I’m all at sea with dolphins and whales….
I’m in the Bay of Biscay, that large swell of water off the west coast of France and directly above Spain. I’m on a ferry boat, standing on its top deck in a windproof jacket, thick fleece, waterproof shoes.
Next to me are bare-topped British tourists lying in sun chairs with pints of Stella in their hands reading tabloids. I try and ignore them. The sun is scorching. I’m here to help whales and dolphins and so I’m dressed in a practical way. I’m looking through a pair of binoculars. In front of me is a blank and endless sea.
‘I don’t see it’ I say.
‘Look beyond that pale patch of water’ says Richard, our incredibly enthusiastic and helpful guide who is standing by my side. He also has a fleece on but his binoculars are even bigger than mine. ‘Look out for what appears to be white tips of waves, you’ll find them there’
I continue to look but still see nothing.
‘They’re coming closer… wow. Just incredible.’
I see nothing.
The previous night I was shown a powerpoint presentation in a low-lit room below the deck. It explained in diagrams and compelling graphics that almost a third of the whale and dolphin population passes through these waters at this time of year and more and more are being killed by ships hitting them (accidentally) or from eating debris such as plastic bags that they mistake for squid. Man’s impact on animals – what a thing – even when we don’t intend it to be so. If you are as poorly informed as I am then you also had no idea that whales pass so close to the UK.
A little while ago I wrote to WSPA, the World Society for Protection of Animals (many people have told me they are a hugely credible, no-nonsense charity that do a lot of work alleviating suffering of animals).Is there anything I could help with on my year-long project? I know that this is a story about one man trying to help…but… er…maybe one man could help them make a difference?
I didn’t expect a reply , but to my surprise they kindly suggested I join them on a trip with ORCA, a much smaller animal welfare organisation dedicated to the conservation of whales and dolphins (links on the RHS). Together they were to go on a fact finding mission on a boat across the bay with MPs and experts to discuss what could be done to help stop the deaths. I couldn’t say ‘no’. I wasn’t sure how this connected with helping stolen pitbulls in Hackney although I reminded myself that my first jolt of compassion for animals came when as a child I witnessed on TV a whale being slaughtered at sea (see my intro video on ‘about the project’). And anyway, Martin, stop thinking, start getting on with it. Pitbulls evolved directly from whales.
And so here I am – fantastically overdressed – and yet if I’m honest I feel a bit less practical than I look. I don’t quite know how I’m going to help these animals (‘cetaceans’ to be more precise, the name given to the world’s species of dolphins and whales) given that I was very late to remove my armbands at swimschool and at this precise moment I’m very high up on a boat with a cappuccino to finish and unable to see anything what so ever. I look at the man in the deck-chair next to me, his copy of the Sun is resting on his belly.
I refocus my binoculars. Then I see them. Way off in the distance, grey crescents leaping out of the water and splashing back down, their curved edges glistening in the sun.
They come towards the boat and a few moments later are close enough for me to see them from above, smooth grey forms torpedoing beneath the surface before emerging clean into the air. Common dolphins. A pod of fifty or more.
‘Why do they jump like that? Soooo high?’ I ask, with the tone of a small boy watching fireworks.
‘Sometimes it helps them go faster but they are just playing really. They play a lot’ says Richard.
The man with the copy of the Sun sips his beer, turns to catch more sun and drifts off to sleep.
What I’m watching here is animal joy. The same joy that I see when my dogs run around the park in circles with a stick. There’s not much point to it really. In the case of the dogs it works like this: I go off to work to earn money so I can buy them food so they get enough energy to run around in very big circles with a stick in their mouth. Then they sleep again. An accountant would not approve. But then what could be more the point? Dog’s running, dolphins leaping. It’s aliveness, pure and simple. Nothing is as important as this.
‘Those dolphins don’t need much help’ I say, smiling, and then realise that this is probably a really annoying thing to say to a dolphin conservationist.
‘These waters used to be crammed full of whales and dolphins’ says Richard. ‘Only 30 years ago there would have been endless blue whales in here, the largest animal to have ever existed. Now you’re lucky if you see one if your lifetime. They were fished extensively, then recently the stocks when down dramatically once more. This time no-one knows quite why.’
A little later we see the blow-spray of a Fin whale emerging on the horizon before it dives some 400 metres down to find food (or a plastic bag) in the deep canyon we are sailing across. I sense the wild, powerful life that is brooding beneath the surface.
WSPA and ORCA plan to solve the problem of ship strikes by, amongst other things, designing a sonic device attached to the front of ships that will deter the whales. Given WSPA’s track record of helping and working with other groups I’m in no doubt they’ll be successful and a large number of cetacean lives will be saved. But I sense a huge operation, with many cogs needed to mesh and wonder how I can help directly. There is little one person can do with their bare hands. Even the politicians who join this trip – and who are smarter and more connected than I am – talk of the work needed to lobby government and change public opinions. This isn’t to say this work shouldn’t be supported – it should be supported absolutely (and please consider donating or clicking on the links on the right, money is needed to make this happen and save lives) but it does beg the question:
WHAT IS THE BEST WAY ONE PERSON CAN HELP ANIMALS IN DISTRESS?
Is it through giving money to others that are better qualified? Is it by going back to college and getting a zoology degree? Is it through speaking to your member of Parliament (one of the parliamentary aides on the trip said that 15% of constituent’s discussions with her MP revolve around animal welfare issues) Is it through walking into the street looking for dolphins in distress? Or is it by climbing into a small box with a year’s supply of tofu content in the knowledge you won’t harm a fly?
‘They can communicate up to 100 miles under the water you know’ says Richard. I look through my camera at the vast plane of water beneath me. The whale is under it out of sight, I am above it behind the lens. I wonder how I can communicate with it? I break out into a low song, emitting high clicks every now and then. Actually I don’t.
At the end of the trip I give some cash to the head of Orca in recognition for the great work they do as well as in recognition for how little I as an individual have and can actually do (and please click on the links if you want to know more, they desperately need funds!)
I come away from the trip with a wonderful sense of the beauty of these animals, with a sense of the incredible commitment of WSPA and ORCA but also with a better understanding of what my problem is: as a photographer, and as a person, I’m too detached.
This is exactly why I took the pictures of dogs in cars – because somehow there’s a barrier there, between me and that animal, there’s a pane of glass between us. I want to break that glass. I want to touch the animals. I must help directly rather than just looking from a distance. I need to get my hands dirty.
The project with the whales is hugely worth supporting but first I need to find something that I can help with my own bare hands…I need to start smaller…
As I am thinking about this we have arrived back at port in Plymouth and are moving through a slow customs queue. I’m taken aside by a plain clothed policewoman. At first I feel vaguely flattered – I’m never considered suspicious looking, it must be my new beard and that musty air sea-weariness I carry so well.
‘Where have you been, sir?’ she asks in that dry flat tone that makes you instantly wonder whether you accidentally packed your bags with sacks of unmarked white flour. She escorts me to a side room that is so grey you don’t even see it.
‘I’ve been looking at whales’ I say, suddenly wondering whether I’m lying. Do I have a gun on me by mistake?
‘Really.’ she says, rather unimpressed. ‘And why would that be?’
‘Because I’m writing a book about helping animals’
‘And did you help any?’ She asks as she flicks through my passport looking at the stamps.
‘Er..well it was more fact finding…’
‘hmmm’ she says, not looking up. ‘I see’. Then she pauses. ‘You’ve quite a collection of places you’ve been’ she says, and i instantly feel guilty for having traveled, for being human, for breathing. Maybe I should have been in a cardboard box eating tofu for years. I fear that the next page she turns she’ll see a stamp that says ‘Terrorist Training Camp, Essex 2011’ and next to that will be one that says ‘EATS WHALE MEAT EVERY DAY’.
She looks at my camera bag and moves closer, lowering her voice. ‘Did you see anything on your trip?’
‘er… bottle-nose dolphins’
‘No…like any strange behaviour?’
‘They jumped really high but I think that’s just how they play.’
‘No, I mean, you’re a photographer, you travel places. Did you see any strange groups of people? Do you have any information for me? If for example you saw a group of people that were secretly mobilising with weapons, well it would be silly of us NOT to take that information on board.’ She stepped back, realising she was freaking me out a bit.’It’s just precaution, sir, that’s all. We just want to make sure we know what we can know’
‘I hardly even saw a whale’
‘Well if you do see anything, sir… you know where we are’
‘You’re in Plymouth’
‘That’s right, sir’
And I’m going to London, I thought.
I walk free and immediately discard my hidden gun, bag of cocaine and box of whale meat into the bin. Phew.