'Secrets of the Whales' is a deep dive into whale culture

EMILIE RICHARDSON
·2 min read
'Secrets of the Whales' is a deep dive into whale culture

World-renowned photographer Brian Skerry is sharing some of his extraordinary work documenting the lives of whales over three years in 24 locations.

"Secrets of the Whales" is an in-depth look into whale culture through a series on Disney+, a National Geographic cover story and a book.

PHOTO: A North Atlantic right whale calf nuzzles its mother in Northern Florida. This species has struggled to produce enough calves to increase its dwindling population.  (Brian Skerry)
PHOTO: A North Atlantic right whale calf nuzzles its mother in Northern Florida. This species has struggled to produce enough calves to increase its dwindling population. (Brian Skerry)

The project documents the various communication skills and social structures of five different whale species: orcas, humpbacks, belugas, narwhals and sperm whales, including the never-been-seen moment of a sperm whale calf nursing.

PHOTO: National Geographic photographer Brian Skerry spent three years documenting the cultural lives of whales.  (Andrew Mitchell/National Geographic for Disney+)
PHOTO: National Geographic photographer Brian Skerry spent three years documenting the cultural lives of whales. (Andrew Mitchell/National Geographic for Disney+)

Skerry began his journey as a diver. "I fell in love with the sea as a child," he said.

Growing up in Massachusetts, he remembers going to New England beaches in the summer and said, "There was something about being near the ocean that spoke to me."

PHOTO: Documenting orca hunting rays in the waters off of the North Island in New Zealand. (Brian Skerry)
PHOTO: Documenting orca hunting rays in the waters off of the North Island in New Zealand. (Brian Skerry)

He said the idea for the "Secrets of the Whales" evolved over the last decade, starting with a story for National Geographic in 2008 about the most endangered whales in the world. He said after that story he wanted to expand it to a wider study on various whale species.

Skerry conducted research and spoke with scientists to select a focus for the story and was fascinated by the rich cultures that exist among whales communities.

PHOTO: An adult sperm whale, named Laius by researchers, babysits a calf named Jonah while the calf's™s mother is deep below, foraging for squid. (Brian Skerry)
PHOTO: An adult sperm whale, named Laius by researchers, babysits a calf named Jonah while the calf's™s mother is deep below, foraging for squid. (Brian Skerry)

Through this research, he said he learned that different cultural identities emerge all over the world -- even among the same species. He provided an example of different clans of sperm whales isolating themselves by dialect and not intermingling.

PHOTO: 'Secrets of the Whales,' 2021. (Brian Skerry)
PHOTO: 'Secrets of the Whales,' 2021. (Brian Skerry)

He has noticed that orcas have different food preferences depending where they are in the world. In New Zealand, orcas eat stingrays; in the Norwegian arctic, orcas prefer herring; and in Patagonia, orcas favor sea lion pups.

PHOTO: Orca hunting rays in the waters off of the North Island in New Zealand.  (Brian Skerry)
PHOTO: Orca hunting rays in the waters off of the North Island in New Zealand. (Brian Skerry)

Skerry described the techniques he used to capture the images, often in remote areas like the Arctic Ocean. He said 95% of the dives were done free-diving without scuba equipment. This requires divers to hold their breath to go down and photograph the whales.

PHOTO: An orca family works cooperatively to herd herring into bait balls in the Norwegian Arctic.  (Brian Skerry)
PHOTO: An orca family works cooperatively to herd herring into bait balls in the Norwegian Arctic. (Brian Skerry)

Skerry said he couldn't choose his favorite whale to photograph.

"That would sort of be like picking your favorite child ... whichever whale I was swimming with at the moment," he said. But he eventually landed on the orca, because "they are arguably the most intelligent animal in the ocean."

PHOTO: In the dimly lit waters of the Norwegian Arctic, a humpback whale fills its mouth with herring, its throat pleats fully expanded.  (Brian Skerry)
PHOTO: In the dimly lit waters of the Norwegian Arctic, a humpback whale fills its mouth with herring, its throat pleats fully expanded. (Brian Skerry)

Skerry said what he learned from shooting this project was the importance of family. He described the joy and bliss that whales experience being together despite the hardships they go through to survive.

"Community is important, family is important, society is important," Skerry said. "And that is what I relearned from the whales."

PHOTO: A humpback whale shows its fluke before a deep dive underneath one of Antarctica's icebergs.  (Hayes Baxley/National Geographic for Disney+)
PHOTO: A humpback whale shows its fluke before a deep dive underneath one of Antarctica's icebergs. (Hayes Baxley/National Geographic for Disney+)

'Secrets of the Whales' is a deep dive into whale culture originally appeared on abcnews.go.com