The leviathan in the shallows

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The news broke early yesterday morning of another Sperm whale stranding at Old Hunstanton. This is particularly devastating as it was only two weeks ago that one beached at Hunstanton, with another four at Skegness. As part of the wider picture, these were only a few of the 30 Sperm whales to have stranded on North Sea coasts around Europe since the start of 2016.

Two weeks ago hundreds of people went to Hunstanton to see the dead whale lying on the beach. Now I understand there are limited opportunities to see Sperm whales in the UK, so people were making the most of it. But I declined our youngest son’s request to go and see it, saying I’d rather take him somewhere to see live whales.  The summer before last, we made the long trek up to Gairloch in the Western Coast of Scotland to do a whale tour and were lucky enough to see many dolphins and a Minke whale, swimming free in its natural environment.

Youngest adores whales, a fascination which started with reading “The Snail & the Whale” by Julia Donaldson. He is now quite the junior cetacean expert and has many, many books, DVDs and toy whales. As a sailing family we feel quite close to the ocean and its inhabitants, we are supporters of Sea Shepherd, which describes itself on its website as “the world’s leading direct-action ocean conservation organisation”.

So considering that we’re what you might call a bit of a whale loving family, I’m not really sure what led me to visit the beach today. I got there at around high tide and really hoped, with all my heart, that he’d managed to refloat himself and was away, but it became apparent very quickly that it was not going to be the case.

It was quite a walk down the beach, with quite a crowd for company. Lots of people had turned out to see another stranded whale. If I’m honest, it felt strange. Seeing such a magnificent creature rapidly weakening, yet still making a massive effort to try and get himself out of trouble. Knowing full well that I was witnessing the slow dance of death, it didn’t feel right, yet it was incredibly humbling to be in the presence of such an animal.

I wouldn’t want a huge crowd of people standing round watching me slowly die, yet there was great reverence in the crowd. It was far more of an emotional experience that I expected, lots of people had tears running down their faces when it became obvious the whale could not be saved. On a cloudy, grey February day, with the windfarm looming on the horizon in the distance, people gathered hoping something could be done to help. Anything.

Leviathan in the shallows

If sheer human will alone could have helped him off the sand and back to sea, he would have survived. I spoke to a few people and the common conversation was how frustrating it was and how helpless we felt. If we thought that it would have made any difference if we all went and tried pushing, we would have done it.

There have been lots of theories put forward as to why the whales stranded and why they were in the North Sea in the first place. Theories include that military sonar is responsible for them taking a wrong turn North of Scotland, that noise from windfarms is responsible, that plastics in the oceans are responsible, that the shallow depth of the North Sea affects their echolocation ability, they can’t feed in the North Sea as its too shallow, and tonight, apparently it is Russian Submarines driving whales onto our beaches. I’m not qualified to add to that discussion, but what I do know is that it’s not right.

Something is very badly wrong with our oceans and we really need to start looking at it properly. The North Sea is dreadfully polluted, it’s time we stopped thinking of the contents of our oceans as quotas and livelihoods and started thinking about it in terms of life itself. Sea Shepherd tells us that if the oceans die, we all die.  Which sounds a little melodramatic, but we do not own the seas, or our planet, our home. It is on loan to us for such a short time. We should look after it and our fellow residents, so our children and grandchildren can’t say that we did nothing.

It amazes me that in the 21st century, with every technology and man made invention available, that we can send a man to live in space for months on end, but we don’t have the equipment or ability to get a whale off a beach. I find this impossible to explain to the children. In “The Snail & the Whale”, the tiny snail saves the life of the humpback whale by enlisting the help of people who managed to refloat the whale. Yet it seems when we actually have a giant whale stuck on the sand, the reality is somewhat different.

I paid my respects to the whale, floundering around in the shallows and left. It was heartbreaking to watch and I felt humbled, they are truly majestic creatures. I hope somehow he knew that we cared and that his passing would be mourned. If it makes people more aware of our oceans, how polluted they are and how that affects the sealife, all the better. If through research we can find out why they were there and how we can prevent more strandings in the future, that would be amazing. In the meantime, the council have another expensive clean up and whale disposal to deal with and I’m left wondering how much better it would be, if we had more ways of helping stranded cetaceans get back in the water, rather than just keeping them company while they die.

 

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