Third Coast: The Whale’s Choice

Third Coast

It’s official: I have crossed the border. This is my American debut.

My audio documentary, The Whale’s Choice, has been picked up and featured by the Third Coast International Audio Festival (click LISTEN).  Here’s the skinny on Third Coast, from their site:

“Based in Chicago, the Third Coast International Audio Festival (TCIAF) curates sound-rich audio stories from around the world and shares them with as many ears as possible – on the radio, on the Internet, and at public listening events all over the place. Operating year-round, Third Coast offers producers and listeners a multitude of ways to celebrate audio storytelling.”

The Artistic Director, Julie Shapiro, and I did an email interview. She asked some great questions, and it gave me the chance to express some of what I learned in making this story.  You can find the interview under “extras,” or read it here:


BEHIND THE SCENES with Jennifer Kingsley

How did you find yourself in the middle of Frederick Sound, with a group of whale-watchers?

I have worked as an on-board naturalist for wilderness trips up and down the B.C./Alaska coast for about ten years. My job is to help people understand and connect with the ecosystem they are travelling through, and I draw on both my biology and my creative backgrounds to do that.

In Frederick Sound, I was aboard a fine boat with an excellent crew that I have been privileged to work with for several years.

I guess being a naturalist started when I was a kid and would look for turtles at the pond. That pond was the starting place for trips I have organized and guided in the west and in the Arctic. These days, I specialize in grizzly bear ecology, salmon systems and Arctic stuff, but I’m doing more and more radio, and my first book comes out next year (2014).

At what point did you realize this experience would make for a very special audio story? 

Not until after.

I thought about going to get my audio gear a few times during this encounter, but I didn’t want to miss a second of it, and of course you never know how long a whale’s visit will last. At some point, I decided to forget about capturing anything – I just wanted to be there. It seemed like a moment to be lived, not recorded. As it turned out, it was both.

Later on, I was debriefing with one of the guests on board, Chris, who happens to be an audio geek like me and a professional video editor in Hollywood. He gave me advice I will never forget – just because you didn’t tape it, doesn’t mean you can’t make a story about it. He had footage of the whole thing, and that was the starting point.

I didn’t feel how well audio could convey this experience until we had pieced it together.

Can you explain your method for producing The Whale’s Choice? You’ve somehow created what seems like almost a live experience, in retrospect…

Once I had the idea that I could make a story about this, I knew I had to describe the experience as soon as possible. We were traveling around Alaska on a sailboat, so I got up very early the next day, took my recorder and one of the Zodiac’s and went ashore, alone. I sat on the beach and told the microphone everything I could remember. I didn’t have notes or a script, I just went through the whole thing in my mind and tried to be a concrete as possible with all of the details; I also allowed myself to explore my feelings at length. I talked for about half an hour.

After the trip, I got Chris to send me the audio from his video and pulled together a whole bunch of clips, including my “narration” and interviews with other people on board. I sent it all to Karen Levine at CBC’s The Sunday Edition. She has been an incredible mentor, and she immediately said we needed to slim it all down to my voice and the whale. Simplify! (I learn that lesson over and over.)

Once we started editing, I had to confront the video. I needed it to line up the voiceover and the actual events, but I didn’t want to watch it. I find video has a way of replacing memories, in a way that audio doesn’t, and I didn’t want that to happen. I got someone else to watch the footage, describe what was on the screen and tell me where all the cuts were. Chris, the videographer, thinks it’s hilarious that I still have never seen the video version.

The experience of encountering a humpback whale  in its natural environment begs to be seen. And yet, the story works beautifully in an audio format. Why do you suspect this is the case?

I think that audio brings us closer to our imaginations, and this story is as much about the internal world as the external one. It’s about exploring the boundaries of what you understand and wondering what might be on the other side.

Seeing this as a video might pull you outside of yourself; it would be more of an exciting, vicarious experience. Audio gives you more freedom to dream, and this story takes place on the edge of a mystery.

Were you ever afraid, or in fear of danger out on the Zodiac? I don’t hear that in your voice at any point, but wonder…

I never felt fear, but I did think a lot, in the moment, about the right thing to do. I admired the micro-control the whale had in close proximity to us, and I felt the power of its body, especially when it pulled its tail into the air.

Based on your experiences with wildlife and the natural world, what’s your take on why the whale chose to hang out and “meet” you that day? Pure curiosity?

This is very hard to answer! Everyone on board had a different theory, and I don’t want to guess at what the world is like from a whale’s perspective. While this documentary and my actions have elicited joy and wonder for some, they have also come under criticism. In the story you can hear the whale “trumpeting” during some of its breaths. This is considered a sign of agitation and excitement, so some people feel that the whale must have been under stress. I could believe excitement, but I can’t interpret it as negative stress. Remember that our boat was shut down, floating freely on the water, when this whale approached us. It came to us and it stayed with us, mere inches away. I believe that was the whale’s choice. Why it made that choice, I can’t say.

Should I have reached for it like I did? I can’t say that either, but I don’t regret sharing both the internal and external experience.

Your life has been steeped in the natural world – guiding, leading, exploring… How and why this subject matter is ripe for audio stories, and how might you pursue it further?

Why it is good subject matter goes back to how audio enhances imagination and how nature forms us, regardless of the shape of our everyday lives.

There is an absence of stories about where people and the rest of nature meet. (It’s time for a revival!) They can be tricky stories to tell because nature doesn’t speak the same way we do, but there are points of connection and conflict everywhere. Wherever there is a conduit between the human and natural worlds, there is a story. I like to find those places and listen from there.

As for how to take the idea further, I’ll keep one foot in each world and stay curious.


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