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James Cameron’s Disney+ documentary wants to save the whales before it’s too late

Ramon Ramirez
Special to the American-Statesman
The humpback's tail, a fluke, has unique patterns like a human's fingerprints. This scene appears in the second episode of "Secrets of the Whales."

James Cameron’s upcoming Disney+ docuseries, “Secrets of the Whales,'' arrives at an inflection point for ocean conservation. Its working theory, however, has a real shot to change hearts and minds: What if we show not just breathtaking National Geographic footage narrated by Sigourney Weaver, but also, at last, the love and empathy found in whale culture?

During South by Southwest's online event on Thursday, veteran filmmaker Cameron, who serves as executive producer here, spoke alongside National Geographic photographer Brian Skerry about the jaw-dropping footage that Skerry took three years to capture. They carefully observed whales as families that go on vacation and live in matrilineal societies — as creatures that mourn and share.

Cameron said he’s “depressed but determined” about their future, though. In one distressing scene teased by the panelists, Skerry observed a funeral procession for an orca calf. Though it’s unclear how this whale perished, Skerry speculated that it was tied to ”anthropogenic stressors.”

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“We do know that a high percentage of orca calves die because of toxicities that are in the mom,” Skerry said, noting that their tissues absorb toxins from the ocean.

“It’s inevitable that they’re being poisoned by us, they’re being deafened by us,” Cameron said. They said that there are 18 billion pounds of plastic being introduced into the ocean every year.

Photographer Brian Skerry spent three years documenting the social lives of whales.

In another example, Skerry said that many beluga whales annually travel via the Northwest Passage in the summer to a warmer-climate beach, a sort of resort for them, to give birth. But because of ship traffic, this process has been significantly altered. Skerry said it only took the motor noise from two small fishing boats to cause a stampede of 700 belugas during an occasion when he was filming.

“Ship traffic is increasing. These are acoustic animals,” Cameron said. “The impacts will be highly detrimental to these animals.”

The Oscar-winning director added: “They’re at the brink of extinction, and we barely understand these animals.” Doing so is at the core of “Secrets of the Whales,” where Skerry sought to show that identity and family matter to these creatures. Like neighborhoods in New York City, there are regional dialects, diets, parenting tips and even singing competitions.

“You look at that orca and you say not only is it the apex predator of the ocean, it’s the apex thinker,” Cameron said. “They know enough about us to know that we’re interesting and not attack.”

The team embarked on what panel host Orla Doherty of BBC called “high-risk, high-stakes storytelling” that used the familial notion of culture as a way to connect the dots between species of whales. The series goes to great lengths to capture acts of care, empathy and, as Skerry said, “what their society is like.”

The documentary series also shines a light on how advanced whale brains really are. For Skerry to have a shot at capturing worthwhile footage, he had to do tankless free-dives of up to 50 feet for only minutes at a time, in the Norwegian Arctic, at night, just to watch orcas craft bait balls to catch some dang herring.

Skerry said he later tried filming the whales while wearing an oxygen tank, and suddenly they saw him as a competitor and their behavior toward him changed.

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“They not only can see you coming a mile away, they can see inside your body,” Cameron said. “It’s all about gaining their trust.”

For his part, Cameron said he’s spent “15-20” years building advanced cameras for ocean settings. He said he’s working on 3-D tools and quieter, less-intrusive cameras. His short-term goals include leveraging A.I. and “small, quiet, robotic materials” to build essentially a weather satellite network for the oceans: “We don’t have any kind of highly networked, highly distributed way of understanding what the ocean is doing, and we have to monitor it.”

In the end, Cameron said that the finished product is a “gift from the ocean” where the elements lined up and the animals showed up.

“If I have a goal for this show, it’s to get people to fall in love, more in love, with whales,” he said.

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