Brian Skerry (‘Secrets of the Whales’ producer) on documenting whale culture: ‘Community matters. Family matters.’ [EXCLUSIVE VIDEO INTERVIEW]

“It all had to be based in science,” explains Brian Skerry of the process behind his documentary series “Secrets of the Whales.” In conversations with scientists over the years, the producer “noticed this theme of culture emerging” when discussing whale behavior. The concept of “culture” was the perfect fit for his desire to complete a multi-species project with National Geographic. After much planning and three years of shooting on the ocean, “Secrets of the Whales” debuted on Disney+ and garnered three Emmy nominations, including Best Documentary or Nonfiction Series. Watch the exclusive video interview above.

Skerry has been a photographer for NatGeo for over 20 years, specializing in marine wildlife (in addition to the documentary series, he also created a photography book and cover story for “Secrets of the Whales”). The opportunity to follow specific whale families “was very special to me,” says Skerry. So the four episodes of the series told a family story, with installments focusing on Orcas, Belugas, Humpbacks, and Sperm Whales. He knew the habitats of these species would set the stage for stunning photography, but the documentary also unveils that whales create unique cultures, including specific behaviors and dialects. “Whales, like humans, do things differently depending on where in the world they live,” explains Skerry.

SEE Brian Armstrong and Hayes Baxley interview: ‘Secrets of the Wales’ cinematographers

Of course, trying to capture wildlife on film can be a frustrating test of patience. During one five week trip to Dominica, the team went a full 19 days without a whale sighting. “It’s so anxiety ridden,” admits Skerry. He has to remain camera ready at all times while on the water, in a constant state of anticipation that a magic moment with a whale could occur. “You have to find a way to motivate yourself,” he says, “you can’t let your guard down.”

Skerry serves as the de facto human star of this whale series (though Sigourney Weaver provides narration), the camera frequently following his efforts to dive below the surface and capture the perfect shot of these ocean giants. While the producer asserts that the whales are the true stars he concedes that “there’s still value in following me with the whales…to have that human guide is important.” For the audience he serves as a reference point, a human witnessing whale behavior and emotion that mirrors our own. During the pandemic, Skerry had time to reflect on his experience alongside these creatures. “I was reminded of things that I already know,” he reveals. “Community matters. Family matters. They understand that they need each other. They rely on each other for simple joy.”

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