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 (worldcetaceanalliance.org) 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 (http://endcap.eu/dolphinaria/free-europe/).

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.