I have kept a dark secret since joining WDC back in June 2021. Despite my reverence and admiration for whales, my work to help them, all the talks and presentations I have given calling for their protection and restoration, and the numerous whale-themed items that adorn my home office video call backdrop; I had never seen one. I’d begun to feel a bit of a fraud. I’d heard many tales from others witnessing these majestic and wondrous beings for the first time and always wondered whether I’d feel the same when my time finally came.
It did not disappoint ...
Mother Nature has always pulled me to explore, be that in crab-filled rockpools on the south coast of England or in steamy jungles on the other side of the planet. But one place I never thought I’d visit was Alaska. Having been enchanted as a teenager by the nomadic solo adventure of Chris McCandless to the Alaskan wilderness, I’d considered this place of raw and powerful nature to be far beyond my reach.
As I approached Juneau, the landscape was among the most beautiful I have ever witnessed. On my right were countless snowcapped and unnamed mountains with glaciers slowly inching their way down huge crevasses and into the ocean, tinting them an aqua blue with their life-giving minerals. Hillsides of exploding green and so many trees with what I’d later find out were uncountable numbers of bald eagles. On my left, the North Pacific, the glacial-fed biodiversity-rich waters that humpback whales visit every summer to feed – and the reason I was here.
For two years, we’ve been working closely with Dr Heidi Pearson of the University of Alaska Southeast on her pioneering research project to understand how humpback whales in Alaska are helping to sustain the ocean (and therefore planet Earth) via what we call the ‘whale pump’. Having started this project during the pandemic and causing Heidi to set her alarm clock far too early to join video calls, it was so great to meet her in person and see the work she and her team are doing first-hand.
I never imagined that my job would take me to a freezer full of whale poo, but it did, and being ever the curious individual, I can confirm that it smells just about as bad as you’d imagine. Perhaps though, that’s a small price to pay for being the life-giving substance it is. At WDC we are supporting projects like these that will drastically enhance our understanding of how whales help increase the vitality of the marine environment and help combat the climate crisis. The work of Heidi and the team at UAS, in partnership with the University of Vermont and the Alaska Whale Foundation, is vital to convince policy makers of the desperate need to remove harms to whales, for not just their sake, but our own as well.
Whilst in Alaska I also had discussions about how we can bring the funding into conservation that the natural world so desperately needs. As a species, we have inflicted significant harm on the natural world, but we have the solutions to restore the damage and still interact with nature in a benign or positive way – we just have to open our minds and be willing to change how we have done things for the last few decades. It gave me hope that by working with thought leaders across different industries, the world can unite to do the right thing. Indeed, it must.
Nothing can prepare you for those moments in life when you experience something for the first time. I couldn’t sit still. I felt a childlike rush of joy and anticipation buzz through my bones as we set out on the boat towards the reported location of feeding humpbacks. I’d heard stories of people waiting for hours only to see a glimpse of a blow in the distance, so it took me by complete surprise when, within minutes of arriving, there they were. Those majestic, shining giants, bursting from the water all at once, enormous mouths gaping wide, glistening in the Alaskan summer sun with a cacophony of gulls scrabbling around for a doomed herring. Wow. Immediate happy tears. Even now as I recall that experience, the emotions are bubbling to the surface! Nature is just amazing. Awe-struck and just so ridiculously happy in that moment I felt like I had been transported back to a being a seven-year-old boy staring, open-mouthed at kestrels hovering above my local cliffs on a summer’s day – that feeling of just, WOW!
And they kept coming. They’d catch their breath for a few minutes and then dive down one after the other for another round, flashing their dazzling white flukes, over and over again. I could have stayed and watched until the end of time, but it’s important that everyone gives them their space. So, after a while, we left them to continue their seemingly endless banquet. They disappeared into the distance, throwing up their flukes and bellowing air into the sky as we moved on.
The following day there were reports that orcas were in the area. Must stay calm. Apparently, they only come along once a month and Heidi said she had seen them that morning from the window of her house. Try to contain obscene level of jealousy. However, fittingly on World Orca Day, we found them. A small group playing with each other and darting through the water with the blackest black and the whitest white. The soaring black fin of an older male slicing through the water just meters from the boat is just something so indescribably incredible. Of course, the tears returned almost instantly. I grappled with the camera, trying to capture a moment I knew would stay with me until I moved on from this world. The group had a calf with them, still a little orange in colour. Orca populations are suffering around the world with some now on the way to extinction as they can’t produce babies, and seeing this beautiful, innocent little orca calf following her mother around, learning how to navigate life gave me hope that I really needed.
It’s hard in this job sometimes. The list of awful things we are doing to the ocean and its innocent inhabitants is long and disheartening. I’ve no shame in admitting I can get down about it, being in the thick of the waves of information every day with so many sad stories. I’ve always advocated spending time in nature to find solace from life’s stresses, whether that’s a walk in the woods and spending time with moss and lichen encrusted trees who have lived through centuries, or a meander along the shoreline, peeking into rockpools and being hypnotised by the green and purple undulating arms of an anemone. Encountering humpbacks and orcas in Alaska is like that, but on another level and my goodness did I need it. I’m not sure I realised how much.
Now I’m back home on the North Eastern Atlantic archipelago of folded ancient rocks known at the British Isles, I can close my eyes and relive those moments: the smell of the freshest Alaskan sea air, the contented bellow from a delighted humpback full of herring in the distance and that soaring black, gleaming fin silently cutting through the water on the way to wherever it’s owner is heading next. Those experiences will pick me up in those moments and push me to do everything I can with my colleagues at WDC to save them. What else is life for but to ensure that the endless wonder and beauty of nature can perpetuate long into the future?
Thanks so much to Dr Heidi Pearson for hosting us in Juneau and thank you to those wonderful beings who changed my life on those days.
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