Conversations with Brian Skerry: Secrets of the Whales and the effects of climate change on their habitats.

If you might have missed it, today is Earth Day. It’s the day when even people who don’t regularly pay much attention to the environment express some appreciation for our glorious blue marble. There’s no shortage of stories about all-things air and water and plant and animal. One of the treasures inhabiting our planet are undoubtedly the various species of whales that make oceans their home. Secrets of the Whales, a documentary series coming to Disney+, takes an amazing look at the way whales socialize, hunt, and pass down an actual, discernable culture.

NatGeo photographer, filmmaker, and friend of whales, Brian Skerry spoke to SCINQ about his series and about the amazing things he’s learned about whales.

You’ve worked with whales for a long time. In Secrets of the Whales, you focus on many types of whales, from orcas to sperm whales to belugas. Do they have different personalities? What are they like?

It’s a great question. They do. I would say that each whale species has a unique personality and characteristics unto themselves. I would go further and say that each whale has its own personality. Some are a little bit bolder while others a little bit more shy. Some are curious. I think they’re very much like humans when it comes to personality.

Can you, can you tell straight away, who is the alpha among a group of whales?

You know, that’s an interesting question. Many of these whale societies, or at least some of the ones we focus on in Secrets of the Whales, are actually matrilineal so they are led by the older, wiser females of the group. I don’t know that I would be able to instantly identify that but the scientists that I’m working with absolutely. 

With orca societies, it’s a little bit more obvious though. You can see the most successful hunters, the ones who are doing the teaching and passing on feeding strategies. With the sperm whales, it’s not quite as evident to me. But if you spend time with them, you begin to see which ones are making the decisions for the family so I think it’s a matter of having access to them for longer periods of time.

Let me back up for one second, how did you first get involved with this project?

I created it. After about a decade from the last time I did a big whale story for National Geographic about the most endangered whale in the world. I wanted to do another big story about whales, but I wanted to do multiple species. I couldn’t figure out what the narrative was. I didn’t know how I was going to connect those dots. 

I started reading a lot of scientific papers and publications talking to researchers, and this notion of culture kept emerging. Some of the latest science that was coming out was showing that, like humans, whales have their own culture. They’re doing things differently in different parts of the world even though it’s the same species. 

If I connect the dots through culture, that that would be a game changer. If we could see the ocean through the lens of culture, that would change how we view the world, so that’s how I created it. It started as a National Geographic magazine story, then a TV series, and then a book. It all organically grew with funding from the National Geographic Society.

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Now, I know it’s probably like picking your favorite child, but if you could pick one example of whale culture that is the highlight in this series, which one would it be and why?

Yeah, well, it’s funny you say. I say the exact same thing to other people. I would say there are moments in the series that are among my favorites, like when the Stingray was presented to me from the Orca in New Zealand, or the sperm whale nursing her calf. Those things are very, very special. Those are kind of micro-level cultural aspects. 

I would say, more broadly, I am fascinated by elements of culture with whales that go across the gamut, like sperm whale dialects. For example, the fact that we’ve got a couple dozen whales off of Dominica and they’re all speaking the same dialect, the same language, and they don’t intermingle with other sperm whales. To me that’s the neighborhoods in New York at the turn of the 20th century, you know, the Irish, the Italians, but they’re all in their little enclaves. 

So, I’m fascinated by that. What are they saying well? Sperm whale scientists say that the first thing a Springwell says to another sperm when they meet in the darkness of the ocean is where they are from.

Blue whales. (CREDIT: Brian Skerry)
Orcas. (CREDIT: Brian Skerry)

You get very close to the whales, and you spend time with whales right now. When you’re in the middle of like a pack of worlds or even just one, or their behavioral tells that kind of give you a clue that they’re okay with you there or that there may be uncertain and a little bit uneasy.

I think there are multiple levels of engagement. At one end of the spectrum – as I am slowly approaching and I’m always very careful and non-threatening but moving just to the edge of visibility if I see whales. They know I’m there. I’m never gonna sneak up on a whale. So they either stick around, or they just gently swim away. If they gently turn away, I get back on the boat and have a cup of coffee. There’s nothing I can do about it. 

If they are tolerant, over time, I will gently, slowly and gently move in closer. They then might tolerate me. They might just sort of be indifferent to me if they’re engaged in socializing behavior or whatever it might be. They’re like okay, we know you’re there, but we don’t really care. 

Then there’s the times when they engage. They actually play or they want to come over and check me out. They’re very one-on-one, sort of personal behavior. So all of those things can happen.

If I ever saw that an animal seems stressed, maybe its posture is changing, opening its mouth in a certain way or something, then I just leave. I’m out of there because that’s not going to be productive and animal welfare is paramount. 

Speaking of animal welfare. Being out in the field so much and spending time with whales, have you noticed the effects climate change has had on whales populations?

Yeah, absolutely. We live on an ocean planet, right? I mean even though humans are terrestrial creatures, every other breath that we take comes from the ocean. And yet, we have taken 10% of the big fish in the ocean, out of the ocean in the last 60 years. Then we dump 18 billion pounds of plastic into it. 

The ocean is the greatest carbon sink on the planet if it takes in more carbon and gives us back more oxygen, and yet we have pumped so much carbon into the atmosphere that it is saturated. The ocean is changing. Its Ph is becoming acidic. You’re just eroding anything that has calcium in it. Sources of protein like krill that whales eat are being wiped out. They’re being eroded. They have to go to new places to look for food there so their range is changing. So, climate change is having a huge impact, as are all the other anthropogenic stresses that humans create for whales. 

The whale whose baby calf that died in the Orca episode, likely died because of heavy metals in the mother’s body. Everything in the ocean is changing because of climate. Even though Secret of the Whales is not overtly about conservation, my hope is it could be about conservation because if we see the ocean through the lens of culture with these whale families, maybe we will change our behavior. So, yeah, I think the ocean is changing. We have a window of opportunity to save this planet. I remain cautiously optimistic but you know that window was closing.

Secrets of the Whales” debuts today on Disney+. The series is accompanied by a beautiful book by Brian Skerry which you can purchase here.


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