Ottawa biologist’s whale tale earns an Emmy

When renowned marine wildlife photographer Brian Skerry first approached biologist Shane Gero for a National Geographic article about sperm whales four years ago, Gero knew there was an even bigger tale to be told.

Gero, a scientist in residence and adjunct professor at Ottawa’s Carleton University, founded the Dominica Sperm Whale Project in 2005, and had for more than a decade been studying the mammoth mammals in the eastern Caribbean Sea.

He wanted to show Skerry how these whales had their own culture, their own dialect and their own local customs that set them apart from other clans and families, just like we do.

“When you spend a lot of time with them, you realize that … their values are very similar to ours,” Skerry said in an interview with CBC. “My conversations with Brian made it clear that there’s a bigger story.”

Gero is a scientist in residence and adjunct professor at Carleton University. (Mark Thiessen/National Geographic)

Those conversations led to a four-part series on Disney+ called Secrets of the Whales. Earlier this month, the series, produced by James Cameron and narrated by Sigourney Weaver, won the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Series.

Gero, an Ottawa native who attended Lisgar Collegiate Institute, figures prominently in the fourth episode, which focuses on sperm whales around the world, including those off the coast of Dominica. He also provided expert advice behind the scenes, editing scripts and interpreting footage for the documentary’s producers.

I think one thing that this series has done well is it’s got a lot of people to suddenly pay attention to the ocean.– Shane Gero

Due to COVID-19, he was unable to attend the ceremony in Los Angeles, and never worked directly with either Cameron or Weaver. Nor did he receive his own Emmy statuette, which go only to a short list of senior producers.

But Gero says he wasn’t in it for the hardware. He was in it for the whales.

“I think one thing that this series has done well is it’s got a lot of people to suddenly pay attention to the ocean,” he said.

Secrets of the Whales was released in April, and won the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Series earlier this month. (Amanda Cotton)

Sperm whales live in tight-knit matrilineal families, and like-minded families form clans that roam vast expanses of ocean. Each family’s unique social code is passed from one generation to the next not by genetics, but through shared experience and communication.

“We know that they survive because of the secrets that are passed on from grandmother to mother to daughter, just in the same way that all the amazing diversity of humanity is in our cultures, not our genes,” Gero said. 

Often, the two cultures are remarkably similar, he said.

“They enjoy spending time with some families and not others, the same way that you invite some neighbours to a barbecue and not others. They keep track of who was nice to them and who was mean to them, and that impacts what happens down the line.”

Gero listens to the unique language of a sperm whale family off the coast of Dominica. (The Dominica Sperm Whale Project)

Their uniqueness also makes them vulnerable, however: Over the years he’s studied the animals, Gero has seen numerous sperm whales lost to ship strikes and entanglement.

“We basically stopped naming the new calves because the probability of them not being around was so high,” he said.

These days the calves are faring better, but “the adults are still dying faster than would be natural.”

Gero fears human activity and plastic pollution are endangering the lives of the sperm whales he studies. (The Dominica Sperm Whale Project)

Plastic pollution in the water is another factor threatening the sperm whales, with necropsies showing those animals that have washed up on shore in recent years “are basically just filled with plastics,” Gero said.

“That’s why the series is so important and why I’m so proud of the production company for keeping it to the story that has been coming out of our science, because it’s really hard to show people the other side of the surface,” he said. 

“There are these rich, complicated lives that are going on on the other side that are facing so many challenges that are totally driven by us.”

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