Brian Skerry’s work helps unlock ‘Secrets of the Whales’

Rick's Reviews

New Disney+ offering, “Secrets of the Whales,” offers a close look at whales around the world. (Photo courtesy of Disney+/National Geographic)

(KGET) — Brian Skerry spent more than 10,000 hours under the sea with a large wave of that time working as a photographer for National Geographic Magazine. Despite all of his work to show the mysteries of the deep sea, Skerry continues to be surprised.

One of those surprises is included in the new Disney+ four part series from National Geographic, “Secrets of the Whales.” It is scheduled to be available on the streaming service starting April 22. The timing of this in-depth look at the largest mammals on the planet is being released on Earth Day.

The production – narrated by Sigourney Weaver – comes from Academy Award-winning filmmaker and conservationist James Cameron. The series – filmed over a three-year span in 24 locations around the globe – takes a deep dive to look at five different whale species – orcas, humpbacks, belugas, narwhals and sperm.

Skerry was in the process of filming a pod of orcas off the coast of New Zealand when he faced a first-time situation. One of the whales had captured and killed a stingray that was to be the meal for the pod. Before the group could eat, the whale moved toward Skerry and dropped the stingray at his feet as if to offer to share the meal.

It’s this kind of rare experience that has helped keep Skerry excited about his job and become one of the top photographers of life in the sea. Skerry is a Founding Fellow of the International League of the Conservation Photographers, the Explorer-In-Residence at the New England Aquarium and in 2015 he was named a Nikon Ambassador in the United States.

His underwater photography work started in 1982 when he would take divers to explore New England shipwrecks. Skerry began to have his work published in magazines and newspapers. His first book – Complete Wreck Diving – was published in 1995. Since then, he has published 23 feature stories in National Geographic Magazine.

Skerry has seen the wonders under the sea through the lens of his camera. He’s convinced that view has given him a much more intimate look at the world under the water.

“I am in that zone,” Skerry says. “But, that being said, I will also admit that I think the stress or pressure of delivering a National Geographic quality image also takes me away.

“If it weren’t for these photos, I might have forgotten those experiences because I am so in that zone. I get to see the world in a unique way through that lens but with the same token, there is a great anxiety of making sure you don’t miss it.”

There will be plenty of ways for Skerry to remember the assignment for “Secrets of the Whales.” Along with the four-part series, the April 15 edition of the National Geographic Magazine will feature an in-depth look at the oceans. There is also a large book of his photography – also called Secrets of the Whales – being released.

The three offerings offer new insights into the complex societies of the whales. Whales—especially the sperm and humpback species— share an ability to learn and adapt to opportunities, from specialized feeding strategies to migration techniques. There is also evidence of deeper, cultural elements of whale identity, from unique dialects to matriarchal societies to organized social customs like singing contests.

Years of taking pictures has taught Skerry one big lesson: at the end of the day, it comes down to it being a guy and a camera. But, technology has changed dramatically since he started four decades ago. Skerry laughs and says there was a time when he was using film instead of a digital camera so he had only 36 frames and no immediate idea of he had gotten the picture he needed.

Now, he can shoot thousands of photos to increase the odds of having the right frames. The use of drones has also been a major advancement as they eliminate the need for helicopters or airplanes to get aerial photos of life on the surface of the sea.

Whether his work has been below, above or on the sea, Skerry has had a very close look at what is happening in the world when it comes to whales. The good news is that whales are no longer being hunted in such large numbers as they were when the whaling industry was at its peak.

“Some of their populations have bounced back,” Skerry says. “But, at the same time the oceans are dying the death from a thousand cuts. In the last 60 years, commercial and industrial fishing has removed 90% of all the big fish in the ocean.

“We are dumping 18 billion pounds of plastics into the oceans every year. We have a scene in the orca episode where a mom is carrying her dead calf and we don’t know how it died. But, it is very likely from the toxic material in the mother’s tissues. The bigger threat is that our oceans are in trouble.”

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