Secrets, loneliness and pioneering science: 3 whale docs dive into social structures, hold a mirror up to humanity

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Preston Barta // Features Editor

What does it mean to be human? Answering the question is not as straightforward as it might appear. It’s something we’ve been asking ourselves for thousands of years. Poets, philosophers, scientists, and artists have sought to solve this ultimate puzzle. But the answers have never fully captured the vastness of the human experience.

This year, filmmaker Drew Xanthopoulos, photojournalist Brian Skerry and documentarian Joshua Zeman each released their own documentaries about the complex lives of whales. Apple TV+’s Fathom, National Geographic’s Secrets of the Whales and Bleecker Street’s The Loneliest Whale have different approaches and end goals to their aquatic studies. However, all titles explore the question of human purpose by comparing our cultures and behaviors with that of whales.

Xanthopoulos, who directed the Apple Original documentary Fathom, said in a recent interview with Fresh Fiction that he pushes to tell stories that “expand the way we see ourselves.” Through his following of biologists Dr. Michelle Fournet and Dr. Ellen Garland on their quest to decipher the songs of humpback whales, the filmmaker seeks to unravel the social similarities between whales and humans. 

“We are all trying to figure out what it means to be human,” Xanthopoulos said. “How are we connected? Are we special or not special? We have many institutions that we’ve created trying to answer these questions and give us context. But the message science is showing us is that we cannot define what it means to be human based on humans alone.”

Despite considerable advances in science over the past century, our understanding of nature and human life is far from complete. The theory of everything continues to compel, leaving us to wonder if human science will one day hit a hard limit (some believe it may already have). Yet, is there any good reason to suppose that answering these big questions about ourselves will forever remain out of reach? For these filmmakers and truth-seekers, more answers to our existence may come from studying how other intelligence, like whales, communicate and express their own culture.

In National Geographic and Disney+’s four-part documentary series Secrets of the Whales, we step away from the computer monitors to observe instead five whale species (humpbacks, orcas, belugas, narwhals, and sperm whales) living in their natural ocean regions. Skerry, a prominent voice in the series, captures these intelligent and emotional cetaceans with his camera to showcase different behaviors in various areas. Through his lens, we witness whales form pods with unique languages and cultural food preferences and even pass down ancestral traditions to their calves, much like us.

“What I came away with [during my three-year fellowship for this series] is a reminder of something I already knew, which is that we need each other,” Skerry said. “Whales make time for socialization. Life in the ocean is hard [just as it is on the surface]. Yet, every day or every couple of days, they make time to come together.”

Whales’ social bonds are the secrets to their success. There’s beauty in their unity. Among the many notable moments throughout Secrets of the Whales, Skerry and the National Geographic crew captured humpbacks on the coast of Australia, breaching to communicate with each other. Even though we share no language, observing their behavior has slowly revealed their thinking and how they’re processing.

In The Loneliest Whale: The Search for 52, the viewer joins Zeman on a mission to locate a singular whale nicknamed “the 52 Hertz Whale” or “the World’s Loneliest Whale.” It earned these monikers because this mystery behemoth sings at a frequency that other whales cannot hear or understand—one that rings out clearly at 52 hertz. This caught the attention of legendary oceanographer Bill Watkins in 1989, and researchers and others have been trying to track 52 for over three decades. No one knows if it’s the first or last of its kind.

“[The story of 52] is more than just science and biology. It’s about how [stories like this] affect us,” Zeman said. “Ironically, I’ve become a much better person because of my relationship with whales—52, in particular. I’m having discussions with people about loneliness, and that’s the beauty of this story and our relationship with animals.”

Zeman uses his film to document the intense process of searching for 52, but he also addresses the human impact on the oceans, both historical and contemporary. For example, the filmmaker notes that commercial whaling extracted hundreds of millions of whales by the 1960s. Yet, it wasn’t until scientists discovered that they could sing and communicate with each other that the public began to insist they be protected. 

Through these films, we see voices unite communities and cultures—a global cultural network. Whales breathe air, have large brains and massive hearts. Their world depends upon educating their young and sophisticated communication, a social structure resulting from an evolutionary process millions of years older than our own. Studying whale culture might be more about glimpsing something of ourselves and how we can connect differently.

Catch each of these films today. Fathom is now streaming on Apple TV+, Secrets of the Whales is available on Disney+ and The Loneliest Whale is now playing in select theaters.

About author

Preston Barta

I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction (FreshFiction.tv) as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.