I grew up in a landlocked city in the middle of England and as a child I spent little time around the sea except for visits to family on the Suffolk coast where the water was rough, cold and polluted.
The sea was a foreboding, unfamiliar and hazardous place to me. When I was in it I worried constantly about all the animals that could harm me. I was always wondering what was lurking near me and underneath the sand beneath my feet. I felt completely uncomfortable in the water despite being a good swimmer and I ended up being afraid to leave the shallows. It was too big, too deep and too scary. It was sinister.
But, always being one for tackling fears head on I didn’t turn down the opportunities that came my way to be on the water and it was a family holiday to visit relatives in Canada that changed everything for me.
I was 14 years old and we were staying in Vancouver. While we were there we went to the aquarium where they housed a couple of rescued Beluga whales. The sight of these huge creatures in a small tank broke my heart. There was a recent incident of one of the captive whales there being killed after someone dropped a coin in the tank which got lodged in it’s blow hole. There was a dolphin swimming around a tank on it’s own and it swam endlessly in circles on it’s back. I found the whole experience distressing. I wondered where these animals had come from and if they really were better off in captivity whatever the good intentions of the staff were. It was so disappointing to see such beautiful wild animals looking so forlorn and meager.
From Vancouver we headed to Vancouver Island where I had what I can genuinely describe as a truly life-changing experience. Tofino is a beautiful town on the Pacific Coast of Vancouver Island where you can surf, bear watch, storm watch, bathe in hot springs, island hop and most importantly for me, whale watch. As a family we headed out on a hot springs and whale watching tour. The weather was rough and it looked like we weren’t going to be able to see any whales that day. It wasn’t safe to head to the open ocean. I was a little bit relieved although disappointed not to be seeing the whales. However at the last minute the captain made a decision that it was worth a shot as long as all the passengers were prepared for a rough ride. Everyone said yes. I stayed silent. He warned us not to rush to one side of the boat if we saw a whale, that we could risk capsizing. It was a worst case scenario that went straight to the top of my list of reasons to be terrified. We set off and the water was rough, we were thrown up and down by the waves and my sister and I held on for dear life. I wondered what one of these whales could do to me if I fell in.
Then the first whale appeared above the surface. We saw that dome of it’s back followed by the flick of it’s tail as it dived down to feed. Everyone rushed to the side of the boat. My sister and I rushed to the opposite side, hoping our small frames could help balance out the weight of the boat. But my eyes were glued on the whale. I had never seen an animal so big. I got my camera out and didn’t stop snapping until we left for the shore. That day we saw more whales than the captain had seen all season. 14 in all. Mostly grey whales and one humpback. That was the day that I fell in love with the creatures of the sea. That day I saw the comparison between the majesty of an animal in the wild behaving naturally and the sorry sight of a whale in captivity behind perspex with cameras flashing at it.
But one negative thing always stayed with me after that… I had watched it all unfold behind a camera lens. I wasn’t present. I was shifting around the boat trying to counterbalance the weight of the other passengers and feeling seasick from the relentless rolling waves. I let my fear get in the way of my experience. I wasn’t really present.
A year later the next big shift in my attitude to the sea came. I was given a place on a boat with the Ocean Youth Trust in Scotland. I was going to sail around the Hebrides for a week. It was an amazing opportunity but that was going to be a hell of a lot of time on the water. I grabbed the opportunity with both hands. I learned the knots and I packed as light as possible for a week on the waves. Within a day of setting sail a rare opportunity landed on our laps. We had the perfect conditions to sail to St Kilda. St Kilda is the last inhabited island until you reach America, 40 miles from the nearest Hebridean Island. We all jumped at the chance but as we headed out to the open sea the curse of sea sickness struck all but one of us.
I have a particularly vivid memory from this trip to St Kilda. I’d been being sick as we were heading out from North Uist and I was advised that the best thing to do was to sleep. For the rest of the day I slept through my seasickness oblivious to the sights that were outside of the small birth I occupied. I rallied towards the end of the day and headed up on deck to do a shift. St Kilda had come into sight and the sea was calming.
I put on my life jacket, clipped myself on deck and sat down to witness the islands emerge form the Atlantic Ocean in front of me. I found myself gazing at the waves around us and the water lapping the hull. The penny dropped.. I thought to myself ‘I’m not scared anymore’. The familiarity of the water around me had lessened the hold of the fear of falling in. That was the moment it all changed. I had learned to respect the creatures of the ocean and now I had learned to appreciate that it was just water and while it was powerful and mysterious, it was something to enjoy rather than fear.
This growing appreciation continued to blossom through a water sports trip to France in which I realised that I had forgotten to be scared of deep water because I was having so much fun. I started to devour documentaries about the sea and this coincided with the incredible and awe-inspiring beginning of Dave Attenborough’s iconic documentaries of the life of our planet on the BBC. Blue Planet was the first of these new style of documentaries and I was glued to it every week. The wonders of the ocean were being revealed to me and as I grew in understanding of ocean life I also grew in respect and admiration.
In 2010, my cousin in Canada got married. This was my opportunity almost ten years later to go back to Tofino and see the whales again. This time I was going to take in every moment. The conditions were totally different this day. The sun was out, the sea was glass. I was the one who spotted the whale and I jumped up in excitement, pointing and shouting. We spent an hour with this whale watching it surface, dive and resurface. I took photos but I didn’t look through the lens. I was taking it all in this time.
Since then I have continued to educate myself on the creatures of our oceans and the eco-systems that are so important to our planet. I learned to dive in Mexico and I have learned to surf- something that not that long ago held such an association with shark attacks to me that I wouldn’t have dreamed I’d be comfortable on a surfboard. I fantasise of being in the ocean almost every day. I swim in my local pool and imagine myself snorkeling in coral reefs and caves. I try to be a responsible tourist by researching the companies I will be paying money to and I strictly never touch a wild animal- something that tour companies often overlook. The reality is I am uncomfortable with nature-tourism. People are profiting off the natural earth and many companies do so with no respect for the conservation of what they are watching. However, without these tours I would have never learned the value and wonder of the ocean and it’s inhabitants.
The ocean is so precious and we should be so grateful to those that act as advocates for the inhabitants of the sea, the true value of which I fear we won’t appreciate until they’re gone. I write this article in the wake of the death of Rob Stewart – the maker of the documentary Shark Water which took the issue of shark finning to a global audience. People like Rob have put their own lives on the line not only to protect precious species which we are driving to extinction but also to get the message out the world. If you have read this far then I ask you to please watch this film. Films and TV programmes like Shark Water, Whale Wars, The Cove and Blackfish have brought the issue of human acts of violence towards the sea to the mainstream. Sometimes these issues can leave you feeling helpless but you can help in your every day life. Reduce plastic consumption, avoid any products which may contain or endanger whales, sharks or dolphins, boycott captive animals and spread the word of love for the ocean.
Thank you Rob Stewart for the amazing impact your life has had. Long live our seas.
Useful and interesting resources for information on marine conservation and wildlife:
Whale and Dolphin Conservation (UK) http://uk.whales.org/
Shark Angels (founded after the release of Shark Water) http://sharkangels.org/
Shark Water trailer https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m5fObF_CCYc
Tanya Streeter, Shark Therapy https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q8fvw3JDMw0
The Cove http://thecovemovie.com/
Project Jonah (New Zealand) http://www.projectjonah.org.nz/
Surfers Against Sewage https://www.sas.org.uk/
The Plastic Project https://theplastic-project.com/