MOST of us introduce ourselves for the first time by saying hello and giving our name. But what if you were trying to greet another species and understand its background? This is the premise of Fathom, a new documentary by director Drew Xanthopoulos, known for directing The Sensitives, which explored the lives of people who are debilitatingly sensitive to our world.
Fathom follows biologist Ellen Garland at the University of St Andrews, UK, and marine acoustician Michelle Fournet at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, on their respective studies into humpback whale songs and social communication.
While Fournet analyses different whale calls as she tries to create a conversation between humpbacks to understand their communication better, Garland studies the cultural transmission, vocal learning and function of whale songs. We watch as the two prepare for field studies in Alaska and French Polynesia.
Fathom‘s languid pace prevents viewers from completely immersing themselves. Although this leaves you waiting for something to happen, it allows Xanthopoulos to hone in on detail and show marine bioacoustics at its slow work. The scientists use hydrophones to acoustically track whales, capturing different calls, most notably the “whup” call, which Fournet studies.
Basing herself in Hobart Bay, Alaska, she is forthcoming about the challenges of surveying 30 whales in a month using focal follows, which involves tracking a specific animal, and playbacks, in which she rebroadcasts natural or synthetic signals to animals and notes their response.
Her candour about the likelihood of failure because of logistical complications brings a level-headedness amid the lofty ambitions, and her willingness to adapt her approach to fine-tune the “conversation” shows flexibility.
As she analyses audio tracks of a series of “whups” and begins to understand their significance, we share her sense of achievement from a groundbreaking insight: that humpbacks use sound to perceive not only each other but their surroundings.
In 1996, marine biologist Philip Clapham described whale song as “probably the most complex in the animal kingdom”, justifying the task of deciphering it as a single research topic. Indeed, Garland has her work cut out: whale songs are mostly used by males for mating purposes. But she identifies that the same series of calls (also known as songs) are “culturally transmitted”, and evolve across vast distances.
Throughout, the haunting sound of whale songs beautifully accompanies Xanthopoulos’s serene cinematography, underlining the simplicity of nature while evoking a sense of isolation. As a result, Fathom captures the calmness of the scientists’ surroundings, while the precise yet soft black-and-white visualisations of the whale call are reminiscent of another film with language at its heart: the 2016 sci-fi film Arrival.
As Garland eloquently points out: “Some things we do are not innate – they are learned. They tell us who we are connected to and where we belong. We call these things culture. We call our communication ‘language’.” For some reason, she adds, we think that what whales do is different.
Fathom celebrates not only the steps towards understanding another species, but the women helping us get to the finishing line.
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