By Abigail Robinson.
On Wednesday the 17th of July, the whale community of Húsavík came together at the Húsavík Whale Museum to share stories, poems, presentations, views, songs, hopes and dreams. The general public was invited along to the event we dubbed “For the Love of Whales”. Those who attended gained insight into the community that is centred around the whales of Skjalfandi bay – “The Big Heart”.
First up, Abigail Robinson read a love letter she penned recently in the middle of the night when she couldn’t sleep. The recipient of this love letter was (of course) the whales. In her letter she spilled out all her thoughts and affections around whales, and pondered what the answer to her question might be: “What is it with whales that has us so infatuated?” she asked the audience.
The audience were given pieces of paper and told to write down what they think the answer might be, or any thoughts they may have on the topic, and to place their answers in a box by the end of the night. Those answers were then collated and used to produce the following word cloud. The full individual answers can be found at the bottom of this blog post.
Next up we had a couple of whale watching guides, Loes de Heus and Lara Vulić, who talked about their experiences of working as whale watching guides in Skjálfandi Bay. They gave us an insight into the challenges of becoming a guide, and talked about the highs and lows that come with the job. It was great to get an inside perspective on a career in whale watching, and to hear how seeing people connect with the whales can lift their spirits.
Following that, Huld Hafliðadóttir, a Húsavík local, spoke about “The Big Heart of Skjálfandi”. Huld started working as a whale-watching guide back in 2001, when the industry was just starting out across Iceland. She gave a wonderful presentation providing insight into Húsavík’s transition from a fishing based industry into one centred around eco-tourism. She talked about the threats to the bay, past and present, and how the locals feel a true connection to Skjálfandi.
The highlight of the talk was her translation of an article by an Icelandic artist, Jóhannes Kjarval, from the 1940s. Incredibly he referred to whales as “the big heart” and that instead of hunting them, Iceland should have “peace ships” which essentially whale-watching boats today. At a time when humans knew so little about whales, it is heartening to think that people still had an instinctual feeling that these mysterious giants should be preserved.
Charla Basran, a PhD researcher who has spent many seasons in Húsavík, gave a presentation on the “Famous Whales of Skjálfandi”. With a few fan-favourites from the Húsavík Research Centre’s humpback whale catalogue, Charla told stories of how they were named, interesting scars/patterns they have, and any other stories that she knew about the select individuals.
Next up, Alyssa Stoller read a beautiful poem from her personal collection. She did not explain what the poem meant to her, as she prefers the listeners come up with their own interpretation. However, she told a story afterwards of how, in the conservation world, it is easy to get brought down by the constant bad news. It is common for conservationists to feel like they are not doing enough. She concluded with a quote from a colleague: “it isn’t enough, but it is.” Essentially saying all the effort one person can muster isn’t going to fix everything. But it is enough, if you are trying in your own way.
Marguerite Bathie, a master’s student from France, then did fantastic job of describing the biochemical processes that allow whales, especially deep divers like sperm whales, to dive for as long as they do without breathing. This was a very enlightening presentation for many people, and Marguerite effectively broke down a complicated process.
Following Marguerite’s presentation, we had “Clicks From the Abyss” from Serena Lagorio, an expert on sperm whale dialect from the Mediterranean Sea. Serena enthusiastically described the patterns of “clicks” and their associated foraging activities. It is incredible that a living creature can produce sonar so strong it would kill a human in the water! One can’t help but wonder how noise pollution must affect these creatures’ sensitive ability to communicate and, in turn, thrive.
Following these scientific presentations, the evening turned back to creative expression, and we heard a collection of ocean poems from a whale-watching guide, Trina Davies. They were themed around the ocean, whales and dolphins. Her poems navigated from the appreciation of nature’s beauty, to the despair over the human induced threats to it. Her final poem took a comedic note and described the perspective of a resentful dolphin that craves the same level of attention that the whales receive from whale watching boats.
A long time North Sailing whale watching guide, Fréderic Gendron, then gave his perspective on the tourism industry in Iceland. He presented the exponential growth in tourism that Iceland has experienced in recent times, and suggested that in order to protect their impressive natural resources, that de-growth in tourism may be necessary. He talked about his favourite encounters with whales in nature, and how less is often more when having these encounters.
Next, Belén García Ovide and Daniel Ganzalez de la Peña, the co-founders of a locally based organization, Ocean Missions, got up to talk about a recent expedition from Reykjavík to Húsavík. They gathered a team of people with various scientific backgrounds, to gather any information they could; from photographing the diversity of animals they saw, to plastic sampling, even recording orca whales and sperm whales with a hydrophone. The goal was to see what was out there, and to use what they saw and found to promote awareness around the health of our oceans. Belén spoke of being shocked about the amount of plastics in even the remotest parts of Iceland.
Húsavík local, Eva Káradóttir, the Director of the Húsavík Whale Museum, sparked discussion about the new beluga sanctuary in Iceland that she will be visiting on behalf of the museum to learn more. The sanctuary recently received two captive beluga whales that were flown from China to live the rest of their days retired in the sanctuary. Essentially the idea is this: while there isn’t a possibility of them being released into the wild, the sanctuary will provide relief from constantly being on show and performing. That combined with the potential added stimulation of being in an ocean sea pen, rather than a concrete tank, would be, theoretically, more of a humane life. However, Eva highlighted that there is opposition to this idea, and opened up the floor for discussion about facts and opinions on the matter amongst the Húsavík community. While improving welfare for these animals is always optimal to aim for, there were concerns about it perhaps being the wrong environment, unforeseen issues, or opening up a secondary captive animal industry. She came away with good talking points to take with her to the sanctuary when she visits.
Finally, the multitalented Trina Davies, Jack Cowley and John Grothier performed music to wrap up the evening while everybody mixed and mingled.
We would like to thank the Húsavík Whale Museum for kindly hosting the event, and helping to promote the night. Thanks also to the Whale Watching companies and their guides who helped spread the message. Lastly, we are so grateful so the speakers, performers and all attendees and creating a beautiful evening for the love of whales. You all brought interesting and enlightening topics to the table and made it a great night. We hope that this kind of event can perhaps become a yearly tradition to keep the lovers of “the big heart” connected so we can work together to protect what we love.
Responses to Abigail’s question:
They are special because their breath takes people’s breath away and they are just so majestic and beauties. I just love them.
Even though whales are the biggest animals on earth, there is so little we know about them. That intrigues me.
I can only answer this with more questions. Who are you? Why do your eyes gleam so? Why is my heart caught? You are mystery. But so familiar. You are my familiar mystery.
I heart whales because they are huge and free and beautiful! I love when the people stop breathing waiting for them and suddenly we can listen to the vibrant breaths!
Because they can’t breathe under the water.
They’ve only become a recent love of mine, but something that was said today resonated with me – they share their beauty and space with us, even after all we humans have done. And all they’re doing is breathing – but still so magical. I guess partly because it’s so different from all we know. The same can be said about their communication.
Whales are probably one of the most fascinating mammals of the world, because we are still learning about them (acoustics, communication, relationships in their groups) IMPRESSIVE! Thank you for tonight it was really interesting.
They are complicated and smart like us.
Whales have the key to understand the infinite mysteries on the oceans. They will never share the secret with us, but they will always be big and powerful, and appearing or singing when you least expect it.
They are so mysterious, and free, and graceful on one hand…fascinating. And on the other hand, they are quite similar: mammals, social, seem clever. Sometimes connected, and sometimes just don’t care at all…Finally, they are just free and beautiful creatures.
They live on a different timescale than us. They are still surrounded by so many unknowns and mysteries despite our encounters, research and centuries of exploitation.
I don’t really know how it happened. As a kid dolphins became my favourite animal. I had many books. They just have some mysterious presence and it’s beautiful to see them. Almost magical. Seeing them gives a happy feeling. Maybe they just are magical.
For me, it’s a feeling not a thought but definitely the poems, songs and the feelings from today that came from someone’s mind made me feel that.
They teach me patience, love, harmony and serenity.
There is something about how they are familiar, and yet so alien, that draws out a great interest in me that fills me with excitement and intrigue. Nothing is more beautiful than the sight of a whale breaking the surface of the ocean.
A selection of poems by Trina Davies
I am the talking clock
The whale moves
In its own time
We’re right there
To watch it chime
A talking clock
We can’t stop
If we scream
The numbers out
The clock ticks on
Time won’t run out
The whales come up
Let’s turn around
Lifting the tail
The whale’s gone down
We’ll wait a bit
We’ll wait some more
What a lovely fulmar
We want more
It’s back again
Check out those fins
There she blows
There she goes
Can’t help but wonder
Why we’re counting down
Will whales always
They see their target
The harpoon gleams
Point and aim
The whale dreams
The ocean’s warmer
Then ever before
The clock is ticking
We must do more
Remorse of the Resentful Dolphin
Sorry you’re confusing me
For the completely wrong guy
I know we look alike
This happens all the time
Yes, they swim in this sea
And yes we’re kind of family
But you’ve got the wrong address mate
If you could leave that would be great
Wait, stop where are you going
I didn’t mean it, don’t go
I know you bought tickets
To a different show
But I’m literally doing back flips
Out the mother fucking sea
And you hardly even turn
To take a look at me
I live in the shadow
Of the big fat whale
No one takes photos
Of my sad little tail
Why do I always
Wash up second best
Don’t wanna swim no more
I feel depressed
For the record
It hurts my self esteem
That I’ve never
Been part of your dream
Oh, put away your pity
It’s too late for that now
The shame of desperation
As I cling to your bow
Look I’m having fun
I’m riding in your waves
Dolphins always have fun
To fun we are slaves
There is no fun
It’s an inbuilt smile
I beg of you
Please stay a while
Don’t leave me here
With these moronic fools
I was made for stardom
I’m an oceanic jewel
Fine, on your way then
Enjoy your whale hunt
If you ever find the basturd
Tell him he’s a …
Hello everyone, welcome onboard
The ocean’s just waiting to be explored
Forget about land and all you have there
Be like the whales, come up for some air
Forget about all you ever have known
For this is a world that we don’t own
Here life moves to a wonderful beat
To the kufuffles and shuffles of puffin feet
But look over there for I firmly believe
A whale has come up and is starting to breathe
A tease at the surface, a flick and a splash
Cloaked in a mystery of questions unasked
See how its blow reaches so high
And drifts like a cloud as it touches the sky
Ten times bigger than we are tall
Despite all your layers don’t you feel small
A hand in the air, a question for me
Such endless possibilities to what it might be
Perhaps he will ask where the whales go
When winter is thickened with layers of snow
Perhaps he will ask why the whales sing
What music to the oceans can a whale bring
Perhaps he will ask if whale numbers have grown
Since the days when we took them and made them our own
As the leviathan lifts its tail
The man turns to ask ‘Can I touch the whale’
Can I touch the whale
You want to…touch the whale
When whales dive beneath the waves they take a voyage you can only follow with the most childish sense of imagination
When they erupt from their mystery, they are spirit like in their silence
People all over this planet have limitless respect for untouchable gods they’ll never even see
But when physically met with something inconceivable
It is unbelievable how we feel the need to grasp it in our greed
Can you touch the whale?
Is it not enough?
That this giant shares its space with us ?
After all we have done
It lets us observe
Its black and white tail
And its dorsal fins curve
Touch is trust
And trust takes time
Give it back its world
Finish this rhyme
Can you touch the whale?
Like you touch things you own
Like the trees we cut down
Like your mobile phone
Whales are the biggest thing that can still hide from humanity
And yet you want to commit the profanity
Of touching the whale
Can I touch the whale, you already are
Every time you use plastic or start up your car
That whale’s busy choking on your waste
And you want to reach out and pet its face
Is travelling just a way of consuming
In a memory market built for humans
Buying a world until it hollows
It all comes down to Insta follows
You hate whaling but order burger and fries
Picking and choosing where morals apply
Can you touch the whale ?
Leave it alone
Your questions a product
Of thinking we own
A world we have taken
And shaken around
Let the whales breathe
And put your hand down
the wall by Alyssa Stoller
I stared at the horizon
That was over 700 feet tall
Looking to see a glimpse of something that could last forever
Instead I saw a wall
My eyes traced over it
Hard, cold, and grey
It wasn’t a wall
It was in fact a wave
As it circled and engulfed me –
There was nothing I could do
I felt the sharp iciness pierce through my skin –
Washing over me
To my surprise I could breathe
While in the middle of this thick liquid
That was hard in my chest
When it had passed my eyes remained shut
It wasn’t until I was awoken by a breath
That my eyes began to see
There and unseen