‘Avatar: The Way of Water’ Made Me Wonder: Can You Befriend a Whale?

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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 WordsWhat 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.” 

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