Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Save The Whales Reloaded

The sky was varying shades of grey, with lighter and darker clouds layered on top of one another, and undecided whether to release its rain or not. A crowd, undeterred by the cold, indecisive weather, gathered on the promenade in front of the impressive red brick fa├žade of the towering hotel. The bright white railings of the balconies stood out starkly against the brick, despite the dull conditions. Behind the crowd, the sea rippled in a lighter silvery grey, calmly and gently rolling onto the orangey brown pebbles of the beach. Amongst the crowd now, banners appeared and with a wave of excitement chanting and shouting began. Louder and louder the shouts of ‘Save the Whales’ rang out, as the banners declaring the same statement were buffeted in the cold breeze and passing cars beeped their horns.

Save the Whales Reloaded!

There we stood on the same spot where 30 years ago campaigners stood calling for the hunting of whales to stop, in front of the Hilton Brighton Metropole where all those years ago the moratorium on whaling was signed. There, together, we launched the Save the Whales Reloaded Campaign. For despite that victory there is still work to be done and we still need to Save the Whales…

Bycatch, overfishing, habitat destruction, pollution, hunting, captivity…we must all make a stand, and say No, it must end, we must save these intelligent, sentient, wonderful creatures.

So proud to be there campaigning to save the whales
As the crowd dispersed in search of a warm cup of tea, buzzing from the encounter, we headed into the hotel and flung ourselves into celebrating the world of whales and dolphins. WhaleFest 2012 had begun!

From an undersea world of inflatable life sized whales and dolphins, to the inside of a sperm whales tummy and with talks from experts on subjects ranging from filming whales under water to the fight to free Morgan the Orca, WhaleFest 2012 had something for everyone. Not least the chance to go whale watching within the comfort of the Hiltons walls!

The magic underwater world of whales and dolphins

The Virtual Whale Watch took you on a real (well almost) boat, with real water and real footage of whales and dolphins. This year we were off to the Azores, where sperm whales lift their majestic tails into the air in a dive that would take them to untold depths to hunt giant squid, where groups of hundreds of common dolphins came to bow ride alongside our boat and where some very real looking birds swooped over head. For 20 minutes you were there, donning your life jacket and experiencing it for real, watching these magnificent animals, getting sprayed from their splashes and blows, listening to them on an underwater microphone, and getting involved with collecting plastic bags and bottles out of the ‘water’. It was one for everyone to get involved with, from little kids to ‘big’ kids.

Virtual Whale Watching WhaleFest style!

Having experienced whale watching, there was then the chance to meander through the stands of whale watch operators and marine charities, a chance to learn more about specific regions species, research and campaigns and to perhaps choose your next destination to get up close to these amazing creatures…

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Have you heard about Morgan...?

Since I first started the Wild Barley blog I have been writing about my adventures and experiences with the natural world. But today I want to post something different. Have you heard the story of Morgan the orca?

In June 2010 a lone, young female orca was captured from the Wadden Sea, off the northwest coast of the Netherlands under a rehabilitation and release permit. She was emaciated and dehydrated. The dolphinarium which took in the whale in order to administer this medical care named her Morgan. They weren’t allowed to display her to the public and she was to be prepared for reintroduction into the wild. This never happened.

Morgan © Free Morgan Foundation 

Within two months she was on public display, and naturally she was popular. She brought in the big bucks. She was also valuable to other dolphinariums in terms of her genetics.

Based on DNA and her distinct vocalisations researchers are confident that Morgan belongs to a Norwegian population of orcas. She would certainly provide a new blood line to the captive orca population.

Despite a viable release plan a judge in the Netherlands ruled that Morgan should go to Loro Parque in Teneriefe. It is here that she now languishes, in a small, blue, featureless tank, harassed and bullied by the other orcas at the park, and being trained to perform for public display.

How can this have happened? How did we get from helping a young whale in distress, taking her in with the intention of help and then condemning her to a life of captivity? They were supposed to be helping. The answer is of course, money. Hearing Morgan’s story has made me so angry, not only for what has happened but also at myself for not knowing it was happening.

I feel like I have been slumbering for the last two years and all of a sudden I am wide awake, jolted by a bucket of ice-cold realisation of what has happened here. The story of Morgan has been in the back of my sub consciousness. A name I have heard in the past almost banded around with the names of other captive orca. For some reason today I wanted to find out more and what I found distresses and infuriates me. We were supposed to be helping this whale, now she is a prisoner.

Is this how Morgan is destined to spend the rest of her life?
A life that will be cut short by being kept in captivity
© Free Morgan Foundation 

Releasing an orca back into the wild can be done. Although Keiko was never fully integrated into a wild population, for five years he was free, he swam where he wanted and interacted with wild orca. Then there is Springer, like Morgan she was found alone in an emaciated condition, miles from where her family live. After being kept in a sea pen and nursed back to health, Springer was ultimately released where she successfully reintegrated with a resident pod off British Columbia, Canada. Just this field season Springer has been seen, alive and thriving, 10 years after her release.

Of course there are differences, Keiko was a captive for more than 20 years and scientists did not know where his family were when he was reintroduced. The individuals and family ties of Springer’s population were and are very well known to researchers. In Morgan’s case researchers have now identified the population Morgan is likely to have come from and have even identified members of her close or extended family.

© Free Morgan Foundation 

In May 2012 Loro Parque announced that there was a good chance that Morgan is, at least partially deaf. How ironic when the next court hearing for Morgan’s case is looming on 1st November. However despite having more than a year Loro Parque have not conducted any of the scientific tests that would prove or disprove whether Morgan is deaf. Leaving the question unanswered simply puts the seed of doubt into people’s minds as to whether Morgan should be freed. The answer is she should.

There are so many issues with keeping such wide ranging, highly intelligent, social animals in captivity, and with purposely targeting wild animals for capture. What disturb and angers me the most about Morgans story is the fact that she was captured to rehabilitate, to nurse with the intention of returning her to the wild. What gives these people the right to break that promise?

Morgan deserves her chance to be wild.

What do we do? Stand quietly back and watch another wild whale slowly decline in a stone cold tank? No. We have to stand up and say No. This is not right. Greed like this cannot win. Morgan must be freed.

The Free Morgan Foundation is a not-for-profit charity raising awareness and the funds needed to pay the lawyer fees, court fees and other costs associated with the fight to free Morgan.

Morgan’s next court case is on 1st November 2012. Sign the petitions, write letters and add your voice to others who are taking a stand for her.

Finally tell the world. Twitter, Facebook, word of mouth. Tell everyone and anyone about Morgan and get them too to make a stand. 

To find out more go to the Free Morgan Foundation website

© Free Morgan Foundation 

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Bardsey Island

The small, rugged, wind swept island of Bardsey lies off the Llyn Peninsula in north west Wales. To the north east the island rises steeply from the waves that crash onto the blackened rocks to a scraggy peak 167 m high. The mountain is covered in browns, dark greens and grey of rock, bracken and gorse. Small patches of pink heather and the last remnants of thrift cling on, buffeted by the ever present breeze. Nestled along the western side of the mountain are the 19th century cottages and farmhouse, their grey stone or white walls overlooking lush grassy fields of the lowlands, where black cows and brilliant white sheep graze. To the south the coast narrows, like a belt tightened around a small waist, so that the rocky beaches either side almost meet, before blooming again into a rounded peninsula where the red and white striped lighthouse stands proud.

Bardsey Island

The island is renowned for its wildlife, and is a National Nature Reserve and Site of Special Scientific Interest. During the summer days the skies are filled with the cries of nesting seabirds, crammed on the east side of the mountain. Whilst during the summer nights, eerie, spooky calls of nesting manx sheatwaters take over the show. During autumn and spring the island is ideally located on one of the main migration routes, producing not only hundreds of the more common migrant species but also the odd rarity. The sea around the island, with its racing tides provides an important habitat for whales and dolphins, particularly the Risso’s dolphin. Such is the regularity with which this species is seen, especially during August and September that the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society has been conducting research on the habitat use of the dolphins around the island since 1999.

Our week on this beautiful wild haven started with brilliant blue skies, warm September sunshine and flat calm seas. Wandering around the island we soaked up the laid back pace of island life, meadow pipits and flocks of linnet tumbled over head, turnstone noisily chattered amongst the rocks of the shoreline and the sky filled with the cheeky calls of sleek, black, bright legged choughs. Along the shoreline mother grey seals prowl the surf, or bask in the sun keeping a sharp eye on their newborns tucked away among the rocks. The younger ones are white and fluffy, while the older pups have shed their baby fur and are now a silvery grey. Out to sea, in the distance a shadow breaks the surface. A pod of common dolphins, shimmering as they chase fish, leaping clear of the glittering blue.

Grey seal pup

Sunday and the wind had returned, bringing cloudy skies and creating white caps out to sea. The afternoon was spent down on the shelly beach where dark brown seaweeds mark the edge of the tide. Here a small walk in trap catches rock and meadow pipits, along with the odd white wagtail. Affectionately known as rockits the rock pipits are colour ringed on the island with the aim of establishing where they go in the winter months.

That evening it started to rain, and did not stop for 48 hours. Undeterred we trooped out, sploshing through the puddles to settle into ancient looking stone hides and staring out to sea. Through the rain, the sea looked a pale aquamarine. Gannets, kittiwakes and hundreds of razorbills skim over the waves, and there through the narrowed circle of a telescope eye piece, a small pod of Risso’s dolphin. Their tall dorsal fins rise slowly from the gentle waves, followed briefly by a heavily scarred back.

Wednesday dawned with the clouds being pushed and pulled through a pale blue sky. Rain still threatened but never really returned with any gusto. Although still slightly breezy, mist nets were opened in more sheltered areas of the island. Amongst the blackcaps, goldcrest and chaffinch, a treat – the subtle beauty of a spotted flycatcher, one of five on the island at the time.

Spotted flycatcher

By afternoon the sun was finally winning its battle with the clouds, spreading warm golden light on a beautiful little bunting that briefly perched at the top of a pine tree. This special bird is a scarce visitor to the British Isles with on average 29 records reported each year.

A stunning little bunting

The sunny, windy conditions continued over the last few days of our stay. Goldcrest continued to fill our nets, whilst during our wanderings around the island we witnessed first hand the tussle and tumble of the natural world. The peace of a feeding flock of rock pipits erupts as a merlin comes crashing through. The flock bursts into the air, the merlin in hot pursuit, twisting and turning in tight circles before disappearing over a ridge. A few minutes later and the rock pipit is hiding under the wheels of a tractor, the merlin perched on top perhaps cursing the one that got away.

The chase is on between a merlin and a rock pipit...

Time on the island seems more dictated by seasons than by clocks or calendars; the days merge into one continual flow of changing light and weather. As our week draws to an end, it is time to return to the hustle and bustle of mainland life, while the island and its inhabitants remain in their natural cocoon of this wild landscape.   

Monday, 1 October 2012

Back in the Bay

Once again the sea in the Bay of Biscay was tumultuous and restless, although not as fearsome as April when 8 meter swells and a Force 8 bounced the ferry like a child's bath tub toy. Nevertheless the wind whipped across the waves, topping them with white horses that rolled over each other, sending spray up into an endless blue sky where white cotton wool clouds only occasionally obscured the warm sun. 

This time despite the wind and white caps, the wildlife was out to be seen. Flocks of cory's and great shearwaters skimmed the tops of the waves, almost touching the water before banking up into the wind. Gannets fly with stiffer wings low to the water or circling high up keeping a sharp eye out for fish below the swirling waves. The brilliant white of the adult birds stands out a mile, and at this time of year there are many completely brown juveniles and sub-adults with varying degrees of white and black. A small sabines gull bounces by, creating a ripple of delight through the birders on board. 

Cory's shearwater 

For those who like their marine wildlife a little on the larger, warm blooded side, there were plenty of sightings of whales and dolphins to boot. 

In the morning wave after wave of common dolphins flashed past, leaping clear of the waves before dashing under the vessel. A little later on and striped dolphins appear, the first a rather quiet subdued group hardly breaking the surface, followed by a second more exuberant group doing back flips and leaping clear of the waves.

Common dolphins leaping clear of the waves

Two exuberant striped dolphins

Then there were the whales, tall effervescent blows shooting up before being carried away by the wind. They were mostly fin whales, with a tall upright blow but with the more distant ones it is impossible to say for sure...

As the ferry approached the southern part of the bay, renowned for its under water canyons which provides important habitat for a group of whales known as the beaked whales, the sea was even more choppy and those beaked whales remained elusive and out of sight.

We were however treated to two fin whales creating quite a splash amongst the waves. As they surfaced the pair would thrust their heads out of the water, a little more unusual to see in fin whales but giving a clear view of their white right jaw, a diagnostic feature for this species. 

Two fin whales in the southern part of the bay

As we entered the shelter of Santander, surrounded by the majestic mountains whose tops were shrouded in low misty cloud, all that was left to do was disembark and head into town for a tasty icecream, reflecting on a rather good days whale watching in the Bay of Biscay.