by Pippa Marland
On the 14th and 15th September, Land Lines and the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust hosted a series of events at the Living Seas Centre, Flamborough, entitled ‘The Sea Inside: Memories, Feelings and Experiences’. The events began with an inspirational talk by the acclaimed British nature writer, Philip Hoare, author of Leviathan, The Sea Inside, and, most recently, Risingtidefallingstar.
In his talk, Philip described his transformation from a person who had feared the water from an early age and couldn’t swim until he was 29, into the committed sea swimmer and impassioned champion of whales and dolphins he is today. It was seeing the captive orca, Ramu, at Windsor Safari Park as a child that imbued Philip with a deep conviction that keeping these intelligent and social animals in captivity was both cruel to them and demeaning to us as humans. It was a moment of epiphany for him – one that instigated his lifelong devotion to cetaceans.
His first encounter with whales in the wild was during a boat trip from Provincetown, Cape Cod when a humpback breached the surface only a few metres in front of him. More recent experiences include swimming with sperm whales off the Azores and Sri Lanka, and, in the last two weeks, with Hector’s dolphins off the coast of New Zealand. Philip’s close encounters with these creatures have given him an extraordinary insight into their abilities, social groupings and culture. They have enabled him to see them as sentient beings, as interested in him as he is in them. Feeling himself being scanned by the sonar clicks of a sperm whale, he realised “I’d spent all this time trying to describe a whale, and here was a whale trying to describe me”.
Philip’s personal narrative was interspersed with observations about the ways in which the practice of whaling was, historically, central to both imperialism and the industrial revolution, but has now largely given way to a desire to study and conserve these animals. For Philip, this sea change in human attitudes was greatly influenced by the release in 1970 of Songs of the Humpback Whale, which completely changed the cultural meaning of whales for us. They were no longer mute beasts, commodities to be exploited, but instead were the vocalisers of extraordinary, mournful (to our ears) marine melodies. The aliens we’d been seeking in outer Space had turned out to be here in the depths of our own earthly oceans; they were like us – mammalian, intelligent, sociable – but at the same time utterly strange. This isn’t to say, though, that whales aren’t deeply linked to the cosmos. Philip described recent research into the whale strandings in the North Sea in 2016, when 29 sperm whales beached themselves on the coasts of the UK, the Netherlands, France and Germany, that suggests the whales had entered the North Sea (which is too shallow for them to feed) as a result of solar storms that had confused their internal navigational systems.
On the morning of Saturday 15th a group of 50 Scouts from Barnsley arrived for a beach clean on the North Landing and a beachcombing expedition on the South Landing. These activities were followed by writing workshops with Jesse Peterson, Land Lines visiting ITN/Enhance scholar from KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm. Jesse encouraged the Scouts to think about the plastic items they’d found during their beach clean, and about the effects these might have on the sea and the creatures living in it. He then encouraged them to write about their experiences on the shoreline and to illustrate their writing. They produced some beautiful work which we’re hoping will feed into a new exhibition at the Living Seas Centre.
In the afternoon, nine families with children of all different ages, came to the Centre for a seashore safari on the South Landing. They began with a beachcombing activity, looking for pebbles with holes in them, which Anthony Hurd, Living Seas Centre manager, told them had been made by small molluscs. The children also found a range of seashells, crab claws, feathers, and different varieties and colours of seaweed, and discovered sea slugs, crabs and star fish living in the rock pools. The day ended with an interactive talk for the children by Philip. Their answers to his questions revealed an astonishing wealth of knowledge about marine life and a huge enthusiasm for conservation.
Philip swims in the sea every day if he possibly can – not for health or exercise or any other instrumental reason, but simply, as he explained, to reconnect with nature – and his trip to Flamborough was no exception. Some of us took the plunge with him, swimming at high tide off South Landing each day that the events were running. The changes in the mood of the sea that we encountered from one day to the next brought home to us very powerfully how dynamic a phenomenon it is!
Other members of the Land Lines team took the opportunity to birdwatch at the spectacular Bempton Cliffs, where gannets were still in residence and a jackdaw posed for a portrait. All of the activities highlighted how precious these coastal areas are as havens for wildlife and as places where young and old can connect with their outer and inner seas, physically, culturally and emotionally.
by Pippa Marland