Calgary Herald


Arden and a 40-piece orchestra help bring culture of whales to life in Calgary concerts


Arts Commons Presents Secrets of the Whales at the Jack Singer Concert Hall on April 21 at 2 p.m. and April 22 and 23 at 7 p.m.

Marine wildlife photograph­er Brian Skerry was in New Zealand waters when he had a close encounter with an orca.

It was a mother orca and she was behaving quite motherly by teaching her offspring how to catch stingrays by flipping them upside down. When she saw Skerry, she must have figured he looked hungry so she offered him his own stingray.

“She came over to me and dropped it in front of me,” says Skerry. “She was inviting me to dinner.”

This meeting was featured in the first episode of Secrets of the Whales, a four-part documentar­y series Skerry worked on with filmmaker James Cameron for National Geographic. The Emmy-winning series ran in 2021 and continues to stream on Disney+. It was also a book and a 40-page story in National Geographic magazine.

Filmed in 24 locations — from Dominica, the Azores and Sri Lanka to Greenland — over three years, it features insights into the lives of orcas, humpbacks, belugas, narwhals and sperm whales.

Whales have long been the subject of scientific study, but Skerry 's approach was somewhat novel.

“It's all based on the latest and greatest science, which reveals that whales have culture,” says Skerry, in a phone interview with Postmedia. “They have complex family structures and generation­al learning and they do all kinds of things that are very similar to humans. They take vacations at their favourite summer beaches. In the Canadian Arctic, they have singing competitio­ns. They have food preference­s depending where they live, within the same species. The way the French like certain foods, the Italians like certain foods, the Americans like certain foods, so do whales.”

For the first time, Secrets of the Whales will be turned into a multimedia live spectacle that will not only feature Skerry's jaw-dropping photograph­y and footage but also a 40-piece orchestra playing compositio­ns by Raphaelle Thibaut and conducted by Anthony Parnther, who has conducted recording sessions for films such as Avatar: The Way of Water and Star Wars: Mandaloria­n. It will be narrated live by singer-songwriter, actress and author Jann Arden. It will have its world debut on April 21 at the Jack Singer Concert Hall and will have repeat performanc­es on April 22 and 23.

Skerry will be travelling for another photograph­y assignment so will not be attending the concerts in Calgary. But Secrets of the Whales is a culminatio­n of Skerry's lifelong obsession with the world within our oceans.

For four decades, including 30 years at National Geographic, Skerry has worked as a visual storytelle­r. His love of marine life goes back to his early years in small-town Massachuse­tts. It began as a desire for adventure, but working with scientists over the decades the photojourn­alist has developed a love and deep respect for the oceans.

“The foundation­al story that I think I always try to tell is that we live on an ocean planet,” he says. “Even though we are terrestria­l beings and see our world from that terrestria­l-centric viewpoint, we very much live on a water world. If you look at Earth from space, most of it is ocean. Ninety-eight per cent of Earth's biosphere — 98 per cent of where life can exist on Earth — is ocean. Every other breath we take — you and I right now regardless of where we live — is generated by the ocean. More than 50 per cent of the oxygen we breathe comes from the sea. What I've learned is that the ocean is directly connected to human life. Everything plays a vital role for every animal in the ocean, every animal on land there is a connection between everything.”

It's the starting point for many of the stories Skerry has told over the decades, whether chroniclin­g the struggles of the hard seal in frozen waters to dolphin intelligen­ce or the decrease in the world's fisheries. Certainly, the story of our oceans can seem exceedingl­y grim. We are killing 100 million sharks every year, we have destroyed 50 per cent of the world's coral reefs, we are changing the oceans' chemistry due to the greenhouse gases, he says.

“Sometimes it's those kinds of stories,” he says. “But what I've also learned is that what really resonates with people is to understand the problems but to have hope. And when science reveals these new things that we didn't really know before — like the fact that whales have culture — I think it's an exciting story to tell. That was the real motivation for me. Instead of always being the doom-and-gloom guy that is trying to help people understand the problems, I want to help people fall in love with the ocean, with this planet, and with this series I wanted it to be much more intimate.”

So the series includes what is believed to be the first footage of a baby sperm whale nursing from its mother, beluga whales teaching their babies the vocalizati­ons used to communicat­e, and the orca grandmothe­r teaching younger whales how to catch sea lions.

“These are the kinds of moments that I think can transcend between whale culture and human culture and we realize there are similariti­es, we aren't so different,” he says. “We learn that if there is a grandmothe­r living with the orca family, the children, the offspring, the calves tend to live about five times longer than if there was no grandmothe­r. So having that generation­al learning and culture is very important to whales as it is to humans.”

Whales are not a new area of study, of course, but whale culture is a largely unexplored field. Skerry credits two Canadian scientists for turning him onto the notion of it. That includes Ottawa-based Shane Gero, a biologist specializi­ng in sperm whales. He was a student of Nova Scotia's Hal Whitehead, another sperm whale biologist. Whitehead published a book called The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins. He says their work studying whale culture was pioneering.

“I started thinking about how I could bring visual context to that work,” Skerry says. “How can I translate that to the media masses out there to show them what is really happening in these whale families.”

When Skerry first began his underwater photograph­y years ago, he would often have scientists caution him about anthropomo­rphizing animals and giving them human traits. There has been a shift.

“Today, those very same scientists will say `No they do have personalit­ies. Even a shark or a fish,'” he says. “I think this is becoming a new frontier in wildlife science, to understand how animals do things.”

 ?? BRIAN SKERRY ?? Secrets of the Whales is now a multimedia live spectacle, featuring Brian Skerry's photograph­y and footage and a 40-piece orchestra.
BRIAN SKERRY Secrets of the Whales is now a multimedia live spectacle, featuring Brian Skerry's photograph­y and footage and a 40-piece orchestra.
 ?? ?? “I want to help people fall in love with the ocean, with this planet, and with this series I wanted it to be much more intimate,” Skerry says.
“I want to help people fall in love with the ocean, with this planet, and with this series I wanted it to be much more intimate,” Skerry says.

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