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Ocean Storytelling with James Cameron & Brian Skerry | SXSW 2021

James Cameron
Executive Producer at National Geographic
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SXSW 2021
March 16, 2021, Online, Austin, USA
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Ocean Storytelling with James Cameron & Brian Skerry | SXSW 2021
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About speakers

James Cameron
Executive Producer at National Geographic
Brian Skerry
National Geographic Explorer and Photographer at National Geographic

About the talk

Join world-renowned filmmaker and National Geographic Explorer at Large James Cameron and National Geographic Explorer and Photographer Brian Skerry on a guided adventure into the deep blue to discuss the upcoming Disney+ original documentary series Secrets of the Whales. Filmed over three years in 24 locations, avid underwater conservationists James Cameron and Brian Skerry join forces to deliver an epic, awe-inspiring look at the incredible life and culture of whales and how the world’s largest mammals are facing the challenge of an ever-changing ocean. Moderated by OceanXplorers executive producer Orla Doherty.

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National Geographic has a long Rich history of deepening our connection to the world and its inhabitants and they sparring. Look at the mysterious and peaceful world of whales, premiering on Disney Plus April 22nd. The full call special secrets of the world's Chronicles, the whale way of life and the challenges and triumphs in an ever-changing ocean by the amazing world of wild life. And love from that perspective. Is executive produced by renowned filmmaker National Geographic Explorer, at large James Cameron,

and his latest wife pictures and National Geographic Magazine on joining us. But before we get started, let's take a quick look at secrets of the whales. Welcome Brian. And Jim is Nancy. Jewelry to be with you both Jim old friends, ocean Friends, making also an amazing series National Geographic, finally meet you. I've been tracking you for very long time and being a small stories about whales. That high-risk high-stakes storytelling because it's for real, this isn't in the studio. This is out there in the Wilds of the

ocean. And so, I really want to know. Everyone wants to know, from both of you. Or I'm going to start with u. Why? Why take on the challenge of this project? What was it, that it? I mean it's over but it'll be hard for this project really came about for a few reasons. But primarily, you know, I love working with whales and dolphins in the ocean. I think there's some of the more engaging species but over the last decade, I was sort of looking for a way to do a multi-species project where I could

involve ultimate ultimately various species are whales. The trick was what, how would I connect the dots? You know, how do I show connections between them and after speaking, to a number of scientists and reading scientific papers? I settled on this notion of culture with Wales back, then within genetically, identical species of whales are doing things differently much like humans. They have parenting techniques, they have unique Food preferences. They have a singing competition, they have dialects in isolate themselves by dialects like the

neighborhoods of New York perhaps in the trailer Centre using that, that lens of culture. I thought that maybe we could get people to see the ocean differently. It overtly isn't about conservation for My Hope, was that? It could have been, people would come to see these families these personalities that have empathy in love, and do things much like we do. Your right in the sense that, you know, the good news was you get to go and do it. And then the reality sets in and you realize that if you did a Venn diagram of all the things that have to line up there to tell this story, you

would never probably do it. But, but that was sort of the, the Genesis of this project secrets of the well, Time to get involved with this. I think it's a subject matter. I mean certainly you know new new Brian through National Geographic they brought this to our attention that he had he had brought up this idea of talking about world culture and and show the research and show the science is that it's a day. Are we just have to go photograph it and it's going to take a long time to do it and it's going to be arduous and all the things that the Brian

raises his hand, to going to go and do but it's it was the subject that we could in some way illuminate. You know, how do you say amazing animals that we all you know, kind of love and respect? But we don't really know that much about how they interact what their societies like what their minds are like and it takes a lot of very careful observation to do that. A National Geographic is willing to to fund this three-year Expedition and I want to be very clear up front, you know, Brian does the work he's the one that's out there. Frontline Frontline on my own on my own

stuff. But in a way, the things that I've done it but a couple of months at Sea to go film Titanic or the Bismarck or the geothermal vents are the some of the details wrenches. They're always there. You know, it's like it's like an appointment, they're not going to break, you know, we still have the adversity of the ocean as an environment with you know tides and winds and weather in all those things that but you know, Brian also has the fact that they don't necessarily know where the whales are going to be. So when they get a shot, every time they get a shot in, the shots hurt or gorgeous,

or whether they're beautiful. It's in spite of, its not because of your effort to go out there and your, your will to make this thing. It's a gift from the ocean. Every one of those shots is a gift from the ocean that the elements lined up the conditions lined up, the animals showed up, and of course, it takes tremendous research, and Brian can speak to that much better than I can tremendous urge to get anything done. Is by the way, you're underwater, it's difficult. And you need to know where to go and where to be and how to behave and how to approach these animals and he can speak to

that a lot, a lot better than I can. But it's it's the kind of challenging daunting kind of subject up that appeals to me. It's also so important for people to understand, you know, and for this film to illuminate, how do you treat your think, how they feel, what their emotion is, like what their society is? Like, because we won't protect, what we don't love. And if I have a goal for the show, its to get people to fall more in love, even, even more in love with whales due to a greater elimination of of who they are. And how they behave, and maybe that will lead us is Brian, says to the

conservation dividend. Like, how do we save them? How do we protect them? As you pointed out, these are very challenging animals. You know, what, a lot of people may or may not realize, and you certainly know an underwater photographer, We don't have the luxury that are terrestrial counterparts. Do I can't sit in a camouflage blind with a 600? Mm, two lens, and wait, for a month. For some elusive animal, to wonder why we have to get in the water. And we can only stay under water as long as the Air Supply in our back will last that if it's a SCUBA tank, that's in, maybe an hour. But with

whales, you not using scuba in most cases your freediving. So, you have to get in the water, you have to get close to these animals. They have to allow you into their world, and you have to do it in in a minute or two to get the shot. You don't sneak up on a, on a cetacean, it knows you're there even, before you've gotten out of the boat out, with its location with its Acoustics. They not only can see you coming a mile away, they can see inside your body, some of them, you know, I probably know more about you than, then you do is. So, it's all about, it's all about gaining their trust

or at least you're not being threatening and Some way and I'm still astonished at the number of encounters you had with orcas and how scary. Those things must be coming out of that, murky water, sometimes all the grinning teeth like that. And you know, you're doing that on like you said on, on breath-hold Dives that must be able to talk about that some crazy swell our book that you wrote the foreword for secrets of the whales. I talked about in the Norwegian, Arctic being with Orca there. And I described it as being scanned by a supercomputer that

that they probably know what I had for dinner last night. They know if I'm sick, if I'm feeling well, operating on levels that we believe can understand at least, not yet. I'm in a place like the Norwegian Arctic. I was documenting them doing their natural feeding Behavior. Again showing these feeding strategies which they've developed unique in the world Orca in that place or a feeding on herring in the Falkland Islands. Eating an elephant seal pups in in New Zealand, they're feeding on stingrays. So they have this International Cuisine Preference. They figured out how to, how

to go for their ethnic foods that they like to eat, but it's extraordinary to see them work, they're communicating, and are in the, in the Norwegian Arctic. We're, we're, we're up there at the polar night around the time that the polar night begins. So light levels are extremely low. The Sun never gets above the mountain peaks. It's very cold where dining in your very, very cold water. With heavy wetsuits freediving down, sometimes 40 ft. 50 ft. I'm trying to get into that world where they're working cooperatively to create bait balls of Herring. And then tearing through whopping the fish with

their tail to stun them and then going in and picking them off one at a time. Conversely more commonly these days. I I first experienced that in the Norwegian, Arctic back in 1994 when that's all they were doing more often these days, they're hanging out next to Commercial fishing boats where they can get a free meal at I call it take out food. They don't have to expend the energy to make dinner. They can just hang out next to one of these commercial boats and and is there bringing back and neck full of turning their falling-out in there, you're getting an easy meal, but when you're down

there, you know, it's one thing. When I'm free diving or snorkeling up on the surface. The one rare example, where I did put on a tank and went down about thirty feet of a sudden their behavior changes very much. Now you're on their level and they see you perhaps as a competitor. No no threats I didn't get any threat but it was clear that you know, that fish was there is don't even think about going in to get them actually do have them a clip I don't know where life we want to get to it now or a little bit later but in New Zealand I had an extraordinary experience with workouts that were

feeding on stingrays so I can I can talk a little bit about that or we can do it later I guess depending on Visser in New Zealand. Who is an orca scientist? PhD studies them there. And what she has found out is that these Orca will will move into shallow mangroves and harbors very, very shallow water to the point where you would think they couldn't even physically fit, their bodies into the shallow water, and they love to eat Stingray. So they will go in, they will pick up a stingray, they will flip it upside down doing this,

tonic immobility where it sort of goes to sleep and then go about for dating on it. Eating it while I jumped in the water. This one day was swimming towards an adult, female have one of these Stingray, she was beginning to eat it, but then dropped it on the seafloor where I was swimming. So, I went down and I knelt down on the on the sea floor, right next to this thing, right? She comes around behind my back. I can see this massive, you know, black and white Orca coming around 2 to get in front of me. And then she just pauses and she looks at the ray look. He looks at the rain, looks at me

as if to say, are you going to eat it? You know, that in the, in the film Sigourney says, you know, it's as if she was thinking that I was a skinny Orca that needed to be fed as an underfed orca, who needs to put on some weight, she then pauses for a moment. I was able to get a frame of that and then she goes off and and we actually have food sharing, it's not in this particular clip, but with a drone, we were able to get this footage of her, with members of her family, food, sharing it again. He's a matrilineal societies. They're

led by the older wiser, females of the group that have figured out these techniques. They're the only ones in the world who do it. You know, the ones in Patagonia that are feeding on, on sea, lion pups on the beach, they're the only ones in the world that do that strategy. So very, very high degree of cognition but it is their culture. It's what they do. This thing is The world's been out there for a very, very, very, very, very long time. And the ocean has been there for a very long time to support them, they built these couches. They've designed this lifestyle that tribal, they do that

thing in the ocean, what we know and what the world is really beginning to get screwed up is that is changing faster than they can manage to keep up with. So few Encounters in order. The storytelling that you've done through this project. What do you think is the most telling moments where he gets across this world is changing? It was an experience for yourself when you have a second. What are we going to do about that? You know, I certainly would say that I've seen it in every example, it it's almost impossible to go on Dives these days where you don't see it. You know,

there's 18 billion pounds of plastic being introduced into the ocean. Every year, we've lost half the world, coral reefs, 90% of the big fish in the ocean or gone because of overfishing commercial, industrialized overfishing. So all of these things impact these animals to to immediate examples, come to mind when I was working with beluga whales and the Canadian Arctic. The population that I was working with spend most of the year over near Greenland and then in the summer when it's light 24 hours a day, they travel through the Northwest Passage and come to a place called Somerset island

in the Canadian High Arctic where it is. They're, they're Beach Resort, they come into the shallow Estuary system, the waters a little bit warmer because they're the river water is warmer than the ocean water. And here is where they have their babies. It's a giant Maternity Ward with hundreds, thousands of moms, and babies. And rubbing on the gravel bottom like a giant loofah, but this world is changing rapidly, that's that Northwest Passage is opening up a gym. Certainly knows his very well ship traffic is increasing. These are acoustic animals that have for so long for eons. Been

essentially in their silent World up there, you know, not totally solid, but not ship traffic. That is changing rapidly in the impacts will be highly damaging and detrimental to those animals. We saw had one day a ship was out in the Northwest Passage in deployed two. Small little tender boats that came into this region that we were we were land-based and just to outboard engines made 700 beluga whale Stampede out of that Estuary and they didn't come back for about a week. Just the sound of of of those. Another example was when we was in the Norwegian Arctic and we saw this funeral

procession, I would call Where there was a family of orca that we're moving very deliberately on a very snowy cold day, it was Thanksgiving Day in the United States. The first time I've been away from my family on Thanksgiving day and I got in the water and I was able to see this mother, this female Orca carrying her dead baby and very somber moment. Very sad that the empathy, the morning that was clear, clearly of being exhibited and although we didn't do any Cropsey, we don't know how that animal died. We do know that a high percentage of orca cops died because of toxicities

that are in the mom. There's so many pcbs and heavy metals in and damaging chemicals in the ocean, there tissues absorbed that and it's in the placenta they say it goes to the umbilical cord in that account off and dies because of those high levels of toxicity. So those are just two examples of many of these anthropogenic stresses that are having a detrimental impact on on Wells. Where do where do we go with that? Where do we go with this information? These observations, be stories. What what can we do? What, what are you what are you doing? Well, you know, if Brian was going

through it, I was listening in my head. All of the different stress, or is that we create for these, these animals, you know, the fact that their predators. So all the toxins that we released into the ocean, by o concentrate up the food chain and so they concentrate in the fish and so on and it's inescapable that they're they're being poisoned by us that they're being deafened. By us, are there their behaviors all there. They're feeding, strategies and mating strategies, and reproductive strategies are being, or are being dismantled by all of this noise from Shipping channels and

Military seminars and all that, they're their mass strandings and all these things. If it's just the inevitable effect of the Collision of human technical civilization with the oceans. And, you know, it's something that we it it's it's not going to do. Go away. They're going to continue continue to decline the right whales are down to about three hundred members of the species, so they're at the brink of Extinction and we barely understand these these animals. So I think we have to as a society we have to think about doing it better. What does that mean? I think, you

know, one of the things that that is one of the greatest stress is on the ocean is really something that people dry on dry. Land thousand miles from the ocean can change, which is an I I know you're going to roll your eyes when I bring this up, but if we just didn't eat meat and dairy, we could cut our agricultural footprint, you about one tenth of what it is right now and we're constantly using the oceans as a as a Dumping Ground or toilet. Really, for our agricultural runoff, which is created over 400 Dead Zone. It disrupt the entire food chain in the ocean. It's affecting primary

production in the ocean with sound effects, the Krill, which that affects the the the Herring and the other fish that the the big whales Show just how we behaved, just how we have our overall footprint, as a civilization and as individuals on the planet makes a big difference. Even if we're fifteen hundred or two thousand miles from the ocean, it makes a big difference. If you know you look at that Orca and you say not only is at the apex predator of the ocean is the Apex thinker. You know it has a brain much larger than ours and who's to say just because it doesn't build houses and

tools and have a smartphone that it's that it's not smarter than we are. There certainly are highly cultured highly intelligent animal. They know enough about us to know that we're interesting. I'm not attack us because they could easily instantly tear us apart and Brian, you came face-to-face with these in many different in these animals, in many different environments, one of them brought you a gift of food as opposed to thinking of you as food. So their, you know, they're quite sophisticated animals in and I think about, I don't know if you, if you probably followed the story of the

Three male orcas off to his audience that are attacking sailboats and discs and disabling them very intelligently by disabling and they've done it twenty seven times. So what are they thinking? Are they trying to get angry cuz we don't want them to be angry if they're very big powerful, fast creatures. But if I were in their shoes are there fins, I'd be angry if I'd be damned angry. I think everything he just said Is Right on the money, our Behavior, the things that we can do.

So with secrets of the whales, what we're trying to do here is get people to see these animals a little bit differently. You know there's a multibillion-dollar whale watching industry on planet Earth and people go on boats and they love to see whales breach and they eat a hot dog and go home or they need a veggie burger even better and go home. You know, but how much do we know about their lives? And that's what this series is about it. It's, it's showing people that they have identity. The first thing, a sperm whale says, when it meets another sperm. Well, as I am from Dominica,

Ryan from Haiti, Ryan from Galapagos identity matters, Family Matters. They they love their grandmother's, their kids, you know? And I think if we can get folks to see the oceans, that way as a place, where these families live, maybe we'll want to protect it. More maybe will care about the run off of it and in the plastic and all the things we're doing. So I think that's the message. Jay McArdle question for you when you've gone to walk underwater incredible, technology to capture a story and knowing where we're at now with

filming on what we can do now. But we can capture. Where can you see a jack? Can you see stories that are out there that we can't yet yet? But if we could use already kind of brainstorming the next pioneering, I'm going to do this and then we can tell this this child. You know, it's interesting. You know, I've spent about 15 years building a 20 years, building Advanced Camera and lighting tool sets to go into the the deep ocean where there's little to no light and, and light it up. And, of course, all of the, you know, that's all a very kind of hubristic

approach, it wouldn't work at all for the type of Photography that Brian is doing. I love 3 days and we've developed 3D tools. Brian, you should do sit down the windows 2 in 3D in challenging place to film. And I can imagine a set of tools that might be used for the type of a natural history. Work. That Brian does that are more sensitive cameras, less intrusive extremely quiet system. May be very quiet vehicles that use anechoic Coatings, and things like that. So that the they're less intrusive and

and don't change the behavior of the, the animals that you're studying. But you know, I've, I've It's a little bit, my, my focus from the the imagining, how we can tell stories better, and explore better, to imagine, and how we can understand the ocean, much more holistically better. And for that, I think we have to play apply artificial intelligence and machine learning to Kind Of Swarm robotics, small vehicles that again or not intrusive that that spread out. And give us the kind of information from the ocean that we get from weather satellites. So you can look at the

atmosphere from above and see what it's doing and understand the highs and the lows and make predictions on an hourly basis and if Doppler radar and we don't have anything like that in the ocean, we don't have any kind of Highly Network, highly distributed way of understanding, what the ocean is doing. And we have two moderates for the health of all the animals. In the ocean, we have to know what how the ocean is responding to our inputs of civilization. So that's an area of a real interest to me for the, for the Near future. one word answer from each of you,

you can have three wives and hope for a future where we at Ryan, free Woods. How about you? Consciously optimistic depressed. But determined great. Thank you so much. Thank you for putting yourself together and making this project become a reality, become an amazing amazing story of those secrets of the whales. And let's hope this much more of this going on. I Mo stories unpacked by the two of you. Thanks, thanks. Thank you. Thank you. Jim a real pleasure.

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