The four-part Disney+ series “Secrets of the Whales,” directed with award-level skill by Brian Armstrong and Andy Mitchell, is among the finest nature documentaries I’ve ever experienced. This Earth Day offering is an astonishingly well-photographed deep dive into the worlds of orcas, belugas, sperm whales, narwhals and humpbacks — essentially disparate species with their own communities and friend groups, their own unique languages and culture, their own unique family dynamics and their own special histories. The Disney+/National Geographic crews take us to the far ends of the waters of the Earth to capture these beautiful and intelligent creatures, with visuals so stunning and locales so exotic, it’s almost as if we’re on another planet — or we’ve traveled back in time.
“Whales have culture,” says narrator Sigourney Weaver (a perfect choice) at the outset of the series. “Each family speaks a unique language. They love deeply, play with joy and mourn their dead. Whales are just like us.” That sounds like a dash of the ol’ Disney anthropomorphic hyperbole — but by the time the journey reaches its conclusion, we’re all-in on that statement.
Filmed over three years in two dozen locations ranging from the coasts of New Zealand and Australia to Antarctica to the Azores and Sri Lanka, “Secrets of the Whales” devotes each episode to a particular species.
Episode One, titled “Orca Dynasty,” follows a pod of orcas as they navigate the waters of Antarctica, “the harshest place on Earth,” and another family of orcas as they root out stingrays with clever hunting methods in New Zealand. In the second episode we follow humpback whales as they embark on the longest migrations of any mammal on Earth and communicate through intricate and complex sounds and “songs.”
It’s off to Greenland for Episode Three, where we meet beluga whales and the narwhal, a species that resembles the offshoot of strange union between a whale and a unicorn. (At one point the belugas in effect adopt a narwhal to save its life.) In the finale, “Ocean Giants,” we’re reminded that Moby Dick “was a sperm whale, portrayed as a monster. … They may be more than 50 tons, but sperm whales are gentle giants. They have deep family connections. Generations of females learn from each other and groups of families share a common language.”
The sights and sounds in “Secrets of the Whales” are dazzling throughout, thanks in large part to the epic camerawork by Brian Skerry, who captures the whales with such intimate detail, there are times when it appears as if they’re looking right at us. From time to time, we pull back from the world of the whales to check in with Skerry and with the scientists who are studying their languages, and at the end of each episode, executive producer James Cameron does a mini-recap of highlights — and for all of Cameron’s experiences with underwater photography, he sounds genuinely amazed at this next-level work, and justifiably so. All great respect to the humans who bring us this story, but they’d be first to tell you the whales are the real stars of the show.