'Secrets of the Whales' Photographer Brian Skerry on the Time an Orca Offered Him Food

On Earth Day 2021, a National Geographic documentary series, Secrets of the Whales, premiered on Disney+.

The epic, four-part series, produced by Academy Award-winning filmmaker James Cameron and narrated by actor Sigourney Weaver, was filmed over three years in two dozen locations, revealing the extraordinary lives and complex social structures of five different whale species—orcas, humpbacks, belugas, narwhals and sperm whales.

The series involves acclaimed National Geographic Explorer wildlife photographer Brian Skerry, who has spent more than 10,000 hours underwater over the past four decades. Skerry spoke to Newsweek about his experiences making the series. The conversation below has been edited for length and clarity.

Newsweek: How would you sum up your experience of making this documentary over the past few years?

Brian Skerry: I really wanted to do a multi-species story about whales. And over time, I settled on some of the latest and most interesting science that was being published about the notion of culture—the fact that these animals are doing things much like humans. That within a genetically identical species, they are doing things differently depending on where in the world they live, or how they have been taught.

It was a very ambitious project—anything in the ocean is very difficult. The process was very angst-ridden, it was a lot of stress. But looking back, it was immensely rewarding and of the many wonderful experiences I've been privileged to have in the ocean, this was off the scale. I think I learned a lot about myself—a lot about things that I should already know about human culture. That family matters, that social bonds matter. And I realized that we're not alone. There are these intelligent alien species in the ocean on this planet with us.

Were there any particular moments during the filming process that really stood out for you? From my perspective, there is one moment where you are filming a pod of orcas feeding near New Zealand and one of them appears to throw you the stingray they are eating, in what almost seems like a welcome gesture.

Yeah that is one that goes right to the top of the list. To have this adult female orca drop that ray as if to offer me some food is like an offering. I think Jim Cameron said it's like there are many cultures that offer food, so that's what's going on. That was off the scale. If we say that [she was really sharing food with me] then that was probably a first [on film.]

At the other end of the spectrum, with orca again in the Norwegian Arctic on Thanksgiving day—the first time in my career I was away from home on Thanksgiving. [I was] feeling a little sad and thinking about eating turkey back home and my family being so far away. I go out on a cold, snowy, grey day and I get in the water and see this orca mother carrying her dead calf. And it's just killing you to see that grief.

This idea of culture we tend to think of as a very human characteristic. But should it be so surprising that we see evidence of culture in whales given how intelligent they are?

I don't think it should be. And my belief is that in time, so much more within the realm of animal culture will be revealed. One of the scientists that I worked with in the very beginning and throughout this project, Dr. Shane Gero, a Canadian sperm whale biologist, he describes the difference between behavior and culture like this. He says behavior is what we do. Culture is how we do it. So, for example, most humans eat food with utensils—that's behavior. But whether you use chopsticks or knives and forks is culture. Well, what he was seeing and his colleagues were seeing is the whales within genetically identical species were doing things differently depending on where in the world they live.

So, whales have a preference for international cuisine. The orca in New Zealand like stingrays and the ones in Norway like herring. They have different dialects. Identity matters to them. They're not only passing on to their offspring the skills that they need to survive, but they're passing on their ancestral traditions. They have singing competitions, they have parenting techniques, they do all these things that are very much like humans, in a different way, of course. I think for so long, humans have seen ourselves apart from nature or above it. I hope that with Secrets of the Whales, we begin to see ourselves as part of this intricately created ecosystem that is very special.

An orca eating a ray
An orca eating a ray while being photographed by Brian Skerry. National Geographic for Disney+/Hayes Baxley