About Killer Whales
I’m a scientist. Well, that used to be my fulltime job. Now I make radio and multimedia about science…mostly.
Let me back up. While I was finishing my PhD in oceanography, I thought about what I would do when I graduated. I wanted a job where I’d continue to learn. And I wanted to have the chance to be creative. I considered academics, maybe science policy. And I also thought about doing radio.
I met up with Samantha Broun at Atlantic Public Media and discovered they were making “science minutes” for WCAI, the local radio station in Woods Hole. More about those science minutes later. I began to see how I could blend my academic training with my burgeoning interest in radio.
As a scientist, I studied marine mammals. Seals. Dolphins. Whales. But mostly killer whales. Last summer, I made plans to visit my friend Volker who was searching for killer whales off the Shetland Islands (north of Scotland). I decided to bring along some gear and make a radio piece about the trip.
Before leaving, Jay Allison and Viki Merrick gave me a lot of advice: Record everything. Talk with the locals. Capture conversations. Remember that the characters I find charming will probably charm others who are listening to the piece. Use the microphone like a diary, a confessional, a cell phone. Capture the sights, tastes, smells, textures of Shetland.
I went to the Shetland Islands hoping for at least one incredible encounter with the killer whales, which would allow me to capture the excitement of doing fieldwork, the joy of science in action. I had anticipated recording the adrenaline and eagerness in Volker’s voice as he coordinated the field effort aboard the small inflatable boat. The sounds of sea spray, killer whale exhalations, and shrieks of discovery each time an animal surfaced. But I learned that in radio, just like in field biology, you don’t always get what you want.
I stayed in Shetland with Volker and his field team for almost 5 days. But each day passed without our seeing a single killer whale, an outcome that was not all that unexpected (as a scientist) though somewhat disappointing (as a radio producer). I recorded as many of the locals and tourists as I could and interviewed the field team at great length. I captured ambient sounds (the wind, the birds, the hum of a motor, cooking noises, an impromptu chorus of the field team blowing air over beer bottles one night in the cabin) and transition sounds. But no whales. Maybe I had forgotten to contact their agent. I came home with hours of tape and not a single killer whale encounter.
Obviously, this changed the type of story that I could tell. I had to rethink my plan.
When I returned to Woods Hole, I played the tape for Jay and Viki and they pushed me to rethink the piece through a more human lens, one that considered what motivates people to pursue their passions even if it means waiting around for days with no pay-off.
That advice really helped. So I made this piece instead, which is more about the search than the reward. And I hope that kind of quest is something that lots of people – those that study killer whales and those that don’t – can relate to.
I used a Marantz 620 digital recorder and Beyer MCE 58 omni microphone. I liked the setup because all of my gear fit into the mic bag, which made it easy to transport in the field.
Those Science Minutes I Mentioned Earlier
Atlantic Public Media initiated the whole href=”http://www.atlantic.org/cainan/sonicid/”>Sonic IDs idea that other local NPR stations have picked up. Like sonic IDs, science minutes (also produced by Atlantic Public Media) are brief (30 – 90 seconds), sound-rich portraits. But science minutes are portraits of scientists, their work and its relevance to everyday life. Listening lets you peer into a microscope, glide across the sea floor, or climb into a volcano. Like any good story, they need to have a beginning, middle, and end (and a hook, of course). And with science minutes, the listener needs to learn something new.
This was a perfect first radio assignment for me because I’m as fascinated with people as I am with killer whales. I immediately began thinking of articulate and passionate scientists, and I went and hung out with them in their labs with my gear.
The first radio interview I ever did was with Sheri White, an energetic woman who routinely travels to the bottom of the ocean to do her science.
I had the chance to interview Peter Slater, my former Master’s advisor in Scotland, when I returned to St. Andrews for a conference last summer. Peter has devoted his life to studying birdsong, and is one of my favorite mentors.
A good friend of mine suggested I contact Amy Bower in Woods Hole since her personal story interacts with her science in a compelling way.
Another friend put me in touch with two scientists at MIT. One of them, Peter Reddien, studies planaria, a type of freshwater flatworm. I remember doing some experiments on planaria in high school. But I couldn’t believe what Peter showed me in his lab. Have a listen.
Hazel Sive and I talked for 90 minutes about her work studying how an embryo develops. In the last 10 minutes, she mentioned how she draws parallels between science and music. The rest just fell into place for a science minute. And then it blossomed into the video below.
About Ari Daniel Shapiro
Ari Daniel Shapiro is a recent arrival to the world of radio. He spent five years studying killer whales and narwhals in the Arctic for his PhD in oceanography, a year before that working as a legal advocate for low-income communities in New York City, and a year before that training gray seals to vocalize on command in Scotland. Now he tells stories about science on the radio and by using multimedia. Shapiro has produced radio pieces for Atlantic Public Media, “The World,” “Radio Lab” and WCAI. Though he misses the whales, now he is able to understand what his subjects are saying.
Thanks to Volker Deecke for providing photos.
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