James Cameron spent $250 million and nine years making Avatar: The Way of Water, a dazzling and deeply immersive spectacle that explodes the senses and tugs at the heartstrings, while simultaneously forcing us to spend three hours and 12 minutes in 3D glasses, confronting existential questions about our relationship to family, the natural environment, and militarized capitalism. Namely:
Could I befriend a whale?
A brief recap: the sci-fi blockbuster takes place 15 years after the first installment, in which Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paralyzed veteran, got deployed on a mission to the planet of Pandora and fell in love with a beautiful, 10-foot-tall blue-skinned Na’vi woman named Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña). After helping the Na’vi resist their human colonizers, he permanently assumed Na’vi form himself. By the time we get to The Way of Water, Jake and Neytiri have a family that includes their biological children Neteyam, Lo’ak, Tuk, and adopted daughter Kiri. Somehow, their last names are all still Sully. (There’s also this kid with white dreads who always hangs around.) After Jake is attacked by their old enemies, they must flee from their chill forest home to the refuge of an even chiller ocean home.
Lo’ak, classic middle child, has trouble adjusting to the changes—until he meets Payakan, a Tulkun, or whale-like species, on Pandora. According to The New York Times, Cameron was “adamant” that they aren’t whales. (They’re basically whales.) The Tulkun pods have a close bond with the ocean Na’vi and even communicate with them directly—through a telepathic, Papyrus-subtitled language—although Payakan has been exiled from the rest of his pod.
This particular plotline resonated with me. In part, it’s because it’s about as emotionally moving an experience you can have while wearing 3D glasses in a Midtown Manhattan AMC. But mostly, it’s because I’ve always had the delusional confidence to believe that, were I to ever encounter a whale in the wild, they would recognize me as a kindred spirit and a good hang. (After watching Grizzly Man, I also thought, “Yeah, I get how that kind of thing happens.” So, do with that what you will.)
But could I actually do it?
After marinating on this question for over a month, after The Way of Water broke $2 billion at the box office, after it was announced that Payakan will be appearing in the Avatar sequels (who is his agent???), I needed my answer. So I reached out to renowned ecologist and author of the book Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel, Dr. Carl Safina.
When posed with the question “can a human befriend a whale?” Safina, who has not yet seen The Way of Water, told me the story of an orca named Luna. In the late nineties and early aughts, Luna became separated from his family, and made frequent human contact off the shores of British Columbia. “He would visit boats, people would pet him,” Safina said. “Luna had a playful streak, where he might go to a 30-foot sailboat and give it a big shove but he would go over to kayakers and he would barely nudge the kayak, seeming to completely understand what the tolerances were of those two kinds of boats.”
Safina also recalled his personal experiences with a beluga whale when he was doing PhD research off the South Shore of Long Island in the eighties. “The beluga would follow my boat,” he said. “If I touched that whale or if I got in the water, the whale got very excited and started swimming all around, swimming faster, and constantly coming back.”
Was the whale just exercising some pent-up energy? Or was it something more profound? “The only word I can use for that kind of excitement is, they were enjoying the encounter,” Safina said.
He also noted that both Luna and the beluga whale had been separated from their fellow cetaceans—not dissimilar to the story of Payakan in Way of Water. “These are whales that are highly, highly social animals and they need social bonds in a way that is probably the same way that humans need social bonds,” Safina explained. “In the case of Luna and the beluga, these were lost whales who needed social contact. They need some kind of relationship. In their normal case, they would probably form real bonds with other whales.”
And yes, whales do form what we would think of as platonic friendships with each other. “If you’re a sperm whale or an orca and you’re traveling in the ocean right next to somebody you were with 20 or 30 years ago, that’s because you want to be together,” he said. “There’s no way that animals who travel 70 miles a day would be together after that amount of time. That’s a very, very intentional thing.” (Dolphins also love to go out with the boys.)
As for whether you or I should venture into the ocean right now to try to hang with a whale—besides the obvious safety concerns, it’s illegal within the United States to get within a certain distance of marine life, for their own protection. But Safina also brought up his experience visiting Baja, California, during the gray whale birthing season. It’s highly regulated, but people are able to visit some of the birthing grounds, where the whales will swim up to the boats with their babies. Once again, my fellow Way of Water-heads can see where Cameron directly got his inspiration for some scenes.
“I would say, if they make the first move, it’s something that they desire or need or may benefit from in some way or else they wouldn’t do that. Before these kinds of interactions, people called that species of whale the ‘devil fish.’ Everybody thought that they would kill you with any opportunity. The depth of that kind of understanding is part of the reason why we have the catastrophe that we have right now on this planet,” Safina said. “I think it’s crucial to understand these are social beings, and very aware of what they’re doing.”