The Deepest Dive to Find the Secrets of the Whales

Whales. The ocean’s top predator, a massive marine animal, one of the world’s most mysterious and magnificent.


There are many species of whales: Orca, Beluga, Narwhal, Humpback, Sperm whale … scattered across the vastness of the world’s oceans …

They have different languages, tribes, hunting techniques … diverse cultures, behaviors and feeding rituals — some more elusive to document than others.

There’s this old saying among whale biologists, I’ve been told, that “someday, we will know everything there is to know about whales, except how a sperm whale calf nurses.”

Well, my guest today, Brian Skerry, has witnessed just that: a baby sperm whale nursing, and he has captured what he believed are the first images documenting the process, frame by frame.

This is Pakinam Amer, and you’re listening to Science Talk, a Scientific American podcast.  

Brian Skerry, a National Geographic explorer and whale photographer extraordinaire, tells me that, besides being a major scoop for his new documentary series and book, the calf nursing was a very tender and private moment between mother and child.

The whale trusted him to come closer and film it, as he held his breath, figuratively and literally since he was diving without oxygen.

What many of us would give to be that close to a whale, right? … seeing something that no other human has possibly seen?

Welcome to the life of Brian.

But as awe-inspiring as that moment with the sperm whale was, it wasn’t the only extraordinary thing that Brian has captured during a grueling three-year journey to create Secrets of the Whales, a four-part documentary series for Disney+

Brian’s film reel includes many gems … From witnessing a funeral procession in the Norwegian Arctic where a family of Orca carried and mourned a dead calf to being offered to share a meal of stingray with another whale.

In his own words …

Today, on Earth Day 2021, we will be talking about his spectacular adventures above and below water to capture the lives of some of the oldest creatures that roam the Earth.

The series was filmed across 22 locations, tracking different whale pods…

A powerful pod that hunts sea lions by riding the high waves in Patagonia, Argentina …

A pod 200 miles above the Arctic circle in Norway, and another in the Falkland Islands …

A pod in the warmer seas of Cunningham in Northern Canada that becomes a giant whale nursery in the spring, and many more.

duration 0:49 seconds: “There’s only one truly white whale … like a ghost. And just as mysterious … Beluga whales smile, show emotion with facial expressions. They have one of the largest vocabularies in the ocean and may even give themselves names>

Culture is the key word that Brian Skerry says his new series and book put the spotlight on—and what truly sets them apart from other whale films or books.

But when I created Secrets of the Whales, I did so with a desire to look at multiple species of whales. And after a decade of research, I settled on this notion of culture, because a lot of the latest and greatest science that was being published in the whale biology world was talking about this, this idea, this notion of the fact that within genetically identical species, like humans, whales are doing things differently.

So you might have a population of Orca that live in New Zealand and a population of Orca that live in Patagonia, Argentina, both the same species, you know, they are essentially identical. But they are doing things differently. They have, for example, a preference for international cuisine, the Orca in New Zealand like to eat stingrays, and the ones in Patagonia like to eat (elephant) seals, and they have figured out feeding strategies to go for their preferred ethnic foods. And they are the only ones in the world that do that.

Not only that, but they are teaching their offspring, their children, for lack of a better analogy, how to do these things. So they’re passing on skills that their offspring and next generations need to know to survive, but they’re also passing on their ancestral traditions, the things that are important to them, their cultures.

You know, one of the scientists that I work with who’s become a great friend. Throughout this project, Dr. Shane Gero, who has been for the last 15 years studying sperm whales in Dominica and the Eastern Caribbean, describes the difference this way: he says, behavior is what we do. Culture is how we do it>

PAKINAM: Brian tells me that whale family units have different dialects. They live in enclaves, which he likened to neighborhoods of New York at the turn of the 20th century.

For instance, sperm whales do not intermingle with other genetically identical whales if they speak a different dialect.

When sperm whales greet each other, they stop and say ‘hi.’ They really do. Like, hi, I’m from Dominica, to which the other whale might respond, I am from Haiti. Then they go their own way.

You’ve seen the world from above and below. And you know, from I’ve seen in your series, you’ve lived and breathed these amazing, majestic landscapes that you filmed in. But first, let me ask this as someone who does not dive at all, how hostile or dangerous is the environment that you work in?>


You’re listening to Science Talk, a Scientific American podcast.

Coming up next is what Brian took away from his deep dive into the whale world.

When all the filming was done, it all added up to 179 terabytes of footage. A ton of material.

It took three years. But it almost feels as if Brian Skerry spent the last four decades preparing for this series.

Brian, who lives in York, Maine, tells me he’s been diving and watching the oceans and its animals from the deep end since he was about 15.

For about a decade, he worked on a charter boat in Rhode Island, unpaid.

In the next segment, we talk about the unique pictures he went on to take of whales and other sea creatures over the years, but also, the big picture—perhaps the biggest of all: conservation, pollution, the environment, and how marine life is paying very dearly for human lifestyles and choices.

We talk about an ocean world that’s now riddled with plastic, and how some under-ocean sites are a shadow of what they used to be.

Disney+ shared with Scientific American a rather heartbreaking clip from the series, showing a whale missing a part of its jaw, and a turtle trapped in debris, dragging around a plastic laundry basket.

The National Geographic divers accompanying Brian and the filming crew intervened and freed the turtle, from what otherwise would’ve been a death trap.

Not all marine animals are as lucky.

Brian tells me that he’s seen a lot of that during filming, and he doesn’t shy away from including those scenes in the series.

You’ve heard from Brian Skerry. His series, Secret of the Whales, beautifully narrated by Sigourney Weaver … executive-produced by James Cameron, premiers today on Disney+

That was Science Talk, and this is your host Pakinam Amer. Thank you for listening.

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