On Earth Day, Scientific American sits down with National Geographic underwater photographer Brian Skerry to talk about free diving with whales and filming the giant mammals within five meters or less.
“We have to get within a few meters of our subject to get good pictures,” Skerry says. “I can't use a 1,000-millimeter lens underwater. Also, the sun has to be out because I can’t light a whale underwater; they're too big.”
Skerry has been tracking whales, their hidden lives, their feeding rituals and hunting practices—strategies that differ dramatically from one whale pod to another—for nearly four decades. Both his new book Secrets of the Whales , released on April 6, and Disney+ series with the same title, a four-episode documentary that is narrated by Sigourney Weaver and premieres today, boast jaw-dropping moments.
A visual feast of magnificent scenery, the book and streaming series show humpback whales breaching the water surface to catch herring, orcas trailing ancient pathways, narwhals flicking their giant tusks to sting their prey and ghost-white beluga whales frolicking in shallow waters with their young—some of them only a few days old and still dragging around their umbilical cord.
The footage that Skerry filmed takes the audience on a tour of whale cultures across Antarctica, Norway, New Zealand, the Cook Islands, Alaska and other places. It tells stories of resilience, familial bonding and intimacy, generational knowledge sharing and deadly encounters—along with rich lives and complex behaviors that are reminiscent of humans and that were sometimes captured on camera for the first time.
“If we look at the ocean, through the lens of culture, these animals are doing so many things in many ways that mirror human culture,” Skerry says.
The Disney+ series, however, doesn’t only dwell on the magic and wonder of this world. It also warns against the effects of pollution and the ongoing climate emergency on a very delicate and interconnected marine ecosystem.
Secrets of the Whales was a perfect story to showcase both aspects, Skerry says, because it lives at the confluence of cutting-edge science and conservation. “I like to say, ‘It's not a conservation story,’” he adds. “And yet it could be the most important conservation story ever because if we can see these animals through that lens of culture, it changes how we perceive nature and our relation to it.”
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