field and trying to find it. It takes a lot of luck. You do as much as you can. The Venn diagram of whale or dolphin photography, as you can appreciate, is a bunch of circles that end up with a little bullseye in the middle. And if all goes well, yeah, that tiny little pinprick in the middle of it is where it's all happening. So it takes time. It takes talented crews and people to do this, but at the end of the day, we achieved everything that we hoped we would achieve and much more. We had those rarefied moments where things happen that you would never be so bold as to put on a shot list.

What are some things that we can learn from these deeply sentient beings and their very real societies? Do you think that might help us evolve more as humans?

I think as I've sort of processed my hamster wheel of three years of just being out there, one location after another, especially during the pandemic where I came home from Hawaii almost exactly a year ago, working on a project there. And I haven't been to an airport since. So in the year since, I've spent a lot of time with my own family, and I think what I've learned from those three years with the whales was what I already knew, but maybe put in the back burner a little bit. And that is that family is so important, that our social bonds are so important.

I'm giving a commencement speech in a couple of days for a university in Massachusetts. And one of the themes is that we do need these connections, that we are social creatures. And I give the analogy of sperm whales, which are these larger than life animals. Melville portrayed them as leviathans, smashing ships and killing people. But we know today that they are the biggest-brained animal on the planet, that they have these rich societies, that they have these social bonds, but life in the ocean is difficult. They spend most of their lives in the deep ocean foraging for squid and they come up and they breathe for a few minutes and then they go back down.

But what I've learned is that every day, or every few days, these whale families come together and socialize. They spend time up on the surface, just rolling around, gently biting each other. When I was allowed into their world to see that, I would see them close their eyes. They're in pure joy, pure bliss. And I think that we can see a mirror reflection of our own lives. Life is difficult. Life is busy. We're running around. We're doing a lot of things, but let's not forget to take that time every day or every so often to call a friend or have a coffee with a friend or call a grandparent or just bond. We are social creatures as well. And so I think what the whales taught me was that social bonds are important. Find time to play games, to socialize, to do things in the middle of our busy lives, because it is those little moments that make life rich. And there are the big things that happen in our lives, but at the end of the day, it's those little things that do become the big things.

"Secrets of the Whales," narrated by Sigourney Weaver, begins streaming on Thursday, April 22 on Disney+.


Alli Joseph

Alli Joseph is a writer/producer and family historian; a Native New Yorker, she is a member of the Shinnecock Indian Nation.

MORE FROM Alli JosephFOLLOW allijoseph


Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Brian Skerry Interview Nat Geo Salon Talks Salontv Secrets Of The Whales Tv