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Disney Plus' Secrets of the Whales gives intimate look at lives of belugas, orcas and more

Executive Producer James Cameron and photographer Brian Skerry chat with CNET about filming the National Geographic series, premiering Earth Day.

smiling belugas

Secrets of the Whales takes viewers on a deep dive with belugas and other whales around the world.

National Geographic for Disney Plus/Peter Kragh

There's a scene in Disney Plus' new four-part series Secrets of the Whales that I can't stop thinking about. In it, National Geographic explorer and photographer Brian Skerry is underwater in New Zealand, observing a group of orcas enjoying mealtime. Suddenly, one swims up to him and tosses a stingray carcass on the ocean floor next to him. 

"Brian is invited to share the feast," says narrator Sigourney Weaver. "Perhaps mom sees him as an underfed orca who needs to put on some weight."

When Skerry doesn't grab the offering, the female orca takes it back, looking at the photographer as she swims away as if to tell him, "Your loss."

It's one of many rare glimpses viewers get into the lives and cultures of whales around the world in National Geographic's Secrets of the Whales, which premieres Thursday on Disney Plus, in time for Earth Day. James Cameron, of Titanic and Avatar fame, serves as executive producer.

"Every one of those shots is a gift from the ocean," Cameron said during a South by Southwest panel on the series last month. He and Skerry also spoke to CNET in early April about the project and what they hope viewers will take away from it.

Skerry and a team spent three years traveling the world to capture moments like a beluga whale reunion in the Canadian Arctic and sperm whales nursing their young in Dominica. The series illustrates just how social whales are and how important family and community are to them. Viewers see beluga mothers squeaking and whistling at their babies to teach them to chat, and humpback whales hanging out with friends. The creators hope viewers appreciate the similarities we share with these fellow mammals.

"They have language, they have music, they have complex social bonds," Cameron said. "They have these highly active, very high processing brains, very much like ours."

Capturing never-before-seen moments calls for the most high-tech equipment. That includes cinema-quality drones and cameras that can shoot in the murk of the ocean. The team used remotely controlled cameras to observe whale behavior without intruding or putting divers at risk.

"It's an exciting time for ocean storytelling because of technology," Skerry said.

Skerry says he'd like to see cameras with even greater light sensitivity to capture more moments in the ocean's depths. Cameron noted he'd like to have a quiet, fast-moving drone that could swim and dive with whales and observe their behavior. 

He'd also like to see artificial intelligence and machine learning being applied to more holistically understand the ocean. Cameron imagines that tiny, nonintrusive robotic vehicles could spread out and provide information on ocean conditions, similar to the kinds of data we currently get from weather satellites. 

"We don't have any kind of highly networked, highly distributed way of understanding what the ocean is doing," Cameron said. "For the health of all the animals in the ocean, we have to know how the ocean is responding to our inputs of civilization."

Skerry says Secrets of the Whales isn't overtly about conservation, but his hope is it'll help people build empathy for the ocean's creatures, and inspire them to protect it. 

As Cameron put it during the SXSW panel: "We won't protect what we don't love."