Meeting the Whale

by Peter Reason

“We might be in for a tedious day,” I warned Suzy and Gib. “Motoring in flat calm and very little to see.”

I was on the second stage of my voyage from Cornwall round the west coasts of Ireland and Scotland. Suzy and Gib had joined me on my yacht Coral earlier in the week, both students of outdoor education at Edinburgh University, Suzy from Germany, Gib from Malaysia. Neither had been sailing offshore before, so I was a little concerned in case conditions on the Atlantic coast were too rough for them. I need not have worried: the weather was remarkably quiet, with no wind and a haze low on the surface of the sea.

We left Crookhaven on the south coast of Ireland and crept west along a shoreline completely devoid of any surf. The mist drew closer around us, blurring details and obscuring anything more than half a mile away. I might think it tedious, but all was new to Suzy and Gib, they had never seen the shoreline from a small boat before. Suzy gazed out into the mist, then turned to me, saying, “It reminds me of Michael Ende’s Neverending Story I read as a child, and the ‘Nothing’ within turns everything else into nothingness once it gets touched. It’s neither a hole, nor darkness, just nothingness. How that used to scare me! It’s as if I could see it from here, as if we were sailing straight into it – nothingness – but it doesn’t frighten me this time.”

Gib was the first to spot the splash of a couple of dolphins as they travelled past; and Suzy pointed out how the hazy sun played strange tricks on the cliffs around Mizen Head, reflecting from the sheer surfaces so that the light seemed to be running down the rock face like a waterfall.

From Mizen Head, the most southwesterly point of Ireland, I set a course across the mouths of Dunmanus and Bantry Bays toward Dursey Sound at the tip of the Beara peninsula. As we ventured out to sea the coastline gradually faded. The sea was occasionally decorated in tiny ripples, but most of the time like polished stone. Coral thrust her way forward, the tone of the engine never varying, the Autohelm steering a straight course, her bubbling wake stretching out behind across the flat surface of the sea.

We watched gannets circling high above the sea, flying slowly, heads angled downwards as they looked out for fish. If we were lucky, we would catch sight of one slide sideways into a dive, wings held back in a delta shape, then drawn in close so they struck the water with scarcely a splash. We passed clusters of guillemots, which scurried away from the boat as she approached, their heads jerking anxiously from side to side. Sometimes they dived neatly out of sight one by one; sometimes took flight altogether in a flurry of excited wings. “We won’t see puffins,” I said authoritatively, “They are back out to sea now after the spring breeding season”. But soon Gib pointed one out, then another and another.

Then came the first excitement. Again it was Gib who saw the splash and the dorsal fin of dolphins coming our way. They seemed at first to be passing us by, but then they turned and swam directly toward Coral, passing under the hull in water so clear we could see every detail of their bodies. They played around the bows for a few moments so we could see how their mouths curve in what appears as an enigmatic smile; watch the breathing hole in the top of their heads open and close before they slipped seamlessly under the water again. They didn’t stay with us long but soon turned and were off out to sea in long elegant leaps.

Dolphins and puffins seemed to be as much excitement as one might hope for in a day. Soon Suzy was deep in a philosophy book, Gib was on the foredeck sketching and I was struggling in my notebook, trying to find words to describe the strangeness of the misty seascape.

Then Gib called again, more excitedly this time, struggling to find the English words for what she was seeing, “Something white! Something white! Under boat!” Suzy and I hurried forward to where she was leaning over the pulpit in the bows. We followed her pointing finger over the side, where deep in the water the enormous shape of a whale was passing under the hull. What Gib had spotted was the characteristic white bands on the pectoral fins of a minke whale. It moved, apparently effortlessly, beneath the keel and disappeared into the deep. We looked at each other in amazement. Before we could catch our breaths, the whale surfaced alongside Coral, no more that fifteen yards away, the long slow arc of its back emerging from the water, fountains of spray blowing from its breathing holes before it dived again.

Again it breached, this time surfacing head first so we could see its eye, its long mouth and pale underside, the pleats running back underneath its chin toward its flippers. Coral is a little boat, just 9 metres long – only a little longer than the average minke – with scarcely a metre of freeboard. We were not distanced observers but on the same level, and as the whale’s head rose above the surface we were looking directly eye-to-eye and experienced some strange intimacy in the encounter. It had a curious expression on its face, not seeming to smile like a dolphin, but rather conveying an immense calm.

Then, raising its tail fins clear of the water it dived almost vertically out of sight into the depths below us.

That must be it, we agreed. To expect more than three sightings would be greedy, would it not? But the whale clearly didn’t think so, continuing to breach and dive in Coral’s wake for several minutes before finally disappearing. It left us all with big grins on our faces, Suzy holding her stomach as if it hurt. “It was so close I had to hold onto something.” she said.

What more could we expect? We carried on through Dursey Sound into the Kenmare River, the visibility lifting just enough for us to see the tops of mountains beyond the coast. Then more splashes as a pod of maybe twenty small dolphins raced across our bows with a flock of guillemots hurrying in their wake. Almost exhausted with excitement and stimulus we made our way across the broad river mouth, picked up the leading lines that guided us through the rocks and into Derrynane Harbour, where we found a snug anchorage for the night.

After supper we sat around talking about what we had seen. “The dolphins seemed to just come up and check us out,” said Suzy, “then they travelled on, not knowing how much I was shaken by their appearance.” Gib smiled quietly as we talked, never one for many words. But it was the whale that stayed in our minds. We looked in our reference book and confirmed it was a minke whale or lesser rorqual. We read that the pleats under the chin allow its mouth to expand and take in huge amounts of water that they filter through baleen plates growing from their upper jaws while feeding. But the image remained stronger than the abstract information: we felt we had met, if only briefly, another creature that, while immensely strange, is also an intelligent, air-breathing mammal, just like us.

It might be said that the idea that we ‘met’ the whale in any sense is dangerous anthropomorphic projection. I resist that charge, even as it rings in my own ears. In his book The Dream of the Earth, Thomas Berry, the priest and cultural historian who called himself a geologian or ‘Earth scholar’, offers us the vision of ‘an intimate earth community, a community of all the geological, biological and human components’. Our fulfilment, he writes, is ‘not in our isolated human grandeur but in our intimacy with the earth community’.ii

The mist didn’t take us into the ‘Nothing’ of Suzy’s imagination but into something far more significant. The quiet sea, the diffuse, disorienting qualities of the mist and the sudden appearance of the whale shook us out of our everyday, distanced way of seeing the world. It opened for us a brief encounter that held precious qualities of intimacy. It was a gift and an immense privilege.

Peter Reason has made three ecological pilgrimages around the western seas of Ireland and Scotland, seeking sense of deep participation with the more than human world. He is the author of Spindrift: A wilderness pilgrimage at sea (Vala Publishing Cooperative, 2014), which weaves an exploration of the human place in the ecology of the planet into the story of a sailing voyage. Prior to his retirement from academia, he made major contributions to the theory and practice of action research in writing, teaching and research about sustainability. He is Professor Emeritus at the University of Bath.

i –
ii – Berry,Thomas. The Dream of the Earth. San Francisco: Sierra Club, 1988,p.xiv.

Holy Mound

by Rachael Guy

On the banks of the estuary, a ramshackle waterbird sanctuary. Handwritten signs implore ‘Look up!’ ‘Walk Quietly’ – ‘Listen’. Passages from the bible, written in a shaky hand, flutter on posts and downy drifts of feather snag in the mesh of high fences. The rank smell of bird dander infiltrates the air.

Muddy well-trod paths wind through reeds – clumps of swan shit and the footprints of ducks and moorhens emboss the silt. All about us, myriad voices; the screech of native hens, hiss-honk of swans, the coarse whisper of cape barren geese. Haphazard nesting boxes are nailed to mouldering tree trunks and battered tins brim with grain.

The proprietor of the sanctuary is a handsome 92-year-old woman. From the pockets of her apron she throws groats to the birds. Black swans congregate like gangsters. They approach, heads lowered, necks swaying as if independent of the heavy, low-slung belly and red thickset knees. They command the pecking order, drilling grains from our palms, pausing only to rush at the smaller birds that disperse in panicked swathes.

The proprietor speaks of her love of creation, claims it’s no coincidence that Tasmania is the shape of a human heart. “This island”, she says “is the heart of God’s earth”.

Looking out, I see the wind picking up across the estuary. Thin plywood signs flap and shudder, the reeds sway and part, a great green pelt revealing the thin scalp-line of river-flat beneath. Moorhens crouch low in the shallows. This whole shambolic place is an extended love letter to God and the birds; a private refuge, which holds it all – the filth and beauty, the dank and pungent smell of life as it collapses and renews itself. The iridescent wing of the duck is a song of praise, so too the weeping tea tree and the holy cup of weathered nest.

As we walk, I find a solitary chick peeping all alone from a mound of rotted leaves – gently I pick it up and carry it to the woman. She scoops up the hatchling and holds it to the light – “You’ve found a brush turkey!” she exclaims.

Cupping the chick tenderly, she explains that brush turkeys bury their eggs communally in large heaps of leaf litter. It is the fathers who tend to the incubating mounds, regulating the temperature by adding or subtracting twigs and leaves. The warmth of decomposition incubates the eggs. The newly hatched must dig their way out of the mound, and then fend for themselves.

I stare at the perfect, tiny creature astonished that it has emerged from its smouldering pile, blinking and screaming into this bright day.

Rachael Wenona Guy is a multifaceted artist engaged in writing, singing, puppetry and visual art. Growing up in Tasmania has imbued her life with a deep sense of affinity for the natural world. In her personal life and arts practice, animals have featured as metaphors, companions, teachers and colleagues.

The Last Call

by James Roberts

The first time I heard it was in the instant after I had first experienced silence.

We came here a few months after our baby was born. I left him and his exhausted mother to sleep and set out up the road to find an open place to walk. Early April, mist feathering. I could hear the chain clank of a tractor getting louder. Its headlights appeared, coming across the moor. The farmer put his thumb up as he passed. I climbed a rise as the clatter quietened, the sound disappearing fast as if the tractor had hit quicksand.

The etymology of the word silence goes back to the Latin word silere “be quiet or still”. It is not possible on this earth to be in a place of total silence, a layer of sound will always unfold from the depths. But quiet and stillness exist, particularly in natural places, though they are hard to find on these crowded islands.

I walked along a track between bracken stubble, over puddled mud and blankets of moss. Every few minutes I stopped. The moor was focused and blurred by the movement of mist. Once or twice rooks called. Then nothing for minutes on end. The low light, scoured landscape and quiet were so disconcerting for a person who had just spent ten years in inner city London that I cut the walk short and turned back. Then, for the first time, I heard a curlew.

Surprise is most powerful when it comes out of silence. To be surprised is to be overtaken. A surprise party was a group of soldiers sent to attack enemies at night, their victims at their most vulnerable and easy to overcome. Surprise breaks through the coral of the familiar. It wakes us up. The call of the curlew has been waking me for years, wrenching me from the thought conversations that suck me in so much that the hills become a background blur. The call comes, it passes straight through me like a ghost through a wall. For a second or two I disappear, replaced by a pure unmediated awareness. In her essay “Poetry and the Constellation of Surprise” Jane Hirshfield describes a mountain walk with a friend. On reaching a certain ridge she asks why, although they have been to this place many times before, it always seems so new. Her friend replies: “Because it isn’t me.”

The natural historian Stefan Buczacki writes that “the haunting, glorious call – of the curlew is the most wonderful wild sound in Britain.” In many parts of the world the name we give it is onomatopoeic. The curlew’s name takes us back to our first experiments with the poetry of sound. Many regional names attempt to imitate the bird’s cries: the multi-syllable, Egyptian Arabic Karrawan, French Courlis, Irish Crithane, Sardinian Curruliu or, mimicking its single note call, the Orkney and Shetland Islands’ Waup. In Welsh the name is not onomatopoeic. The modern name Gylfinir describes the shape of its beak, gylfin – down-turned, beak, hir – long. But an older name is steeped in imagery and associations. Here are a few entries from Antiquae Linguae Britannicae Thesaurus by Thomas Richards, published in 1815:

Chwibanu – to whistle
Chwibanogl – a pipe or flute
Chwibanogl fynydd – A bird called a curlew (fynydd – mountain)
Chwibl – sour, sharp
Chwibl-oer – sour and cold

A cold and sour mountain flute.

The curlew’s call is often associated with pain and isolation. Though the two birds are unrelated the nocturnal bush stone curlew of Australia has a call very similar to that of the eurasian curlew. There are many aboriginal creation stories about the bush stone curlew but perhaps the most powerful is the creation myth that tells of Ouyan the Curlew who was tasked by his family to go out each night and bring back the meat of an emu. He was a poor hunter and could not approach the swift creature. Being ashamed of his lack of skill he spent the night cutting strips of flesh from his own legs, bringing them back each morning for the meal. Hence the curlew’s wailing cry and stick thin legs.

In the lee of the hill, hidden in a copse, half a mile from the spot where I heard my first curlew, is the Church of Little St David’s. It dates back over a thousand years and was originally a hermitage. There are many such chapels in the Welsh uplands, lonely and abandoned. Its graveyard still holds the bare rocks that were taken from the hill by the poor to be used as their dead children’s headstones. Many of those parents would have held the belief that the curlew’s cry was a herald of death. Its call after dark on winter nights resembled the yelping of a pack of hounds and would have been unnerving to most in this area where the legend of the Black Hound is still prevalent even in the 21st century. In other places and cultures their call represented the coming of storms. Some fishermen would turn their boats back if going out to sea and a curlew called overhead.

I have never heard them in winter and I do not associate their calls with any form of foreboding. To me, the first curlew call represents the end of the long upland winter, the coming back to life of the moor. When the curlew arrives, other birds are on their way. On the small lake locals call the Monk’s Pool, two swans return to breed. Black-headed gulls are coming into their summer plumage, teal and tufted ducks are passing through. Breeding toads appear along with otter spraints.

Those first few weeks of walking on the moor also introduced me to lapwings. There was a flock of about fifty that spring and I spent hours watching their flip-swoops and dives, staring through my binoculars at their emerald to byzantium purple colours, listening to their strange calls like short wave radios tuning to distant signals. The second year the flock was about twenty birds. The year after two pairs returned. Since then, nothing.

When humans abandon a place, their remains can be found for centuries afterwards. A three mile walk across the moor brings you to Pentre Jack, a medieval settlement on an exposed ridge facing west. This is a favourite place for juvenile ravens in October when the westerlies scoop them up in pairs and they ransack the sky above the ruins. For years I walked past the settlement not knowing it was there. Then, on an evening of low sun, I saw the long, parallel shadow lines of field enclosures. A closer look revealed hut circles, doorways, livestock pens. It was easy to picture those people, to understand a little of the difficult lives they lived up here, though they have been gone now for a thousand years. What remains of the lapwings who have been gone for only a few? An image fading in the memory of the upland farmers, most of them in late old age and also about to leave this land. What will the curlews leave behind when the last of the breeding pairs here fail to return?

In a 2009 interview by the BBC World Service, the sound ecologist Dr John Levack Drever was asked which sounds in our environment he would consider endangered. He listed: typewriter, slam door trains, news vendors’ cries, the bells of Routemaster buses, traditional woodcutting and scrap-metal merchant’s trumpet. Only one of these sounds is more than a century old. He goes on to say how the loss of certain sounds in the environment are a source of lament and lists his own sense of loss at the disappearance of a certain gun retort that announced the hour of 1pm over Edinburgh. How long have the curlews been part of our soundscape?

The eurasian curlew is not a threatened species. Its range is huge. Curlews breed as far east as Siberia, down to the Mediterranean and far beyond, being winter visitors to Namibia, Botswana and South Africa. In many areas their numbers are stable and in some they are even increasing. But in the British Isles they are declining rapidly. In this area 110 curlews were recorded in September 1979. In September 2014 there were 29. This correlates with the estimated 80% decline in the species throughout Wales in this period.

How do we visualise declines in species numbers? Most of us see a bar chart in a newspaper or TV report. A 20% decline seems significant but perhaps not too serious. For a 50% decline we see that missing half more clearly, perhaps we visualise a half-empty bottle. What we don’t see is the valleys, moors and woods emptying out, silent spaces reaching towards each other, connecting, growing.

It is mid-April. We have had 2 weeks of warmth and the hills are exploding into life. On the 3rd of the month I heard my first curlews, off to the south, distant. I didn’t see them. Since then I have heard them a few more times, always in the same place, a group of fields that are not being used to graze sheep at the moment. I hope the birds are nesting in good cover away from the eyes of crows and the increasing numbers of red kites that may account for the most recent drop in their numbers. The initial reduction in the 1980‘s was mainly due to changes in farming practices: the introduction of silage which is cut in May instead of hay which is harvested later in the summer when curlew chicks are bigger and mobile enough to evade the machines. Now it is thought that the continuing decline is caused by predation of eggs and chicks as there are no longer enough birds to see off roaming crows and raptors. But if they find a good spot, the nests are hard to find even for corvid and raptor eyes. An old Welsh story about St Beuno tells of how the saint used to cross from the mainland to Anglesey to preach to his congregation. Instead of taking a boat, he simply walked across the water. On one trip home he became wrapped up in thought and dropped his precious book of sermons into the water, which disappeared under the surface. On reaching land he walked up onto the beach to find a curlew standing guard over the book which it had placed to dry out on a stone. The saint then prayed to the creator requesting that its eggs would be difficult to find. For centuries the prayer seemed to retain its power and curlews were prevalent all over Wales. But the prayer seems to have lost its power in the modern age.

I’ve heard them but I’ve yet to see them so I spend three days searching:

At Llangorse Lake there are information signs telling visitors to look for flocks of curlews feeding up on worms for the breeding season. There is a lot of cover here, many acres of unfertilized and undrained fields, traditionally grazed to preserve wild grasses and the wildflower meadows which are just beginning to flood with colour. I cross a stream teaming with red-finned roach and spend hours in a hide over the reed beds which purr and chatter with the sound of water rails, warblers and buntings. On the surrounding pastures there are redstarts and wheatears, a hoard of canada geese. Out on the water there are crested grebes, black-headed gulls, cormorants, coots and moorhens. Herons sail-row above the reeds like viking longships. The whole place is a factory of bird-sound. I cannot hear curlews.

Rhulen Hill is a grouse moor covering thousands of acres stretching from the Herefordshire border to the rocks and caves at Aberedw. The whole area is optimized for ground-nesting. There are short-eared owls breeding here in the heather and bilberry as well as black grouse. It is a depressing place, the land dark and undulating like rows of swells coming in from a cold ocean. Red Kites roam low over the moor. Skylarks and a pair of ravens, a single kestrel suspended and flickering. There is a high escarpment of mudstone stacked like teetering towers of books where a pair of peregrines are nesting. I try to approach them slowly and sit at the foot of the cliff listening to their screes until the tiercel spurts out and circles me. In the single blackthorn tree at the foot of the cliff a crow sits on its eggs, a glistening sloe eye against the dark knot of its nest. I wonder how curlews manage to breed here without being seen by the raptors who seem to have every inch of the place covered with their search glares. Hours later, freezing and heading home I see them, a single pair, calls shivering as they land in the heather and stand for a time profiled against the skyline. One is much bigger than the other, a female and male. They don’t stay, in a few minutes the male leaves, crossing low over the cliffs, beneath the tiercel peregrine which has just reappeared. Thankfully the falcon is not hunting and the female curlew follows, piping loudly after her mate. I go home smiling.

As I walk into the wind blowing out of the east where the curlews are still holding on I imagine the day, one, five or ten years from now: It will be late May and silence will have spread another ribbon across this island. The bracken returns, everywhere the ground opens releasing question marks.

James Roberts co-edits Zoomorphic.

Whalefest 2015

by Tamsin Hopkins

Now in its fourth year, Whalefest has come of age. Started in Brighton by Ian Rowlands and Dylan Walker in 2011 the annual event is the only one of its kind and spans three days of inspiration about cetaceans of all types. In the Brighton Centre, Whalefest’s new larger venue, models are suspended from the ceiling, children can touch narwhal tusks and baleen, as well as virtual whale watching, 3D virtual submarine rides and demonstrations by the BDMLR marine rescue organisation. Michaela Strachan presented highlights from her “Really Wild Show” experiences with cetaceans, including a poem she had written. Other speakers included Steve Backshall, Nigel Buchanan, Fabian Ritter (International Whaling Commission) and a video link with Captain Paul Watson (Sea Shepherd).

The serious debates before a packed arena were chaired by Will Travers OBE (Born Free Foundation) and included panel members Ric O’Barry (Dolphin Project), John Hargrove (former SeaWorld orca trainer and Blackfish contributor) and Keith Taylor, (Green Party MEP), Adrienne Wandel (former SeaWorld manager), Daniel Turner (Born Free Foundation) and Simon Pickup (ABTA). The main focus this year was on emptying the tanks for whales and dolphins in captivity in light of the ‘Blackfish effect’ which highlighted conditions for animals and trainers in SeaWorld, with an emphasis on the urgent cessation of artificial insemination and other captive breeding programmes in conjunction with plans for rehabilitation.

The Whale Graveyard – set up on Brighton Beach during this year’s Whalefest.

The rise in demand and capture figures for Risso’s and bottlenose dolphins, belugas and orcas by Russia and Japan is identified as a concern, particularly as the demand for dolphinaria in Russia, the Middle East and China is growing exponentially. The panel worries that if too much pressure is put on existing businesses, they will sell their stock (provided they can get export licences) to operators in countries which do not have effective controls. India is an area of hope – captive cetaceans are not permitted.

Prompted by many questions from the audience, the panel discusses the role of consumerism in dolphin and whale circuses. A woman from Kent takes the microphone. She says she had coffee with her friend who was going to Florida and was looking forward to taking her kids to SeaWorld. The woman was shocked that her friend had no understanding of the misery the animals undergo. She managed to persuade them to go to other types of amusement park. John Hargrove, trainer in remission in his own words, looks troubled and acknowledges his participation in that entertainment business. He has difficulty in keeping the emotion out of his voice when he tells of his love for the animals, although he knew of the huge amounts of drugs they were given to keep them docile. He feels passionately that humans do not have the right to take a life and use it for their own pleasure. The panel congratulates the woman from Kent and concludes that education, including by word of mouth, is the best way to change opinions.

Two helpful movements have come out of the Whalefest pod gathering process – one is The World Cetacean Alliance ( which has become a dynamic forum for interest groups to work together, and Dolphinaria-Free Europe, a European coalition of NGOs and professionals working together to end the keeping of cetaceans in captivity (

Will Travers asks the experts to sum up their message. They are united behind Ric O’Barry who has one thing to say: Stop buying tickets to captive shows.

Tamsin Hopkins writes poetry and short fiction, Her collection Sand Tranny and other River Stories comes out in February 2016 with Cinnamon Press. She is passionate about rivers, the sea and above all, cetaceans – follow her tweets @TamsinHopkins.

Carnweather Point – March 2015

by Rob Pickford

I stand on the cliff, the metallic northwesterly battering my face, draining the warmth from my hands. A jade coloured sea sends lines of waves, like well-drilled platoons decorated with banners of blown spray against the defences of the fern-withered cliff tops. The winter has been long, turning energies inward for protection.

A kestrel swoops into sight, at eye level, only yards away. He hovers absolutely still, the wind not an enemy but a tool to fulfil his purpose. The primary wing feathers ripple in the gale. His colours fresh and ready, his back rufus, his wing tips black, matching the bar on his tail. I am close enough to see his eyes, alert, searching, his grey head moves to scan the new shoots of grass below.

The sun with new strength tempts the coconut scent from yellow flowered gorse and frees the skylark to rise. She answers with an endless song that beckons summer up from the earth. The soft dusty yellow of the primrose and the confident upright flowers of violets adorn the bank. And over there a small bird, skips from mound to mound, the sleek blue-grey back and orangey chest highlighted by the sun. It is my first wheatear of spring. His journey from Africa complete, the business of new life fills his mind.

Life on the cliff knows, with an urgent passion, that the darkness of winter is passing.

Rob Pickford’s long commitment to wildlife and landscape is born from many years walking the coast and hills of Wales. He now seeks to capture their impact on him in words. Rob is Chairperson of the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales.