A killer whale wanted to have wildlife photographer Brian Skerry for lunch.
But not like that! Despite the reputation that comes from being an apex predator, there’s never been a documented incident of a fatal orca attack on a human in the wild, and even vaguely threatening incidents are exceedingly rare. No, the orca in question seemed to be inviting Skerry to dine with her and members of her pod in New Zealand. The main course was half-eaten stingray, which she placed on the ocean floor, in seeming anticipation of Skerry’s partaking.
The encounter—one of a handful that Skerry describes as “magical” in his decades of photographing marine life—is captured in the new four-episode National Geographic series Secrets of the Whales, debuting Thursday on Disney+ to commemorate Earth Day. Skerry, by the way, did not join the feast.
“I couldn’t believe what was unfolding before my eyes,” he told Jezebel recently by Zoom. “I’ve been very lucky to have some off-the-scale wildlife encounters over the years with many species, but to be in the water at that moment with that orca with that going on, I couldn’t believe my good fortune.” Skerry said that in thinking back, his turning down the ray was kind of like the “You’re insulting them and you’re embarrassing me” scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
“I did feel a little bit bad about that, but the fact that she picked it up and another orca came in and they food-shared was good because it didn’t go to waste,” he said. Whew!
That goes down in the first episode of Secrets. Each installment focuses on a different species: Episode 2 follows chatty humpbacks, Episode 3 is about chipper belugas (with a stray narwhal joining in), and Episode 4 focuses on gigantic sperm whales. The series was shot over the course of three years in locations like Antarctica, Dominica, Sri Lanka, and Alaska. Skerry initially pitched his whale idea to National Geographic magazine, with whom he’s been working since 1998. He then wrote a proposal to the National Geographic Society for a multi-year fellowship. With that secured, he suggested a doc on his shooting to the National Geographic channel, which countered with an idea for a mini-series. Additionally, National Geographic’s publishing division signed on for a photography book, also called Secrets of the Whales, which was released earlier this month.
The thread throughout Skerry’s multimedia presentation is whale culture, and the documentary series, which was co-produced by James Cameron and narrated by Sigourney Weaver, repeatedly emphasizes this theme. Skeptics allergic to anthropomorphism might balk at the concept of animals having culture, but Skerry and his production make their case clear by showing how genetically identical whales vary in behavior and diet depending on where they live in the world. (Some, like the “resident” and “transient” whales of the United States’ Pacific Northwest, show varied culture despite their close proximity.) As marine biologist Shane Gero, who appears in Secrets and with whom Skerry works closely, puts it: Behavior is what we do and culture is how we do it.
“I think that recognizing animals and their personality is very important in terms of conservation,” said Skerry. “But I wouldn’t go there if the science didn’t support it. A series like this had to be based in fundamental science. One of the first people I spoke to about this notion of whale culture has become a good friend, [Gero]. He’s been studying sperm whales in Dominica in the Eastern Caribbean. His mentor, a very famous whale scientist Hal Whitehead, wrote a book called The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins. He talked about these very things. And these are dyed-in-the-wool, traditional scientists. They’re not prone to hyperbole. They’re not mystical in any way. Well, maybe in a little way. But they are very much the traditional science route and they would be raked over the coals by their colleagues if they couldn’t support their ideas.”
Skerry has devoted a large part of his career to photographing giant marine animals, including Jez fav the great white shark. He denied having any kind of magic touch or innate whale-whisperer gifts, though, that allow him to get his shots.
“When I’m in the water with whales, I’m mindful of my own emotions,” he said. “It’s very easy to get all jacked up and excited. Your heart is racing and you want to get the picture but over the decades of working with wildlife, particularly in the ocean, I’ve done my best to try to tamp that down a little bit. I can only control my heart rate so much. But I try to be more relaxed, I try to be nonthreatening. I think animals can pick up on your emotion and whales are probably especially good at that. I’ve been very lucky to spend a lot of time in nature so things do reveal themselves if you’re patient and you can spend time. That’s a luxury. Not everybody gets that time.” Skerry said that during a five-week trip to photograph sperm whales in Dominica, about 20 days went by before he saw a single whale.
Still, it is undeniable that Skerry has been afforded access that few humans have ever been allowed, and some of that is captured in Secrets. For example, according to Skerry, he and his crew captured on film for the first time ever a sperm whale calf nursing from its mother. The shape of the species’ jaw and its inverted nipples made even conceiving the mechanics of nursing difficult.
“What it meant to me was that mother was so relaxed, so tolerant, so trusting of my presence that she wasn’t fearful and let me truly into their world as this very tender moment,” he said. He says being permitted into the previously secret world of whales is “a rarefied plane” that “transcends other experiences.”
But there are degrees of access. Skerry said that he’s been thwarted by whales before—in Episode 4, sperm whales cloud the water with their poop en masse as if to keep their human pursuers at bay. Other times, Skerry said he’s gotten the impression that his cetacean subjects have little time for him, or are tolerant of his presence while barely acknowledging it. But then there are the special times in which engagement is palpable.
“It might be a humpback whale calf in the South Pacific that gets a little bit curious after seeing me,” Skerry recalled. “I might be the first human being that whale has ever seen. I’m trying to make a good impression and be very quiet and nonthreatening. The calf eventually gets curious and starts doing circles around me. That’s magical. When you actually have a rapport—there was one sperm whale and a new calf with whom I spent over an hour or so with in the sargassum weed in the Caribbean, playing and swimming. It was extraordinary.”
There is a bit of a bait and switch that happens over the course of Secrets of Whales. Orcas, the charismatic, potential interspecies dining companions of Episode 1, become the villains of Episodes 2 and 3, as they hunt humpbacks and belugas. Orcas fearlessly go after animals several times their size, not to mention cute little seals, and yet they don’t hunt humans in the wild. (Captive orcas are another story, as the anti-captivity documentary Blackfish attests.) What, I asked Skerry, is up with that? Are orcas buttering us up only to not eat us?
“I think there’s almost this mutual respect. I don’t know how to describe it,” said Skerry. “Maybe they are buttering us up. I’ve never felt threatened in the presence of orcas. We know that they could do great damage if they chose to but there’s never been a recorded incident in the wild. I’m not sure why. I think to some degree they are highly cognitive and understanding of what we are that they just kind of leave us alone. We’re certainly not on the menu and it would probably take a lot to cross that line. I’m grateful for it, nonetheless.”
What is it like, then, to watch these highly charismatic, endearing animals go after other highly charismatic, endearing animals that he’s also interested in capturing on film?
“Probably from a selfish standpoint, if you’re capturing predation, if that’s what you’re there to see, you want to get that moment,” he said. “On an emotional level, you process these things after the fact and it is a little heart-wrenching, but you understand that it is nature. We can’t throw stones at anybody else because we do these things too. We predate, and we do it maybe even in worse ways. You do feel bad for a seal that’s being chased and what appears to be tortured. But nature compensates. If we stay out of the equation, everything works. There is an elegance to nature if we watch it from a distance.”