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Photos: The Culture Of Whales

Humpback whales, working in teams, circle herring with disorienting curtains of bubbles off Alaska's coast, then shoot up from below with their mouths open. This innovation developed among unrelated groups of humpbacks but is now a widely adopted practice.
Humpback whales, working in teams, circle herring with disorienting curtains of bubbles off Alaska's coast, then shoot up from below with their mouths open. This innovation developed among unrelated groups of humpbacks but is now a widely adopted practice.

Brian Skerry says it was "the stuff of dreams" to be in the water with a nursing sperm whale.

The National Geographic photographer and explorer dove into Caribbean waters to capture what he believes to be a unique image. He got within a few meters to get the shot.

"This was a very trusting mother, a new mom with maybe a five- or six-month-old baby that was nursing down at a depth of about 50 feet," he said. "I very gently approached, just breath-hold diving, swam down. She saw me and then actually closed her eyes. I mean, she was so relaxed that I could enter into that world. I was being allowed into her world and could make these pictures."

That moment produced one of several rare images in a new issue of National Geographic magazine, the culmination of Skerry's three-year project exploring the culture of whales.

"Behavior is what we do. Culture is how we do it," he says, paraphrasing sperm whale biologist Shane Gero.

In the photographs, Skerry assembles examples of whale behavior that seem almost human: belugas play in the shallows, orcas teach their pups to hunt, sperm whales nurse and babysit.

Family units of sperm whales in the eastern Caribbean Sea near Dominica appear to "speak the same dialect, for lack of a better analogy," Skerry says. "According to the researchers like Shane [Gero], they don't intermingle with other sperm whales that might move into those waters."

Humpback whales, known for decades for their musical abilities, frequently and mysteriously change their tunes. Researchers observe new melodies travel through populations across the seas. Skerry likens the phenomenon to a hit song.

"It might sound like a hiccup ... or a creaking door or a rocking chair at times, or a woop-woop — you know, these different sounds. Then there's more of a sad, almost melancholy sound to it that is a little bit more like a song," he says. "But they memorize it. I mean, they have it down perfectly. And what you hear in one place is often exactly what you'll hear in another place."

Skerry, a renowned underwater photographer, says this project made him reflect on his relationship with whales. The tender moments he witnessed contrasted with his childhood spent reading epic tales of leviathans like Moby-Dick.

"These are very complex societies in the sea," he says. "We know that they have cultures, that they celebrate identity, that they exhibit joy and grief. They understand that family, community, societies are important, and they need each other. And I think it's a nice reminder of what I think we already know as well."

You can find more of Skerry's photos in the May issue of National Geographic magazine, online at natgeo.com/planetpossible. Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Transcript:

NOEL KING, HOST:

OK, listen to this sound we're about to play. You could think of this as a hit song for whales. And listen very closely so you can hear all of the parts.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHALE SINGING)

KING: Whales do sing. We know that - it's nothing new. But a new article in National Geographic explores the culture of whales, including how they come up with those songs.

BRIAN SKERRY: Every year, the humpback whale males develop a new song.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

National Geographic photographer Brian Skerry has spent years researching and taking pictures of whales. He says a song can go on for 20 minutes.

SKERRY: And it tends to start in Western Australia or in that part of the Pacific Ocean. And they pass along this song across the entire Pacific.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHALE SINGING)

SKERRY: I might be in a place like Tonga in the South Pacific or Hawaii or the Cook Islands, and you just hear this haunting sound. You know, I'll get in the water, and quite often, the male that's doing the singing will orient his body upside down, so his head is down; his giant tail is up above.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHALE SINGING)

SKERRY: It is this cacophony of different sounds. But they memorize it. I mean, they have it down perfectly. And what you hear in one place is often exactly what you'll hear in another place.

MARTIN: In his reporting, Skerry captured all these amazing images - beluga whales playing in shallow water, a sperm whale calf nuzzling its mother to nurse, orcas teaching their young to hunt.

SKERRY: These are very complex societies in the sea. We know they have big brains, that they celebrate identity, that they exhibit joy and grief. They understand that family, community, societies are important, and they need each other. And I think it's a nice reminder of what we already know as well.

KING: Brian's photos are at npr.org and in the May issue of National Geographic.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.