Avatar: The Way of Water‘s Tulkun shares a surprising connection with real whales. Set fifteen years after the first Avatar, the long-awaited sequel finds Jake and Neytiri’s Na’vi family fleeing their forest home to seek refuge with the reef-dwelling Metkayina clan. There, their troubled middle child Lo’ak (UK Dalton) befriends a Tulkun, essentially a whale-like creature named Payakan. The somewhat strange and unexpected subplot left viewers wondering if it is actually possible for a human to befriend a whale.
Now a renowned marine ecologist has the answer. During a recent interview with GQ, gave Dr. Carl Safina several anecdotes about people befriending whales, including an orca named Luna off the coast of British Columbia, as well as his personal experience befriending a whale during his PhD studies off the South Shore of Long Island. In both cases, notes Dr. Safina that the whales had been separated from their family, similar to Payakan i Avatar: The Way of Water. Read what Dr. Safina had this to say below:
He would visit boats, people would pet him. Luna had a playful streak where he might go up to a 30 foot sailboat and give it a big push, but he transitioned to kayakers and he would hardly push the kayak and seemed to completely understand what the tolerances were for these two kinds of boats… The beluga would follow my boat. If I touched that whale, or if I got in the water, the whale got very excited and started swimming around, swimming faster and always coming back. The only word I can use for that kind of excitement is that they enjoyed the meeting… These are whales that are very, very social animals and they need social bonding in a way that is probably the same way, as humans need social ties. In the case of Luna and the beluga, these were lost whales in need of social contact. They need some kind of relationship. In their normal state, they would probably form real bonds with other whales.
Why Tulkun is so important in relation to water
From everything Avatar: The Way of Water has to offer from its stunning visuals to its heartfelt family story at its core, Tulkun (who has become endearingly known as space whales) stands out as one of the best and most important parts of the sequel. During one of the most exciting underwater action sequences, when Lo’ak is relentlessly pursued by the killer shark creature known as an Akula, it is Payakan who comes to his rescue. This serves as the start of Lo’ak and Payakan’s unexpected friendship, which blossoms over the course of the film.
Since James Cameron is famously fascinated by the sea, it’s no surprise that he took inspiration from actual aquatic life Avatar: The Way of Water‘s fantastic creatures. Based on what the marine ecologist explains about real whales and their need for social contact, it is actually quite believable that Payakan, who was an outcast from Tulkun and shunned by the Metkayina clan who killed the RDA whalers who killed his mother, would befriend a Na ‘we like Lo’ak. Although Cameron has been adamant that the Tulkun are not cetaceans, the aquatic creatures clearly share this quality with the cetaceans and thus display a distinctly human quality that the audience can empathize with.
Tulkun was such a well received and important part of Avatar: The Way of Water that Payakan will return Avatar 3 along with his nemesis Captain Mick Scoresby, played by Brendan Cowell. With Avatar: The Way of Water breaking $2 billion at the box office, multiple sequels are all but guaranteed. This should allow Cameron’s sci-fi franchise to continue fleshing out the backstories of characters like the Payakan, who are more than just an aquatic creature.
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