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How Secrets Of The Whales’ Director Brian Armstrong Found The Emotional Connections

For 244 days adventurous film crews followed various species of whales all over the world, capturing their unique hunting strategies, communication skills, and social structures for National Geographic’s Secrets Of The Whales, a new four-part documentary series now streaming on Disney+.

This Earth Day viewers can expect an enthralling series focusing on five different whale species (orcas, humpbacks aka “the singing sensation of the ocean”, belugas, narwhals, and sperm whales), their culture and traditions that will surprise fans.

Filmed over three years and across 24 locations around the world, we spoke with award-winning director of the series, Brian Armstrong about Secrets Of The Whales to learn how he created an emotional ride, the decision to rescue their subjects from man-made disasters, and more.

“As filmmakers, we don’t want you to necessarily come into this to be learning something, we want to tell a story you can emotionally connect to. We don’t want to just watch a film, we want to feel and experience it. We try to immerse you into the whale’s world right away and you learn a ton along the way without even realizing it. You learn how much these creatures are a lot like us. As a filmmaker who is really into trying to find those emotional connections Secrets Of The Whales is a perfect project because there is so much there to tackle. I still get goosebumps three or four times every show because of moments that are really connecting to me,” said Armstrong.

Before production began, wildlife photographer Brian Skerry pitched a one-hour documentary to National Geographic about his project, which turned into four hours when producer, writer, and director Brian Armstrong (Red Rock Films) signed on, along with Oscar-winning director James Cameron as executive producer.

A member of the National Geographic film team frees an orca that had entangled itself in a buoy line off of New Zealand’s north island. (National Geographic for Disney+/Stephen Hathaway)

“It started off as a photographer profile [of Skerry], but it became so big. [It soon became] about the whales and their culture.”

Narrated by actor Sigourney Weaver, there are an array of unforgettable moments from the docu-series, from the crew capturing a baby sperm whale suckling from its mother (a first); humpbacks on the coast of Australia breaching to communicate with each other; a baby humpback learning how to blow bubbles to create a “bubble net” to feed; and the first cross-species adoption ever recorded, as a pod of beluga whales accepts a lone narwhal into its pod.

However, one of the most striking moments is not from the whales but from the humans who rescue whales trapped in a fisher’s net. Often times documentarians allow nature to take course, but for Armstrong, it was important to interfere in this man-made disaster.

“We try to be observers of nature and if things are happening in nature we tend to observe and not interfere. In this case and in other cases we saw, the problem wasn’t caused by nature, it was caused by humanity. In this case, we felt it was our obligation to try and correct that, this mess that we are making. So we made the decision in the field that we needed to help this whale. Indeed there were a series of turtles that were hopelessly entangled in marine debris which we freed for more than what’s seen in the show. When we see the cause of the problem is man-made we don’t have a problem making make decisions.”

To learn more about Secrets Of The Whales check out our full interview above and our interview with National Geographic photographer Brian Skerry here.

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