Thursday, 5 September 2013

'He didn't know this world' ; What do you really know about the sea?

This morning (11th July, 2013) Natalie and I were talking on facebook and she linked me a facebook page sighting of a beached whale in my local town (I can't find the facebook page anymore but here's a news article on it). Curious, I clicked on the picture and I think my heart slowed down a little. I wasn't aware whales swam this close to the coast in the North Sea, but I was gravely mistaken. I stared at the man stood beside the mammal, showing what had happened. I remember reading, 'I was on a walk along the beach when...'. It was uploaded about an hour and a half ago. It would still be there.

My heart seemed to slow down and accelerate at the same time, and I couldn't move. I've never seen a whale face to...fin? Never with my own eyes. The first film I ever fell in love with was 'Free Willy' (even though orcas are technically a type of dolphin) when I was four or five. I still have a scrapbook from when I was six or seven years old where on one overcast spring day I made a poster for the WWF on donating money for protecting whales (quite impressed with my cetacean knowledge at that age - I listed Narwhale, Humpback, Northern Right Whale etc, with drawn pictures to match!). In my third year of high-school I did a presentation at school about Japanese and Norwegian illegal Whale hunting. Last summer in South Africa, I begged my mum to let me go on a whale-watching trip on a local boat but for one, it was R900 (I think it was about £60 at the time, the value of Rand isn't very stable) which was out of my price range, and she said it was "a waste of money". I settled on buying a postcard with a "South African Southern Right Whale" photoset. In short, I really like whales.

I only had a little time before people would intervene and either move the whale or section it off from public view, so I set off, my blood pumping. It was a long walk to where I thought the Whale was, and it turned out to be further down the beach than I had thought afterall. I walked through the cliffside, and found overly-friendly squirrels within camera distance (I only had my 50mm/ 1.8 lens on at the time, which was a big mistake) until a man listening to music rudely walked in front of me and scared all the animals away.

I walked past the spa and through the grassy hill that edges the shore on the far side of South Bay beach, where the tourists don't go. There were a lot of dog walkers and locals sitting on the hill and on benches, as it was good dog-walking weather (overcast but dry, low wind). I was starting to wonder if I had walked past the Whale as this stretch of beach ended; there are lots of rocks and scree between South Bay beach and Cayton Beach. Then I saw people walking down the hill. I saw people discussing the whale. I looked over the hill and saw nothing, but people were walking in turns down through the rock pools and round the headland. I decided to change lens. In my rush I didn't click it into place and my standard lens fell down the hill onto the scree. I actually screamed (which was embarrassing since there were a fair amount of people around) but when I went down to pick it up, it was undamaged except for a mild scuff on the side of the lens.

Once my lens seemed to be okay and was re-secured onto my camera I headed down a concrete path that finished half way and led to a tumultuous path of rocks and algae. An elderly man stood by the edge smiled at me and gestured through, "The whale is that way. You should keep to the rocks as much as you can to pick a path."

I had to climb/jump down the path onto the rocks and maneuvered through waves of slippery seaweed and water. I made the bad decision to wear ballet flats and soon enough my feet were soaked through.

On my way down I passed the RSPCA, the Sealife Centre people, the Scarborough Beach services, the RNLI services and the local police. Nobody seemed in any particular hurry. Behind me were locals and a few marine biology students from Leeds University.

I saw it from a way off. It didn't look much like a whale. When I did finally come to the animal, I was disappointed that it was cautioned off and surrounded by people. I didn't really know what I was expecting really, but the illogical, romantic in me wanted to take an artistic portrait with the whale. Instead as I approached, I thought of the Chronicles of Ancient Darkness series, and the second book in particular that was all about the sea.

'Leaving the trees, he found himself on a narrow, curving beach of grey sand. At his feet, purple mounds of seaweed gave off a salty stink. To his left, great slabs of rock lay in chaos, as if shattered by a giant hammer. To his right, the Widewater flowed into the shimmering Sea.'

The whale probably wasn't fully grown; it was a Minke whale, and I couldn't believe this was the animal that the Japanese whale-hunters nearly hunted to extinction in the 1980's. It wasn't magnificent, it wasn't breath-taking. It was terrifyingly sad.

Its tongue was swollen and outside its mouth, its stomach almost to bursting point from gasses escaping the body, on its side, useless. Flies were surrounding its stomach and tail, the skin eaten away in most places, leaving the translucent layer between skin and meat. It didn't smell from the side I was on. It had died hours ago. I didn't know how, or why, and neither did anyone else. Everyone just stared at the whale. I brought my camera up to my face and almost took a picture before letting my camera down again. I felt kind of wrong, photographing this dead animal. I felt like I was exploiting the situation. It didn't feel right. I took a deep breath and walked down to the tail-end of the whale, and looked at it through my lens like a specimen. Instead of taking photos of a deceased and decomposing animal, I took photos to document this whale's condition. I've never seen a whale before. Here's a photo of a whale's stomach. Here's its tongue, its tail, its fin.

Later on, I found out it had died after being caught in lobster pot ropes; hence the damage to its tail. 

The whale was cautioned off at three sides, and its tail was attached by rope to a rock, presumably so when the tide came back in, the whale wouldn't wash up on the main beach, in front of the tourists' beach mats. Nobody was behind the whale, and I wanted to take a photo of its back, but the elderly lady beside me warned me about going on to that side. I ignored her. I walked behind the tail and up the beach to see the whale's rather flat dorsal fin and blowhole, but the smell made me physically stagger. This was why nobody was on this side! I've never smelt anything worse than that in my life. It smelt of rotten fish, like you find on a seaside town quay, but magnified by ten thousand. Breathing through my mouth had no effect, I could smell it still, quite bad. It seemed to penetrate my face, making my eyes water. I ran up to the back of the whale and took a quick look, shot a photo and ran back so I was upwind again. The elderly lady laughed at my expression. "Yes, it smells, doesn't it?"

Everyone was leaving. I was the only person who stayed for long. Teenagers, the elderly, families, all came up to the whale, said a few quiet words, stared for a few minutes and trudged back down the long rocky path on the beach. I went back to the last side, the one where its mouth was open, and instead of looking at parts, I saw it wholly. While taking photos I was looking at the whale in details; its tailfin, the skin in shreds, blood and blubber. I stepped back and looked at the whale as an animal again. And I saw its face. Its eyes were closed, its tongue lolled, laid onto its side. As if it was in pain, dehydrated, lost, on the surf and decided it should lie on its side, close its eyes and die. In one moment, I felt my heart clench as I thought about the whale as one would think of a person. I closed my eyes. I had to leave.

So I did. I was sad for the rest of the day. Nobody else seemed to understand. Once people heard about the whale, and how sad it was, the conversation would turn, and people didn't get why I was still pensive. Why I was only half paying attention. I couldn't stop thinking about the whale.

L x.

'A black fin broke the surface. He gasped. ... Another towering fin broke the surface. So that's a Hunter, thought Torak. Suddenly he heard a splash - and turned to see a column of spray shooting high into the air. The water became a chaos of flying foam and shattered sunlight.... For a moment a dark, shining eye met his. Then the Hunter arched its gleaming back and dived.'

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