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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?"