Please visit me at http://www.colin-williams.com/
Or follow me on Twitter

Friday, 12 November 2010

Just for the record, I like scientists

And now I’m going to cry! Not great floods of tears (after all, it’s not as if Wales have won the Six Nations again) but a definite welling; a lump in the throat. Because there He is. Just a short distance away – I don’t know how far, the water makes it difficult to judge and distance is the last thing on my mind – is the blue whale. The sea is calm and there is still snow on the mountains around the bay. As He surfaces you can see the muscular blowholes burst open and we hear His mighty, exploding gasp of breath. With little warning He displays the tell tale signs of preparation for a deep dive. And as surely as the earth spins His flukes are lifted from the water. There is an awestruck murmur. From one person a cheer. And He’s gone.

Now there are animals and then there’s the blue whale. Finding adverbs for how He moves is a fruitless task. You couldn’t say that He was cutting or scything through the ocean, His progress is too stately. It’s certainly more than just swimming. The arc of His back as He rolls between air and water, stitching the sky and the sea together with long undulating needle strokes, is graceful enough to make you believe in sea serpents.

Finding new ways to describe their size is equally useless so I’m not going to bother. Go to Google, look for the superlatives. Suffice to say that these beings are on a scale that is still alien to us. In a world where we’re frustrated by the things we can’t catalogue, quantify, codify and categorise there are entities like the blue whale that will continue to cloud our sense of what’s possible. At the very moment we think we’ve mapped the life we experience the blue whale appears from beneath us bringing us a message that we may have named and categorised His race but that He is still representative of deeper mysteries of understanding; and most elusive of all, we haven’t begun to understand why He makes us feel as we do. His appearance makes us tear up the map and want to start again.

But it’s ironic that He just seems too big to deal with. Does the strange way we react to its presence make us want to put it away so we can deal with our feelings later? Is the blue whale so awkward? And is this why the world is so obsessed with beginnings at the tiniest scale? At the Large Hadron Collider they’re looking for something to explain the beginnings of the universe. But within yards of where I was standing was something much more tangible that explains what the universe means to me, to us. And what it means here and now, not 6 billion years ago.

So scientists of the LHC, I invite you to remove your hard hats, your fetching white rubber wellies and your one piece contamination suits. Put plastic sheets over your microscopes and take off your goggles. Close down your spreadsheets and silence the oscilloscopes. And when you’ve done all of that go whale watching. Come and feel what it’s like to share a brief moment with something that will defy analysis and description; something that you can’t put into a formula. Something that’s so big (and not just in its physical size) that in all your academic brilliance you will not be able to see the beginning or end of the theory behind it. I promise you that all you will be able to do is stand and realise that, as Goethe has it, “I am here to wonder.”

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Wildlife Rock n' Roll

I don’t really know what the intelligent conservation community of the UK thinks of Terry Nutkins. I suspect there are quite a few people who dismiss him as little more than a grubby-fingered children’s entertainer; engaging in his own way but hardly a natural-history heavy weight. Furthermore, I can imagine that there are quite a few people who weren’t too enamoured by him keeping a sealion (or was it a seal?) at home in what couldn’t have been much more than a big bath.

But the fact is that Terry, Tezzer, along with Johnny Morris, were the only people on television when I was a nipper talking to children about animals in a way they could understand. We had El Attenborough of course and whereas we knew exactly what he was going on about, his job was to show us the wonder of the natural world which he continues to do, unrivalled, to this day. But Nutkins used to explain stuff and, best of all, he’d jump straight to the most gruesome and enthralling facts; how poisonous it is, how it could kill you, how quickly it could kill you, how long its teeth are and how big it was compared to our dog. This, I assure you, was what we wanted to know, was the reason we tuned in.

And the absolute coolest thing about yer man was the fact that he had a missing finger. Or at least half a missing finger. I can recall getting close up to the TV and pointing it out to my brother; “There!” I would say, putting my own finger against the screen. And my eyes would follow the finger that wasn’t there as Nutkins gesticulated on Animal Magic.

And I distinctly remember, at least I’m sure I remember, him once holding it up to the camera and saying that it was bitten off by a Scottish wildcat. Now that is pure, octane-fuelled, wildlife rock n’ roll! Here was a man that had lived wildlife in its reddest form. I wanted something wild to deny me a digit! To a seven year-old, having your finger bitten off by an animal is perhaps the coolest way to lose an appendage and I held up the back of my hand and bent my middle finger into the palm (just as I’m doing now) to see what I would look like. The answer: very dashing with a rakish whiff of danger.

It turns out I'd created a false memory. It wasn’t a wildcat. It was one of Gavin Maxwell’s otters that took off Tel’s finger. But the excitement is undimmed. I wanted, and still want, to get close enough to wild animals to feel their electricity, look into their eyes, feel their sense of being perfectly adapted to the cold and dark that we, as a species, have decided to remove ourselves from. And maybe, just maybe, I will one day have the chance to lift my sleeve and say “See that scar? Scottish wildcat.”

Thursday, 30 September 2010

Writing to Ronald Blythe

Whaddya mean you’ve never heard of Ronald Blythe? Actually, I’m not surprised. He’s a writer, but no-one’s ever taken a film option on one of his books. He’s never been, to the best of my knowledge, on The Times bestseller’s list and has never appeared on Loose Women or sat (thank goodness) on Richard & Judy’s couch. He is to most people relatively invisible. You’re unlikely to see him on Twitter and you’d be disappointed if you searched for him on MyFace. In fact, despite being the author of many fine books and an intellectual heavyweight you can find his regular ‘blog’ updates in the pages of his parish magazine for which he still faithfully writes a piece each month.

He is well into his eighties now and has for the last forty or so years been writing breathtaking books about ordinary people, their history and their landscape. His most recognisable work is Akenfield but my familiarity with his work came about largely by accident. My exasperated A-level English tutor (an inspired and saintly man rejoicing in the name of A.R. Wooll) sent me and my facetious questions about Hardy’s Wessex to a section of the school library labelled - curiously, mysteriously and patronisingly - ‘Pastoral’. And it was there, amongst Adrian Bell’s Men and the Fields, Ewart Evans’ Ask the Fellows Who Cut the Hay and John Stewart Collis’ The Worm Forgives the Plough, that I found Akenfield.

And so I found myself in my local library at a loose end and I asked myself if it would be slightly weird if I were to write to Ronald Blythe to tell him how much I admired him and his work. Now if I’d asked that question out loud to my wife she would have immediately told me that I was, in all but criminal record, a stalker and that I should desist. But seeing as she wasn’t there, then my rational senses told me that there was nothing wrong with this plan at all. So I leafed through Who’s Who and found Dr Blythe’s address. I won’t bore you with what I said but I thanked him, told him why his work was so meaningful to me and that I’ve begun to try my hand at writing.

And he wrote back. He told me that to understand the living world around us is to understand who we are with a “…deeply personal precision.”

“I live in an ancient farmhouse…and not a day goes by without some fresh revelation of people, climate or plants. It is inexhaustible. Landscape is amazing, with its multitude of statements and variations.”

So here’s to you, Ronald Blythe! A true statesmen of the best in nature writing and social history. I’m glad I wrote and glad you wrote back. I’m glad no-one told me that it was a daft thing to do because he also said that “writers have little or no idea where their words go” and I feel better that he knows, at least from one person.

Monday, 27 September 2010

Having a whale for dinner...

The question why? must have rung like a siren in the heads of our greatest scientific forebears, people like Lamarck, Wallace and Darwin and they didn’t rest until they had answers. On a recent whale watching trip I was glad to see that this zealous spirit of enquiry is alive and well when one of the whale watchers asked ‘if you could invite any species of whale to dinner, which one would it be and what questions would you ask it?’ This question was not exactly expected but, ever the professional, I thought I’d better give it a stab so as to avoid disappointment.

For a start there are some species of whale and dolphin that, wonderful as they are, would be a dinner host’s nightmare. The last thing you need is a spinner dolphin leaping spectacularly but messily into the soup and, worst still, decimating your tropical fish collection. Likewise, you’d think twice about turning your back on a killer whale between courses. Furthermore, for whatever reason, I see the minke whale as being slightly effete, nonchalant, fussy. Maybe it’s the starched white collars around the fins. No. There are some that just wouldn’t get an invite.

The chance here would be to get answers to the big questions, to see what they see; to finally understand the biggest and deepest secrets from a world so improbably inaccessible; a world which we only get glimpses of when they surface to share a brief moment with us and then are gone; a world which we know only from the grainy floodlit images of the bow of the Titanic.

So to get answers to these deep questions, who do I invite? For me at least, it would have to be the grizzliest and most ancient warriors of the oceans: the bowhead and the sperm whale. These are true elderly statesmen; creatures that are imbued with the deepest magic of the very coldest, oldest and darkest waters.

The sperm whale is the biggest predator on earth, by far the largest toothed whale and man’s target for centuries. Its amazing shape, unique physiology, behaviour and shared history means that in our collective imagination it has become much more than just a species of whale: It has become a representative of all its kind, a mirror for all our fear and wonder associated with deep water. It is Jonah’s predator, Ahab’s tormentor and man’s lamp oil. It is more than a species: it is Whale. And he could answer some questions…

What creatures do you see in the torch beam of your sonar when you are 2 miles down in the inky black? How does it feel to have the ocean’s weight pressing on your senses? In your landscape of the sea bed, do you see man’s influence and detritus in the folds of the deep canyons and arteries?

And then there’s the bowhead. He is uniquely an animal of the frozen north; a creature from a place that is not only deep and dark but made more inhospitable by the face-burning cold. The bowhead truly comes from a place where it feels we’re not supposed to be. It is said that where you find belugas, you find the bowhead, its sedate progress being tracked by glowing ghosts, deep water outriders. You can see the appeal in the photographs and footage: The unique quality of light underneath the ice creating a cathedral of glinting spears around the whale.

It is true that old bowheads killed by the Inuit peoples were found to have ivory spear heads buried deep inside their blubber, survivors of hunts up to 200 years ago. And that’s why he’d get my invite: What have you seen in your long life? What changes has the ocean undergone? What is it like to move under the blue glow of the ice sheets during the hard arctic sunrise?

I’d want my questions to be vital and thought-provoking. Otherwise it’s the same as queuing next to the red carpet at a premiere only to ask your favourite film star what it’s like being famous. So what would you ask? How badly do you want to know? What do you really want to hear?

So at the end of the questions, when you think you’re slightly closer to understanding their place on the planet and, more importantly, their vital place in our imaginations and just why they make us feel so uplifted when we see them, what would you say? Would you say ‘thank you’ or would you say ‘I’m sorry’?

Saturday, 21 August 2010

"You weren't there, man..."

It's hard to convince people that Cilla Black was one of the great voices of the 60s. Hell, it's hard to convince anyone that Cilla is a great voice full stop. For her contempory generation they have a few isolated hits to cling onto and for another generation we have the faded image of the warbling presenter of Surprise Surprise and Blind Date. Neither are much to go on. But let me tell you, I think there's something that could change your mind.

The story goes that when her manager suggested she record Bacharach's Alfie as the theme tune to the film she joked "I'll do it if Burt comes over and records it in person". And he did. Footage exists of the session in the cavernous Abbey Road studios with Burt at the piano and a full recording orhestra. And Cilla knocks it out of the park. She absolutely owns it. That running first line and the lilting finish set the scene and from then on she's right inside the music and the voice is like a steam drill and weighs a ton. Seeing it instantly changed my mind about Cilla because I could see the commitment. I was transfixed.

I've just returned home from guiding a whale watching trip and much the same effect was and is evident. People who haven't been close to whales and dolphins in the wild sort of know somehow that they're amazing animals and are normally willing to accept why other people love them. But to see them is a different matter. To see them means that you become utterly convinced and completely transfixed. They become, as it were, true believers in something that was before a matter of faith.

Some people who had never seen these animals had their head in their hands, shaking their head in a sort of bizarre disbelief. Was that leviathan truely rising to the surface to share a space with them? A brief moment of elation that stays in the blood like an antibiotic, its effects being felt long after the injection of the encounter. It is a moment of complete connection which is mainlined: a hundred-channel experience.

The estimable Henry Beston said:

"We patronise the animals for having taken form so far below ourselves and therein we err, and greatly err. In a world older and more complex than our own they move finished and complete, living by voices we will never hear, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained. They are not brethren, they are not underlings. They are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time."

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Blood and Earth

In his book The Peregrine, J.A. Baker writes in the opening chapter that it is futile to spend too much time describing the landscape. Because, he rightly says, what makes the difference between one valley and another is what we, the observer, imbue it with. He talks of different shades of love but whichever emotion is at the surface of our imagination at the time is what is projected onto the landscape; the landscape that then becomes ‘ours’.

What’s so powerful about this notion is the questions it creates in my mind as to how this happens. Is there a tipping point at which we suddenly become involved? Is there a system of feedback in which we feel part of the natural world because it involves us? Or are we influenced by other people’s experience of the same landscape?

As I drive home each night I pass over the same familiar chalk downs and, like any familiar route, even the trees become friends which you recognise in profile and stature regardless of the time of day and the principality of the sky. The scots pines that huddle together on the rises are also recognisable as small families in silhouette in which the imperceptible growth of the smaller trees over the years will leave me, like the children of good friends, in no doubt about who they are despite their changing appearance. But this has only been my home for ten years. When did this landscape become mine?

I was born in the fens of Norfolk but you’ll have to decide whether I’m Welsh or not. My parents are both Welsh, three of my Grandparents are Welsh and their parents etc etc. Let’s say, at the very least, that Wales is a place that is to a larger extent in my veins. The Welsh landscapes that are most recognisable to me (the Radnorshire black mountains, Herefordshire border country, the vale of Clwyd, the Pembrokeshire coast) are the ones where my parents, grandparents and endless antecedents have lived and, in many cases, farmed.

The pictures I have of these people, taken over 100 years ago, and my own experience of the world in which they toiled means, to a certain extent, that the landscape was already mine without me having to live there. The faces that look straight at me from their positions in front of the hay barn and my being able to stand in front of that same barn links me to them; common ground of both blood and earth. The fields, hills and streams that we have both looked on may have been more familiar to them than to me but it is the fact that they were there that triggers my imagination and therefore I gift the landscape my emotion and I’m suddenly involved.

Friday, 26 March 2010

"But can you imagine it nailed to a door..."

You can have a fiver if you can guess what that particular comment was referring to. Go ahead, let your imagination run wild. It’s neither door knocker, Christmas wreath nor petition. Nor is it any number of theses by Martin Luther. Nor is it theses by his less successful younger brother, Barry. No. It’s none of those things. It’s a barn owl. Well, obviously. (As an aside, I'd have liked to have seen Owl Nails included in that Two Ronnies, 'four candles' sketch: "You know, nails for owls")

On a recent trip to do some birding with some good chums in Norfolk we unfortunately found ourselves completely outsmarted by the fog. Now fog isn’t, you’d have thought, a formidable intellectual opponent but whatever we tried, the fog was two steps ahead of us at all times. As you’ll be able to reason, seeing birds that were anymore than 20 metres away became difficult so we pretty much gave up for the day praying that Sunday would be better.

Turned out it was slightly better if not the stark blue wintery skies we were hoping for. And it turned out that Holkham, like some feathery supermarket, had put on a ‘see-one-get-seven-free’ barn owl promotional bonanza. They were all over the place. Now, if there’s a bird you’re never going to get tired of then it’s the barn owl.

For some time in different locations we watched these birds doing what they do best: that impossibly shaped profile in the air which, in flat flight, looks bizarrely lopsided. But when that disc turns flat towards the ground and the translucent wings begin to silently beat the air then the bird suddenly becomes something even more beautiful. The strange whiteness and burnished brown of the animal against the greens and browns of a coastal landscape draw the eye. It’s not a boring, seaside, herring gull white but a white that is captivating and unsettling all at the same time. You just have to look. More than that, you find yourself staring. The way that it hugs the ground connects the rank grass and the winter trees with the senses and what would otherwise be any flying bird in an empty sky becomes some kind of total experience.

For no reason other than they just do, the barn owl is, in its landscape, a living thing that sets the senses and the imagination racing. In our collective imaginations and consciousness it’s become more than just a species of owl. It is all of its kind. It is Owl.

It was Wordsworth’s bird of death and because of its immense owly-ness a bird of heavy portent for many people. The rural people of this green island, with their pagan, fable-soaked sense of Christianity saw the barn owl as a forebear of unimaginable doom. It’s screeching at the window of the sick would spell certain death and, for some, its very presence a reason to abandon hope. Could I imagine these things? Yes. Can I see why it is named by some the Ghost of the Farm? Yes. Can I imagine it nailed to a door? No. But right up until the middle of the 19th Century the warding off of evil from the borders of the farm was achieved by nailing the barn owl to the barn door. Evil fends off evil.

In recent years of course the barn owl has penetrated further, becoming less of a reason to abandon hope but more of a reason to hang onto it. A bird that came perilously close to unsustainable scarcity is returned and can once again insinuate itself into our minds. Just by being there it makes us stop and stare and wait for it to disappear. As long it’s there, even if just a dot against the hillside, we will watch and watch. Because we have to.

Friday, 12 February 2010

This Place Has a Name

I have an old atlas where the British Empire is coloured a faded mauve and the colonies are marked boldly and clearly to display the extent of the Empire’s domain. Leaving aside (easy to say) the bloody and violent history that accompanies our conquering of these foreign sands it naturally follows that we probably had something to do with the naming of the towns, cities and localities of these countries.

So why? Why on this purple-empired earth did we end up giving all the fantastic place names to them? Stand well back and allow me to demonstrate:

While the good ole boys across the pond have such visionary and poetic names as Memphis, Yazoo City, Erie, Albany and Buffalo, we have Dunstable, Kettering, Droitwich and Stoke Edith (no, I didn’t make it up).

Clicking play on the CD player gets us such great tunes as Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again and 24 Hours from Tulsa. Whereas we get Sir Paul telling us, pleading with us, desperately trying to convince us, to think about the Mull of Kintyre with the same poetic yearning.

Georgia was so cool that the Devil went down there AND so sweet that it was on Ray Charles’ mind. A lot. Can you really imagine someone singing “Stuck inside of Nantwich with the Chorley Blues Again”? You can’t. And if you can you really need to get out more.

So before this turns into one of my “…and another thing!” rants, what’s my point?

Well I should first say that, names aside, I’d much rather go to the Mull of Kintyre than I would Memphis. But secondly, there are always a few exceptions to the rule and, for me at least, those exceptions are part of the reason why I love those places so much: Their name is rooted in the history of the landscape they inhabit.

This is never more so a thing of reality for me than in the names of the fenland landscape where I grew up and spent 18 years of my life. I hesitate to call them ‘landmarks’ because in the fens, a burnt-out Fiesta counts as a landmark. But it is the names and the stories that flow out of them that make the place with its black earth and impossible skies so visceral, so vital, so present. I can still tick them off as I drive, in my minds eye, across a landscape that, uniquely, can be so forbidding and so astonishingly beautiful all at the same time.

Middle Level Drain, Popham’s Eau, Morton’s Leam, New Bedford Sluice, Sixty Foot Drain, Eau Brink and countless others; each one reeking of the stories that accompany their construction of a tamed but unstable landscape and their destruction of a seasonal nightmare arriving in the nocturnal, freezing, flooded dreams of the peoples that made their homes here before drainage.

It is not hard in a landscape as immediate as the fens to sense the stories that claim that Archbishop John Morton was a mediaeval Stalin, emptying his gulags and using prisoners from the 100 years war to dig and tramp out the middle level navigations that bear his name. Likewise, we sense the hard drive to reclaim when Vermuyden and his Dutch Adventurers first set out to cut the New Bedford River, leaving behind them Dutch names in their children and displacing the fenland peoples, many of which, it is said, were witches.

For me at least, these names, places and the stories that lay beneath them leave a kind of vestige of fear and wonder; a restlessness in the brain which tugs at my sense of comfort but at the same time cements my sense of place. It scratches at the windows of the car as I drive, insisting that the landscape was claimed from the wilderness but that the water maintains its rights to the fens whenever it chooses to exercise them.

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

We are storytellers

whether we like it or not. So I’d better learn to live with it and move on.

My Grandfather was a great storyteller and a first rate sigh-er. Sighing was his way of expressing enormous disgust and exasperation with anything unsatisfactory that was going on within earshot.

This was particularly evident when we wanted to switch the TV on. Under normal circumstances in my Grandfather’s house the watching of “my programme” required the applicant to submit in triplicate and at least three hours in advance the proposal that one wanted to watch “my programme”. In his august committee of one, this required careful reading of the Telegraph listings page (to cross-check the information being given) and after careful consideration of the application Granddad, with a due sense of exhortation and warning, would grant his permission.

However, if the TV were to be turned on without this lengthy consultation then the sighs would ensue. Massive, despairing sighs denoting that his grandsons had clearly given up on life and that their cathode ray, teak-laminated drug dealer in the corner had them in its icy grasp and there was put simply, no escape and no hope.

Because my Grandfather was a storyteller.

I’m not talking about the happily-ever-after kind of story or empty, made-up, frighten-the-children stories. No. I’m talking about real stories about real people and real things. Sit down and have a conversation with him for half an hour and you’d find out that “there was a house, which has since been knocked down, where…” and a thousand other tales like it.

Where did all this stuff come from? And why was he carrying it around?

He had it in his veins. So do you. So do I. He didn’t know you didn’t have to talk about this stuff. He did it because he was grounded in every experience he’d ever had and every person he’d ever met. He collected their stories not because he wanted to but because they collected him; stuck to him like tics. And it doesn’t stop there.

The sharing of these stories roots you and the subject in a time, a place, a landscape, a house, an emotion, a moment. What is the sadness behind the boarded-up house? Who was it that gave that wood its name? Why am I not the first person to walk this path by the river? Making that connection helps my own feelings about that environment somehow swim into slow focus. Think, just for a moment, of a place that is special to you: because your predecessors also knew it was special; because they used to take you there; you know why it’s special because you know its history; because someone told you.

These stories, these curiosity-tingling, stranger-than-fiction, five-minute, wide-eyed, heart-rending stories, not only connect the teller and the listener but the listener with the landscape. I believe, and my long-dead Grandfather seems to concur, that the more we listen and the more we tell, the more we understand our own sense of time and place.

The Beginning.

Monday, 11 January 2010

Bring on the Night

A friend of mine has just got back from a week in New York. Now, this particular friend is not exactly a city slicker; he needs open spaces and wild places like others need oxygen. But, nonetheless, I’m happy to report that he had a good time. I asked him what the highlight of his trip was and he said that it was spending a long evening on the rooftop garden of a restaurant overlooking the lights of the city and just enjoying the view and the company of his friends and family.

Now, although I’ve never been to New York, I recognised that some of my most memorable moments, either at home or somewhere else, happened at night, or at least at dusk. Why is that? What is it about the evening, dusk or night time that makes these magical moments?

Is it that sound travels further in the evening air? (it does, you know, it’s proper science n’ all that) Is it that, for us wildlife watchers at least, that many elusive animals come out in the dusk and dark? Is it that although the morning can provide great sunrises, there’s nothing to touch a sunset? It is all of those things and more. In Norway they, rather wonderfully, call the dusk ‘the velvet hour’. And if May is my favourite month then dusk is my favourite time of day.

Jorge Luis Borges wrote about the ‘solitude of the night’, saying that ‘the night pleases us because it suppresses idle details’. Think back to the last time you were in a wild place on a clear day, watching the last dregs of the day, drinking in the unique colours and sounds; perhaps you were on your own or with someone you love. Were you thinking about the washing up? That idiot at work? Probably not. Like Jorge says, idle details.

I think it was Sting that sang the words ‘bring on the night’, (mind you, Sting also sang the words ‘de doo doo doo, de daa daa daa’ so his poetic skills should be treated with extreme caution) and even if it's a drive home in the dark or sitting in the garden at dusk then the night is where the wild things are. But the velvet hour is also where so many other things are too, just waiting patiently for us to realise.

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

In an Ordinary World

My name's Colin and I've never seen a humpback whale. I’ve seen plenty of whales and I’ve even been whale watching in places where I should have seen a humpback. But the fact is, I’ve never seen one.

But the thing is, and please don't write me horrible letters, I'm not that upset about it either. Don't get me wrong, I really would like to see one (that impossibly long, arctic-white pectoral fin, and the heaving acrobatics) but it turns out I'm just as contented when I see a bottlenose dolphin or a harbour porpoise.

On the one hand (and ask any birder) it's seeing the out-of-the-ordinary that is the thrill: that gut-twisting anticipation that there is the chance, the slimmest of all possible slim chances, that out of the improbably deep canyons will emerge that animal; whether it's a beluga or a northern right whale or even my own blubbery holy grail, the bowhead. But on the other hand there is that feeling I still get every time I'm out on the water; that there is a good chance, a really good chance, that I'll see a cetacean. And, for me at least, it doesn't matter what cetacean it is. And believe me, I've heard some pretty blasé comments on the deck of a boat: “Oh, it's just another common dolphin"

Common they may be but 'just another' is not a phrase that should be applied to cetaceans. Simon Barnes reckons that "it is the same sudden soul-deep sense of privilege: to be alive on such a planet and see such a thing of wonder." Regardless of how many times I've seen, say, a bottlenose dolphin, to me they're still astonishing, gun-metal grey, sleek, muscular, grand-slam knockout animals (and we'll take it outside if you think otherwise), but compared to the rarer or more enigmatic species they're relatively ‘ordinary’.

But ORCA spends a lot of time on ordinary things. We've been looking at predicting where harbour porpoises like hanging around and therefore where we should offer them, and perhaps other species, protection. It's early days but if we tried doing the same work with a handful of records for a rarer species then we'd be fumbling around in obscurity for a long time. Using the harbour porpoise at least gives us a foot-hold because they're tangible and present.

So the point is that ordinary is great. Ordinary is why we're here. Ordinary is a sign that the world might not be quite as out of kilter as we think. So I probably will see a humpback whale one day but until then I'm content to raise my glass to every extraordinary cetacean no matter how ordinary..

Sunday, 3 January 2010

"Ever seen a whale?"

I (and ORCA) believes that this is a question that should be asked of everyone. So, at dinner with a friend and ORCA colleague a few weeks ago the waitress was just putting our plastic through her machine when I did it, I asked the question:

"Ever seen a whale?"

"No…who's card is this?" It had obviously been a long night.

"Ever seen a dolphin?" There was a pause. She was either thinking very hard or thinking that the tip we had decided on didn't really justify us being able to ask such stupid questions. And if it did it certainly didn't justify an answer.

"Yes, I did once. But only from the shore. In the Canary Islands."

"How did you feel when you saw it?" I thought the look in her eyes said that she'd heard a few chat up lines in her time as a waitress but this was definitely the first time that dolphins had featured heavily. But I was wrong.

"Brilliant" was what she said. And she needed no more prompting. She told us that every time she's on a boat she's always looking out of the window in the hope that she might see a cetacean and described the disappointment when what she thinks is an animal turns out to be wave. "I even sit by the window in planes and look down into the sea, even though I know I won't see anything from that far up."

We all recognise that feeling. This person had only seen one cetacean in her life and yet felt an urgent need to see another one. It's that feeling of really wanting to see something in the ocean. We seem so desperate to share a space with these animals, to make some connection and to experience that brief rush when it shows itself above the margin of the waves and then is gone. Henry Beston called them "other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time" and we are, despite not being able to follow them, connected with them and that’s why we believe that if we can show people a whale they will want to help protect them.

But, of course, it's not just about cetaceans. It's also about being out there and experiencing what the ocean and the natural world have to offer us every time we step outside the door. The chances are that everyone has experienced the same elation when witnessing our planet's richness. So next time you get the chance, ask it, ask the question. "Ever seen a whale?"