Academy Award-winning filmmaker James Cameron is no stranger to epic productions, and the latest project by the director, writer and producer responsible for films like “Titanic,” “Aliens” and “Avatar” easily numbers among his most ambitious endeavors. “Secrets of the Whales,” a National Geographic series executive produced by Cameron and narrated by Sigourney Weaver, gives viewers an up-close and personal look at the complex culture and social structures of five species of whales: orcas, humpbacks, belugas, narwhals and sperm whales. The four-part documentary series debuts on Disney+ on Earth Day, April 22.
The series features award-winning photojournalist Brian Skerry, who explained during a discussion with Cameron following the show’s world premiere that he zeroed in on the concept of culture when defining the purpose behind the multi-species project.
“Within genetically identical species, whales are doing things differently, much like humans,” Skerry said, citing variations across pods in parenting techniques, food preferences and even dialects that parallel differences between human families and communities.
“Using that lens of culture, I thought maybe we could get people to see the ocean differently,” Skerry said. “Overtly it isn’t about conservation, but my hope was that it could have that dividend — that people would come to see these families, these personalities that have empathy and love and do things much like we do.”
‘A Gift From the Ocean’
Filming in 24 locations over three years in the field, “nearly nonstop,” according to Skerry, was no small feat. At one point the film crew spent nearly 30 days camped on arctic sea ice to film the narwhals and belugas.
“Every time they get a shot, it’s in spite of, not because of your effort to go out there and your will to make this thing,” Cameron said. “It’s a gift from the ocean. Every one of those shots is a gift from the ocean.”
Capturing rarely or never-before-filmed moments like a sperm whale nursing her calf, the harrowing experience of a beluga separated from her baby, and an orca’s grief as, surrounded by her pod, she pushed her dead calf through the water for days, the series poignantly connects the whales’ experience of family and community to our own.
‘We Won’t Protect What We Don’t Love’
Cameron and Skerry hope that the show will inspire viewers to consider the impact their actions have on the world’s oceans and its inhabitants.
“If we can get folks to see the ocean as a place where these families live, maybe we’ll want to protect it more,” Skerry said.
Cameron, a passionate conservationist, highlighted the extremely detrimental impact anthropogenic stresses have on whales. From ship traffic disrupting migratory patterns to pollutant-buildup in orca mothers leading to a high percentage of orca calves dying from toxicities that have traveled through the placenta, Cameron, a nine-year vegan, says that human behavior, even if we’re 1500 or 2000 miles from the ocean, has a massive impact.
But, “Secrets of the Whales” doesn’t use scare tactics or dwell on the negatives to mobilize viewers. The goal of the series is to inspire love for the animals.
“It’s so important for people to understand and for this film to illuminate how these creatures think, how they feel, what their emotion is like, what their society is like, because we won’t protect what we don’t love,” Cameron said. “If I have a goal for this show, it’s to get people to fall even more in love with whales due to a greater illumination of who they are and how they behave, and maybe that will lead to the conservation dividend.”