Science

The Deepest Dive to Find the Secrets of the Whales

<Whale sounds: Humpback whales singing>

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

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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.  

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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 …

<BRIAN: We know about this stuff, but to be able to capture it on film and to, you know, weave it into the narrative of a story about these sentient creatures that have culture … that’s the part that maybe hasn’t quite been done before>

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.

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<CLIP from the series, 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.

<BRIAN: For so long, natural history filmmaking and photography, including my own work for decades, has really approached these stories of wildlife from a somewhat clinical standpoint, or viewpoint. We look at these animals, we look at, maybe, their behavior, and it’s fascinating in its own right. And that’s kind of the end of the story in many cases.

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.

<BRIAN: The story of Secrets of the Whales is that if we look at the ocean, through the lens of culture, that these animals are doing so many things in many ways that mirror human culture, and that they have personality, and emotion. They share grief, they share joy, they have singing competitions, they play games. You know, I think that’s a bit of a game changer, that it’s no longer clinical. We’re not looking at it from the 12,000-foot view, you know, kind of like a scientist looking in a laboratory. We’re going right into the animals’ worlds, and we’re seeing how complex and sophisticated these animals are and their societies in the sea>

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<PAKINAM: 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?>

<BRIAN: Whenever we go into the ocean, we have to be cognizant of the fact that it is an alien environment for humans, you know, we are terrestrial creatures. And we really can’t survive there for very long and certainly without self-contained scuba apparatus, breathing apparatus. But, that being said, I wouldn’t say that it’s overly hostile, I don’t think we have anything to necessarily be fearful of the moment we go in the water. It is an alien environment. And we are not aquatic creatures, per se. But being in the water diving, most of the work, almost all of the work done on Secrets of the Whales was done with what’s known as free diving, just breath hold diving. So we’re not actually using scuba or rebreathers or anything like that, we’re just holding our breath swimming down and trying to get close to these animals, if they allow us into their world, not anything particularly dangerous about that. You have to be trained and qualified and somewhat comfortable in the ocean. But other than that, there was no real threat from the animals>

<PAKINAM: How challenging is whale photography though? I mean, how do you even prepare for some of these dives? What are the chances that you’ll swim out there and see nothing?>

<BRIAN: You know, you’re talking to the scientists, you’re figuring out what time of year you might see the animals. What does the visibility look like? Do you think we can get close? Are there boats available there? Can we hire a boat to charter a boat. So you know, trying to narrow down the chances of failure, which are always very high with something like whale photography. In my book, Secrets of the Whales, I write about the Venn diagram. If we were to draw a Venn diagram of all these overlapping circles, with all the things that have to line up with whale photography, you end up with this very small little circle in the middle where you have a chance of success because, you know, you go to a location, let’s say we traveled to New Zealand, to find orcas feeding on stingrays. Well, the Orcas are not always there, they travel around the entire country, the north, in the South Island. So we’re based in the North Island. And what if the orca is out there, and then we need a boat to get out? Well, the weather has to be good, it can’t be very windy, and there can’t be any ocean storms. And then if the Orca is there, and there’s no storms, and it’s not too windy, you can get out. But then if you jump in the water and the visibility underwater is poor, you’re not going to be able to get those pictures, you know, unlike a terrestrial photographer, I can’t use 1000-millimeter lens underwater, a 600-millimeter lens, we have to get within a few meters of our subject to get good pictures. And then the sun has to be out because I can’t light a whale underwater, they’re too big. So to have color and detail, it’s very helpful for the sun to be out. Then the animal has to let you close, if they don’t want you near them, they’ll just swim the other direction. And then if you get close, and the water is clear, and the sun is out, and all those things are happening, they have to be doing something interesting, they either have to be with another whale or they’re exhibiting behavior that is culture. So you know it, there’s a lot that you can try to control. But at the end of the day, you’re really, you know, at the mercy of all of these variables that you cannot control. So, it’s a very ambitious project to say that we’re going to do, you know, five species of whales worldwide from the equator to the poles. And we’re going to produce a story about culture that’s never really been done before. But we were very blessed along the way. We got very lucky. And not only did we get all the things we had on our shot list, but we got these amazing moments that we couldn’t have ever scripted>

<PAKINAM: Brian, you’re not an ocean scientist or a biologist, but you’ve been exploring the oceans for as long as many scientists out there. Are we seeing fresh insights in this series about whales beyond what we already know, from science and research, or is it just a documentation of things that we’ve been hearing about regarding the five species of whale that you’ve been following throughout the series?>

 

<BRIAN: It’s a little bit of both. You know, what I did when I was thinking about this project, and ultimately writing a proposal was to build the foundation for Secrets of the Whales upon the work that researchers do. It really has to be rooted and founded in science. Although it might be fun to sort of go off in this mystical, you know, rabbit hole and just think about how wonderful these animals are, and that they’re aliens and all this stuff, that’s not going to be what we want to do. This has to be fundamental science, it has to be real. And we’re not extrapolating necessarily beyond that. That being said, what I’ve often described my work about is that I sort of parachute into the lives of researchers, these men and women who’ve dedicated their entire lives, their careers, to going out and trying to reveal these mysteries. They peel back the layers of mystery, a guy like Shane or a friend of mine, Dr. Nan Hauser, who works in the Cook Islands with humpbacks, or Ingrid Visser, with Orca in in New Zealand. You know, these people day in and day out, are working with these animals, they’re getting to know them, they understand their behaviors, their personalities, their family. So what I do is I parachute in for a month or whatever period of time, and I try to give visual context to their stories. You know, the reality, unfortunately, is that not many people read the scientific papers that they publish. So they might be publishing things that maybe I’m reading about whale culture, but most folks wouldn’t know that. So I’m trying to bring my skills from more than 40 years of exploring the ocean and making pictures 23 years with National Geographic and bringing together teams of people that can really amplify these messages. Now, in the course of that work, we are trying to have a set of shortlist, you know, a shortlist that we know we want to try to get this: we want to get a picture of babysitting with sperm whales and Dominica, or we want to get orcas in New Zealand catching stingrays. But then other things happen that we couldn’t predict. So in Domenico with the sperm whales, I had a very relaxed and trusting new mom, allow me into her world she was down about maybe 15 or 20 meters, nursing her calf, and I was able to hold my breath and swim down. And she very trustingly allowed me close and I was able to get what we believe are the first images of a sperm whale calf nursing. So that night I showed Dr. Gero, Shane Gero, and he said, this is magnificent, Brian, you know, he alerted all of his colleagues. And he said, You know, there’s an old saying in the whale biology world that “someday we’ll know everything there is to know about whales, except how a sperm whale calf nurses.” They couldn’t figure out what that big lower jaw was [and] how they could possibly do it. And now we have this frame by frame analysis. But this is from a documentary standpoint. It’s such a tender moment with this mom and baby. So you know, we know that they did this, but we’ve never seen it in, nor with the orcas in New Zealand. You know, I had this female adult Orca that not only caught a stingray and swam towards me, but then she dropped it as if offering me food. And then I go down to the bottom and I kneel next to this dead stingray and she comes back. And she’s, you know, positions her body directly in front of me with the ray in between us. And she’s looking at me and looking at the ray as if to say, ‘Well come on, Brian, you’re going to eat that I’m giving you this, right.’ And when I don’t eat it, then she gently picks it up and moves on. So again, we know that they eat stingrays. But to be able to have that kind of moment to see an orca in the Norwegian Arctic, a family of Orca with the mother carrying its dead calf in this sort of funeral procession of mourning ceremony was heartbreaking. Again, we know about this stuff, but to be able to capture it on film and to you know, weave it into the narrative of a story about these sentient creatures that have culture. I think that’s that’s the part that maybe hasn’t quite been ever done before>

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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.

<PAKINAM: Without pay? How did you survive?>

<BRIAN: I worked other jobs too. You know, I mean, I came from this little textile mill town, working class town. I didn’t have money to do these things. So the only way I could go diving on a boat I couldn’t afford to pay for it. So I worked for free. I would lay in the snow in the wintertime under the hole with a grinder and grind the hole and paint the hole and then in the summer I would work on the boat and take people diving and I could go diving and take pictures myself as well. So When I was doing other jobs, you know, I worked in factories, I worked in sales, I worked in convenience stores, I did many different things to support my photography until it got to a point where I could do only photography. But yeah, it was, it was kind of a long evolutionary road to get to be a full-time professional photographer>

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.

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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.

<clip: That’s the third one that I’ve cut out. And if you’re saying you’ve seen the same, I mean we spend a lot of time on the water but it’s way too many>

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.

<BRIAN: All humans who live on land … we see our land, or our world from a terrestrial centric viewpoint, we are land creatures, so we think everything in terms of land, but if you look at Earth from space, if we see these pictures from from satellites, or NASA or whatever, you know, it’s instantly clear that we live on this beautiful blue jewel floating out in the darkness of space. But it’s also instantly apparent that we live on an ocean world that 72% of our surface is ocean. But maybe more importantly, 98% of the biosphere, 98% of where life can exist on earth is ocean, is water. So it really is in our best interest as humans to explore this watery planet, to understand it, and to protect it. Every other breath that a human being takes comes from the sea, it is the greatest carbon sink. On Earth, it takes in carbon and gives us back more than 50% of the oxygen we breathe. Yet, we have dumped so much carbon into the atmosphere that in the ocean chemistry is changing, it has become saturated like a sponge, and it is turning to acid; it is ocean acidification and [it] is eroding so many things in the ocean. You know, in the last 60 years since World War II, we have taken 90% of the big fish in the ocean, the tuna, the billfish, the Sharks. We kill in excess of 100 million sharks every year on planet Earth, we can’t remove 100 million apex predators from any ecosystem and expect it to be okay. We’ve lost half the world’s coral reefs, more than 50% of the world’s coral reefs have gone in the last few decades. And every single year, we dump 18 billion pounds of plastic into the ocean. So I think the message here is that we live in an ocean world. And that, you know, we see now the damage that we are causing on a daily basis. When I started diving in the late 1970s and 1980s, I never saw plastic in the ocean. I never saw these problems today. Almost every single dive that I make anywhere in the world, I see these problems. I go back to places that I visited a decade ago and they are a shadow of what they used to be  […] in Sri Lanka, we went to try to film sperm whales and we were successful. This is a place where they know about blue whales. But although they know that sperm whales are there, they haven’t been studied for a very long time, we went to a part of the country where there was really no infrastructure. So we had to hire fishing boats. And we would go out every day long distances and search for the whales and we would find them. But inevitably, on many of those days, we would also find sea turtles up on the surface, just wrapped in plastic. They were completely entangled in polypropylene and plastic fishing nets and fishing lines. … I actually have photos of one that was so wrapped in plastic and it was dragging a laundry basket a big orange plastic basket that was probably on a fishing boat, they maybe put rope in in line or so forth. But you know, we were able to cut those turtles out of those entanglements and set them free and they seemed healthy enough and strong, so they’re probably fine. But as I left Sri Lanka, after three weeks of being there, I couldn’t help but think about all the ones that we’re not seeing. You know, if that happens so frequently while we were there, it must be happening all the time. And it’s not just Sri Lanka, it’s everywhere. Everywhere I go in the world. I’ve been on some of the most remote beaches in the South Pacific places that took me, you know, five days by boat from Fiji to get to uninhabited islands and I walked down what should have been white sandy beaches and I was up to my calves in plastic trash, you know, the whole way. So these are important problems and even though Secrets of the Whales is more of a celebration of these animals, you know, I think it’s important to focus on some of these problems as well, to tell a more complete story >

<PAKINAM: You’ve seen how much damage has been done over the past three or four decades ever since you started diving, and like you pointed out, it’s a pretty different world to what you used to see back in the 80s, so do you feel that people have been listening to your stories and other people’s stories about conservation showing how the planet is connected and how we’re pretty much wrecking it … Do you think that people are wiser in any way or more aware now? Or do you get these moments where you feel that such pleas are falling on deaf ears?

<BRIAN: I do feel that far more people are aware today and care about these things. You know, I did a cover story for National Geographic back in 2007 about the global fisheries crisis, the problems of overfishing, commercial, industrialized, overfishing, 90% of the big fish in the ocean being taken. And I spent about two years traveling around the world photographing these subjects, these issues. And I really became depressed. I became physically depressed, it was so much bad news everywhere I went. And then we decided we needed a solutions story and that same issue, so I spent multiple trips, I went to New Zealand, because New Zealand was very progressive and is progressive in protecting their exclusive economic zone, their coastal and open ocean ecosystems. And I met with an old time scientist who was sort of the father of marine reserves, a guy named Dr. Bill Ballantine. And one night, after dinner sitting in his little cabin there in New Zealand, you know, I was telling him about how bad I was feeling about all these things I’d seen. And he said, you know, Brian, I believe if we gather reasonable people in a room anywhere in the world, and we present them with the facts, we tell them how important the ocean is to their lives, and that most scientists would say, we need to protect 30 or 40% of the world’s oceans. And yet today, we’re only at about 1%, back in 2007. He said, I think most people will say, Well, my goodness, you know, let’s do it. What’s the problem? Why aren’t we doing it? Our children need food to eat and air to breathe and clean water and commerce and all these things the ocean brings us. But he said, the problem is, most people don’t know it. So that gave me hope. And you know, in the 14 years since that story was published, I guess in 2007, I feel that we have made traction. You know, today where maybe at five or six or even 7% of the oceans are protected in some fashion, not all marine reserves, but in some fashion. So there have been countries that have recognized the need to do this. But, you know, we’re still a long way from 30 or 40%. I think that window of opportunity is closing, you know, the planet is dying a death from 1000 cuts that are largely because of us. And although I remain cautiously optimistic, I do think that our timetable is shrinking, and that we have to get on this. So there’s still forces out there and elements who don’t want to believe in these things who don’t want to accept anthropogenic climate change, or all these other ills that we are causing. So it’s not going to be easy, but the basic answer to your question is yes, we have definitely made progress in the last decade or more. And I think we’re still making that incremental progress. The question is, how quickly will that change come>

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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