The Importance of Story in an Era of Digital Media: My Encounter with the Whale

Cheynes Beach Crop

By Joe Welklin

As an amateur photographer in the current age of digital photography and constant bombardment of Nat-Geo-worthy Instagram posts, I’m often not sure whether to feel excited or burnt out. Log into nearly any social media platform these days and you can instantly be surrounded by a multitude of incredible images, but the sheer number of award-worthy photographs at our fingertips quickly overwhelms the amount of time we can put into examining each one. So much so that it’s easy to fall into the trap of comparing ourselves to others: “maybe only the real naturalists are ones that can take super-crisp photos of exotic wildlife.” In graduate school we call these feelings imposter syndrome and we have counselors to talk to about it. Last I checked Instagram doesn’t provide that service…

Where does this leave an amateur photographer? An amateur photographer who only takes decent, not-so-Nat-Geo-worthy photographs? Where does this leave those of us without a fancy camera or a big zoom lens? Do our photographs matter? Can we be naturalists too?

That’s where the whale comes in. I signed up to write a story for Science Outside this week and had this story about finding a beached humpback whale bouncing around my head all week, but I kept pushing off starting to write it. Finally, one evening I sat down to dinner with the intention of starting to write immediately after I finished eating. But instead of writing I picked up my phone and 20-30 minutes later I was all caught up on the news, Facebook, and Instagram posts I had missed during the day. After all those cool Instagram posts my whale story didn’t sound so appealing anymore.

I opened up my computer, but few words appeared on the screen, so I tried a different approach. I plugged in my hard drive and opened up the video I took of the whale that evening.

Whoa. I was speechless. Not for quality reasons – it’s a pretty good video but I’m not expecting any calls from the Planet Earth team anytime soon. It was the story that struck me. The struggle of the whale to free itself from the patch of seagrass it was stranded on as the tide slowly went out around it. This is real. This is life and death. I realized I didn’t need an award-winning image, I needed a story. And stories can come from any sort of image or video or none at all. I got to see the whale’s story unfold by being outside, on a research trip to find a bird, and instead I found a bird and a whale. See for yourself:



I think it’s safe to say the whale’s struggle in the video tells a better story than I can write about finding it. The emotion and fear are evident with every push, every attempted roll to get itself off of that bed of seagrass, all exemplified by the sighs of failure as it sucks in new air after each attempt.

As a bystander it was tough to watch, but the locals assured me that moving the whale would be an impossible feat and the whale would most-likely be able to free itself when the tide came back in around midnight. As fading rays of the sun glowed orange around us I watched the young whale continue to struggle as night set with a couple of the locals. The crowd of five onlookers dwindled to three of us and by the time I left that evening the two remaining guys had their trucks parked on the beach next to one another chatting. Every 15 minutes or so they’d flip on their headlights to check on the whale.

By the time I returned the next morning sure enough the whale was gone. Only the story remained.

Joe received his bachelor’s degree from Indiana University, where he entered as a freshman with his sights set on a biology degree and a strong desire to work with animals. After discovering mid-way through that researching birds was a viable career, he jumped into research and hasn’t looked back since. Today he’s a graduate student at Cornell University studying fairy-wrens in Australia. For more on his research visit:

2 thoughts on “The Importance of Story in an Era of Digital Media: My Encounter with the Whale

  1. I absolutely agree with you!
    What is a picture (video in your case) if it is unable to convey a story? This is the detail that almost everyone misses to capture.


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