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Producer's notebook: doc making from the depths of the ocean

How, in the face of catastrophic environmental changes, is the language of whales and dolphins being reshaped? Ideas contributor Carrie Haber joined a research expedition and spoke with the people who have spent decades at sea trying to solve what seems an unsolvable mystery ... and she invited The Doc Project aboard for the journey.
In Darkwave, producer Carrie Haber examines how the competition for acoustic and sonar bandwidth caused by noise pollution along the ocean floors is interrupting traditional whale culture.

On mentorship

In late September, 2016, at a location I'll never disclose*, I gazed past my heaps of possible Darkwave scripts on the table to a family of daddy longlegs in the corner of the ceiling as I tried to process what my producer, Mary, was getting at on the other end of the line.

"I'm trying to understand … are you an anxious person?," her voice swung up and perched high in an effort to stay polite-sounding, even though we both knew it was an impolite question.

My kind of interviewer, I thought. Get right to the bottom of it. There's nothing thin-skinned about making documentaries, after all. It's no secret that doc making can be an uphill climb and an excruciating process.

Aurora, a beluga at the Vancouver Aquarium, can learn and produce new sounds. (Ed Ou)
"No, not anxious per se…." I scanned back through these first weeks of our relationship, wondering where this was coming from. Mary had astutely picked up on a mention that I'd been haunted for the past few days by one of my interviews with a marine biologist, wishing I'd interrupted the speaker, confronted a difficult idea. Pushed through.

On interviewing

It's like this: you've been following a scientist's work for years as they slowly make important discoveries. You now have one day on board their research vessel, or one hour, or even just 25 minutes with a person who has spent 10, 20, 30 years at sea trying to solve what seems an un-solveable mystery, but they're doing it anyway.

You've also got about 30 million years of evolution to cover, while you try to figure out how their work fits in to their intricately detailed corner of the behavioural ecology puzzle. And you have to walk away with the piece you need to actually complete your own radio documentary puzzle.

So yes, walking away can leave you feeling a little anxious.

Like a radiologist once said to me before running me through an MRI machine, "You'd better stay on top of this if you want to get to the bottom of this."

So I appreciate that Mary asks everything that needs asking. And that includes being both incisive and playful.

The unspoken pressure to not be playful in interviews is palpable. To put all your crazier questions, like "What do you see when you gaze into a Pilot whale's eye?," down at the end of the interview, in case there's time, or you need a wildcard. But if you're setting out to make a wonderful documentary, you'd better bring those questions to the top of the talk.

I learned that in radio, you can almost hear people's minds wander as they talk about things they've never really considered out loud before.

Watch the Darkwave trailer

Our oldest living ancestors 'speak' a language consisting of clicks, whistles, and pulsed calls. For whales and dolphins, acoustics is the glue of their society. But in the face of catastrophic environmental changes, that language is being lost or reshaped. Ideas contributor Carrie Haber and the world's leading marine scientists take us into the oceans' depths to plumb an enigmatic culture under siege. Darkwave airs Wednesday, September 28 on CBC Radio's Ideas

Passionate amateur biologist: Origin of the species

At the core of Darkwave is a long-lived curiosity about how species interact, that dates back to my childhood.

With my great persistence, our house grew into something of a zoological sanctuary – caterpillars cocooned in washed-out jam jars with holes punched in the lids; a succession of gerbils, hamsters and guinea pigs, from whom I learned all about the relationship between industry, exercise and death, spun their wheels and built fortresses in their wood chip-lined cages; the litter of six kittens born into the hall closet on St. Patrick's Day (we ended up keeping Finnegan and Flanagan); aquaria of goldfish and turtles lined one wall of my bedroom; and the gentle, horse-like presence of our Irish Wolfhound, Dylan (after Dylan Thomas) who calmly presided over my handling of these little creatures as I closely observed their behaviours and how they interacted with the universe.

Naturally, my curiosity turned to the whale – a massive creature that seems like a universe unto itself. Like Dr. Shane Gero asks in Darkwave, one of the fundamental questions every 8 year-old aspiring biologist wants to ask: What are the whales saying?

Thanks to Mary O'Connell, David Gutnik, The Doc Project team and Ideas executive producer Greg Kelly for providing the time and space to ask that question and plenty of others, in my radio effort to stay on top of it until I got to the bottom of it.

* Isolated rural locale where nobody can hear you scream.

About the author

Carrie Haber is a documentary series producer for CBC Television. She has worked as a writer, director, composer and editor for The National Film Board of Canada, has been a producer with UNHCR in Kenya, Osheaga Music Festival in Montreal, and National Arts Centre Orchestra in Ottawa­. She makes her own strange tunes under the moniker, Craven Empires.

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