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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..