There appears to be someone or something deeply eccentric in charge of commissioning at Apple TV+ – the only streaming service where you can watch Mariah Carey’s Magical Christmas Special, Snoopy in Space and now Fathom, a feature-length documentary about whale song.
Drew Xanthopoulos’s film features two scientists studying the complex communication between humpback whales, the oldest global system of culture on the planet. As Alaska-based Dr Michelle Fournet sets out to prove the whales use sounds to identify themselves, Australian biologist Dr Ellen Garland is in Scotland exploring how humpback song is shared on a scale comparable to human language.
Xanthopoulos provides front row seats to groundbreaking experiments in animal communication that would impress Doctor Dolittle, though the film does little beyond following the pair as they prove their respective hypotheses.
Although 90 minutes of research might sound dry, it is actually fascinating to see the painstaking, impassioned work of these young marine biologists, who spend months away at a time, including nine hours a day on a boat. It touches on the challenges for women in the field and the difficulty of adapting to regular life after experiencing such profound communion with nature.
This bears some similarity to the Oscar-winning My Octopus Teacher, but Fathom is about scientists conducting research rather than an accidental yet powerful relationship with an individual animal. That is not to say it lacks humanity; in fact some of the film’s strongest moments are those of female bonding, and Fournet’s moving recognition of feeling more at home in nature than in human company.
It is refreshing to see a nature documentary so focused on the scientific method, the few insights into Fournet and Garland’s personal lives highlighting what makes them great scientists. The only regret is that they never meet in the film, as they would presumably have a lot to talk about. Probably in whale song.
Fathom is released on Apple TV+ on 25th June 2021.
Watch the trailer for Fathom here: