Photos: The Culture Of Whales

Apr 19, 2021
Originally published on April 23, 2021 7:31 am

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."

A killer whale, or orca, chases herring in a Norwegian fjord. Groups of killer whales (which are technically part of the dolphin family) have distinct eating habits. Some corral schooling fish. Others hunt sharks or seals, while some feast almost exclusively on salmon. These habits are partly cultural — learned behaviors passed down through generations.
Brian Skerry / National Geographic

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.

Members of a sperm whale family near the Caribbean island of Dominica are part of a clan that's culturally distinct from others. Each clan communicates in its own dialect of click patterns, like Morse code.
Brian Skerry / National Geographic

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."

A mother humpback and calf glide over a reef in a bay off Vava'u, Tonga. They'd joined a few thousand adult humpbacks to fatten up on krill in Antarctica during summer there before returning to the South Pacific for mating season. Along the way, young whales began to imitate adult feeding methods and other behaviors.
Brian Skerry / National Geographic

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."

A sperm whale calf that scientists named Hope rests in a sargassum patch. It has been suckling from an adult called Canopener, but that doesn't necessarily mean she's Hope's mother. Each sperm whale social unit may nurse differently. In some, aunts or grandmothers also provide milk to offspring. Or a single female may nurse two calves at once, even if neither is hers.
Brian Skerry / National Geographic
Like a whale maternity ward, beluga cows and their calves flock to the slightly warmer waters at the mouth of the Cunningham River in Canada's Arctic. At times, when they were temporarily trapped in river pools by receding tides, scientist Valeria Vergara recorded multiple belugas vocalizing at once. She now suspects they use individual calls suggesting they broadcast their identities.
Brian Skerry / National Geographic
Nearly 2,000 belugas frolic each summer near Arctic Canada's Somerset Island, nursing their young, chattering in squeaks and whistles, and swimming about in shifting networks of companions and family. Scientists suspect many whale species share cultural traditions, much as humans do.
Brian Skerry / National Geographic
A humpback cow and calf are joined by two males in the Cook Islands. Males escort females with calves in hopes that they will be the next ones to mate with the mothers. Calves emit soft, whisper-like squeaks, perhaps to avoid being overheard by predators. Adult males sing in low, guttural moans and high-pitched whoops and screeches.
Brian Skerry / National Geographic

You can find more of Skerry's photos in the May issue of National Geographic magazine, online at

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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.


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.


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.


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.


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 and in the May issue of National Geographic.

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