The new documentary Fathom by Drew Xanthopoulous follows two marine ecologists studying humpback whale songs on their month-long field research. The film is now streaming on Apple TV+.
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In the new documentary from Drew Xanthopoulous, Fathom, follows two marine ecologists studying humpback whale songs on their month-long field research. Dr. Ellen Garland travels with a team of PhD students to Alaska to see if playing back a humpback’s “whoop” call can spark a dialogue with the nearby whales, in an effort to gather evidence that it’s an introductory ‘hello’ call. Meanwhile, Dr. Michelle Fournet travels to French Polynesia to record the songs of humpback whales to see if the same song she heard in New Zealand and Australia earlier in the year has since traveled to French Polynesia.
Fathom is a fascinating look at the research process for learning more about the natural world, and how exciting this can be when you’re actually witnessing (or taking part in) real life communication between whales. Both women are looking to better understand humpback whales as social animals, whose brains have evolved even moreso than humans when it comes to communication and identity. They want to gain insight into the meaning of the whales’ song. Xanthopoulos’s camera captures the beautiful locales, as well as the elusive glimpses at humpbacks, usually from afar, emphasizing just how much at a remove the researchers are from these creatures that they’ve spent their lives studying.
That said, there are some unspoken power dynamics at play here, between the researchers and their students, which at least based on how Xanthopolous cuts, seem to be worrying. Garland seems to refer to her PhD students as “friends”, oversharing about her personal life, even if it’s understandable given the remote locale and the sheer amount of time she’s spending with them. Still, she tends to talk somewhat condescendingly to her students, and the film certainly doesn’t track much education happening. Fournet comes off as more well-adjusted, and we do see her teaching her PhD student how to operate the machinery and how she’s designed the study. These dynamics are unfortunately very common, and the film somewhat smooths over them to try to present a harmonious research team. The cracks seem to suggest this may not quite be the case.
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