(National Geographic for Disney+ / Brian Skerry)
California School of the Arts

National Geographic celebrates Earth Day with four-part documentary series ‘Secrets of the Whales’ by photojournalist Brian Skerry

National Geographic celebrates Earth Day with their four-part documentary series “Secrets of the Whales”. The show stars a talented, stacked cast, with Golden Globe and BAFTA Award-winning actress Sigourney Weaver as narrator, renowned filmmaker and National Geographic Explorer-at-Large James Cameron as executive producer, and National Geographic Explorer and Photographer Brian Skerry, who created and filmed the series.

I had a chance to talk with Skerry over Zoom about his work on the docuseries, which dives into the world and culture of whales across the globe. 

“I created secrets of the whales after maybe a decade of trying to come up with a story that would allow me to do a multi-species narrative on whales,” Skerry said. “I didn’t realize it quite then but what I was looking at with these five species of dolphins that I worked with in nine locations around the world was indeed culture.”

The series took three years, 24 locations, and 179 terabytes of footage to complete, adding hundreds to Skerry’s 10,000+ hours spent underwater. The audience follows the unique behaviors and customs of orcas, humpbacks, belugas, narwhals, and sperm whales on how they hunt their food and pass their skills to their young.

“I’d like to think that if audiences can see these animals, see the ocean, see our planet through the lens of culture, [we can] realize that we are not alone. There are these aliens, cognitive species, living in our oceans,” Skerry said. “We know that they are very, very much like us in a lot of ways. I think that’s a game changer … We are no longer above or apart from nature but intimately connected to it.”

Belugas are extremely social and have been nicknamed the “canary of the sea” because of their rich and varied vocal range. (National Geographic for Disney+ / Brian Skerry)

National Geographic teamed up with Red Rock, one of the most technically innovative providers of science and nature content, known for hundreds of natural history films. Skerry recalls his experience working with Brian Armstrong, executive producer of Red Rock. 

“[Armstrong and I] talked at length about what this was really about and how it was going to be different. So many wildlife films kind of do a brilliant job of getting these great images…but we were trying to do something very much more challenging to have that narrative, that story arc throughout four episodes with difficult whales to follow,” Skerry said.

A mother Humpback Whale with her calf in the waters off of Rarotonga, Cook Islands along with two escort males. Humpbacks in this region spend summers feeding in Antarctica, then migrate to the South Pacific to places like the Cook Islands where they have their calves and spend time in the warm, protected waters here. (Brian Skerry)

Unlike other wildlife photographers, Skerry can’t just camp out in camouflage for a day and wait for an animal to wander by. To capture the perfect story, Skerry has to make sure the weather is close to perfect and his subject is close to the surface. Otherwise, the ocean will mess up the shot; he has no light-source. As a result, finding and recording his subjects can sometimes prove to be incredibly challenging. 

“There are days where you just you get down you get depressed. You know, it’s hard to pick yourself up. For example, I went to Dominica for sperm whales…I went for four weeks and I came back with only one photograph,” Skerry said. “You still have to get up every day…I guess for me, my motivation is faith and the luxury of having done this for a long time. I know that inevitably if you give yourself time and you are patient, things will be revealed.”

A large, dead squid, approximately 3 meters in length, drifts near the surface of the sea in the waters off The Azores. The squid was partially eaten by a sperm whale. (Brian Skerry)

Currently, Skerry is working on another project in the northeast of the United States on the Gulf of Maine. This body of water helped foster the colonization of America with fishing, but it has also been identified as the epicenter of global climate change. 

“It is warming 99 percent faster than the rest of the global ocean, so I’m doing a project that examines the wildlife that remains, but also giving visual context to how it’s changing and how it’s affecting human lives and coastal communities,” Skerry said. “I probably got another year here on that project, and then beyond that I’m not quite sure.”