For Earth Day, National Geographic is releasing a gorgeous four-part miniseries narrated by Sigourney Weaver and produced by James Cameron. Secrets of the Whales is, for once, not a clickbait title. There’s actually completely ground-breaking footage of whale behavior never recorded by humans before.
Also, there are very cute baby whales and fishing dance battles. So it’s got that going for it.
Editor’s Note: I received screeners of Secrets of the Whales to review. The opinions are my own.
Secrets of the Whales feels distinctly timely. I’m not just talking about the Earth Day release date, either. I mean- well. Has anyone else spent the 16 months swinging back and forth between “I live on my computer” and “I am a wild and free nature spirit frolicking through the woods away from any humans”?
I’m going to pretend you said, “Yes, that’s so relatable!” and not, “Khai, what are you on and are you willing to share?” because I need the article to happen.
Seriously though, I (like a lot of people) have gotten much more connected to nature recently. The great outdoors has been the only place I could spend time unmasked – at least, once I was safely away from folks on the main trails. As a result I’ve had a lot more nature shows on my various watchlists lately. Secrets of the Whales is comfortably in my top three nature documentaries so far.
I appreciate how much time is given to whale footage as opposed to people in parkas and ski caps squinting dramatically across the water. There’s just so much gorgeous whale footage here. Underwater images from boats and divers. Eagle-eye views from drones. Video shot from shore. Actual GoPros on a humpback whale (really!). Name an angle and you get it. This is some epic level cinematography.
National Geographic Explorer Brian Skerry does pop in to give us a little exposition from time to time, which is to be expected as the series is based on his book by the same name. There are a few appearances by specific whale experts like Nan Hauser, President and Director of the Center for Cetacean Research and Conservation. James Cameron does a recap at the end of each episode sharing his experiences with filming (with some tidbits about Avatar 2 production sprinkled in).
Other than that, it’s all whales. And whales are very cool.
Here’s National Geographic’s official synopsis of Secrets of the Whales:
Epic, revealing and emotional, that’s what you get when immersed in the secretive world of whales and see life and love from their perspectives. From Academy Award®-winning filmmaker and conservationist James Cameron, SECRETS OF THE WHALES plunges viewers deep within the epicenter of whale culture to experience the extraordinary communication skills and intricate social structures of five different whale species: orcas, humpbacks, belugas, narwhals and sperm whales. Featuring the expansive knowledge and skill of acclaimed National Geographic Explorer and Photographer Brian Skerry, the four-part Earth Day special-event series unveils new science and technology to spotlight whales as they make lifelong friendships, teach clan heritage and traditions to their young, and grieve deeply for the loss of loved ones. Filmed over three years in 24 global locations, throughout this epic journey, we learn that whales are far more complex and more like us than ever imagined. This is a personal story that very few are lucky enough to witness … until now.
That sounds deeply grandiose. Like I said earlier, though, it’s actually true this time. I’m fairly nature-savvy and I was still surprised by the depth of these whales’ communication and social structures.
I also deeply appreciate that when a whale ran into a life-threatening situation caused by humans, the crew took action to help instead of acting like they have some divine mandate never to interfere. I get the circle of life and all, but when animals are being hurt by human equipment or carelessness we have a duty to help them.
There is one potential trigger warning I want to drop (other than “whales eat other animals but it’s not terribly graphic”). It’s a spoiler, so highlight if you want to see: There is a scene where a mother beluga is beached on a sand bar and separated from her son, who is far too young to survive on his own. It seems for a bit like he’s just going to die, because she can’t find him when she frees herself. He’s okay, though! It’s just something I want to warn people about in case they have triggers around motherhood and child loss.
Other than that, I’m not going to spoil the series for you. This is a recommendation, not a review. What I will do is share a few excerpts from the notes I took while watching.
-GoPros on whales is something I needed, apparently.
-Humpback whales have fraternities that meet up annually for dance battles with fish.
-Beluga have a yoga pose called the Banana.
-Orcas hunt beluga whales and can hear them talking. Do… do some orcas speak beluga? Is this a thing?
No, I’m not giving you context for those. Watch the series, you’ll see what I mean.
Fair warning though: after watching, you’re going to want to stand at a boat railing, squinting dramatically into the distance.
All four parts of Secrets of the Whales will be streaming on Disney+ April 22nd (in case you forgot when Earth Day was). Come back and let us know what you think!
Khai is a writer, anthropologist, and games enthusiast. She is co-editor (alongside Alex DeCampi) of and contributor to “True War Stories”, a comic anthology published by Z2 Comics. When she’s not writing or creating games, Khai likes to run more tabletop RPGs than one person should reasonably juggle.
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