Category: Wild Reads

Some years ago now, whilst staying in a remote yet beautifully appointed cottage on the Isle of Mull, snowed in and cosy, I sauntered over to the amply filled bookshelves and plucked one at random. The book was The Winter Whale, by Jim Crumley, and I’m pretty sure I read it in one sitting. The hours do fly by when you have a roaring fire and a good book after all, and your morning was taken up by rescuing a bat. But that may well be another story.

The Winter Whale tells the true story of a humpback that followed herring shoals into the Tay estuary in 1893. Its teasing presence and frolicking proved too much for the dormant whaling fleet based in Dundee. For four weeks the humpback eluded them until six boats chased it down, only to be hauled out to sea with it on taught harpoon lines. Although it escaped, the ironmongery left in its hide did the job and its body washed up on shore after a storm. What is so interesting about the story, is that it isn’t the whale’s appearance or death that forms its bulk, but what happened afterwards. Promptly put on display, where you could pay to eat at a table set up in the ‘monster’s’ mouth, and touring the country in a specially designed train carriage, it was quite the exhibition piece until finally donated to a museum. It’s skeleton is still on display at the McManus Art Gallery & Museum.

Ever since then, I have consumed Crumley’s writings with a passion. No outing into the wild or holiday is complete without one of his books. Often centring not only on my favourite wildlife, but also my favourite places, they are hard to resist. I heartily recommend The Last Wolf, Something Out There, and arguably his greatest work, The Company of Swans (if you can find a copy!).

It has become something of a tradition to head to the Sevenoaks Bookshop on my birthday to pick up something to read over lunch. For the last two years it has been a Jim Crumley book. Last year I discovered and devoured The Eagle’s Way, that tells of the return of the white tailed eagle to Scotland’s east coast, following a reintroduction on the west. This year, it was the tale of another return, that of the beaver, in Nature’s Architect.

Nature's Architect

Crumley looks at the official Scottish Beaver Trial, and its rather more successful competition, rogue ‘accidental’ beavers that have colonised the River Tay (there’s reported to be 150 of them!). They are also popping up in SW England and other places.

What struck me more than anything is Crumley’s overwhelming empathy for the wild, and his call to let nature be nature. I don’t know how anyone could read this book and not be convinced of the inherent value in allowing the beaver to return to our rivers and marshlands. He explains how the building work of the beaver can influence a landscape over centuries, create an influx of prey and predator species within an ecosystem and even manage waterways to prevent flooding. His lament that the five year trial will show us nothing compared to the next fifty will fall on deaf ears politically, but it is a point beautifully made here. Nature needs time, space and above all, our absence (read non-interference) in order to thrive rather than our help. As the Tayside beavers are already showing. They can do it on their own.

I just hope that in years to come I can read new works following the arrival of lynx and wolf too…

Beaver Dam



Death at Sea-world

I have always had a fascination with killer whales. It may well have come from seeing Winnie, the infamous and always seemingly good-natured resident of Windsor Safari Park when I was a child. What I never knew was that Winnie, like most whales in captivity had been born in the wild and was captured just off the coast of Iceland in 1977. She ended up being one of the longest-lived whales in captivity, nearly 25 years old. But when she died, her small enclosure at Windsor had already taken its toll by stunting her growth and allowing her to ingest some 12 lbs of plastic material that remained in her gut and prevented her from absorbing nutrients from her food properly. Her move to SeaWorld did her some good as she did put on weight, but her small size meant that she was often bullied by other whales and it took a further two moves before Winnie was settled and found a companion she could get on with, Kayla.

This and other stories of whales in captivity are found in Death at Sea-World, a fantastic book by David Kirby that I have just finished. I literally could not put it down, reading in my lunch breaks and late at night in bed until I reached the end. The stories it brings to light are often shocking and upsetting. I for instance as a child never knew Winnie had been born wild, as most of the whales I’ve seen in captivity have been.

One of the things that becomes clear very quickly is that killer whales are one of the most intelligent animals we have ever encountered who get bored very easily. To the point that it is often them training the trainers. Take the whale that was given a choice of two cards to test visual acuity. One card had a single line on it, the other two. In order to test the whale, the card with two lines was replaced time and time again with a card  where the two lines were closer and closer together. Each time the whale chose the card with two lines, it was rewarded. The whale learnt the trick quickly and only had difficulty picking out the two lines when they were approximately 1mm apart or less. It got it right something like 98% of the time, a score equal to an eye exam I recently had. The next day, the whale scored 1%. There was nothing wrong with her vision, she was just bored. It was the whale equivalent of putting her fingers in her ears and chanting ‘nah-nah-nah-nah-nah-nah’. Or take the example of the whale that would literally stick its head in the corner gate of its tank if it was played songs it didn’t like. In both examples, the whales were showing almost unprecedented levels of intelligence and finding ways to communicate with us. They went on to teach their trainers which reward they were happy to take and when.

What then becomes clear if it wasn’t obvious already, is that killer whales are not really happy in captivity. They are apex predators being taught to do performance showpieces they find repetitive and mundane. Their health is at risk. Most captive whales are fed large quantities of antibiotics daily, suffer sunburn and insect bites and suffer from collapsed dorsal fins due to the fact that they are forced to spend nearly all of their time at the surface in shallow pools, where they cannot dive to the depths and lengths they can in the wild to escape the sun or insects.

Further to this, whales that wouldn’t usually tolerate each other in the wild are forced together. Transient whales that wander the ocean are kept in pods that include settled resident whales. In the wild, they would avoid each other and it has even been documented where resident whales aggressively confront transients. Residents tend to be fish eaters whereas transients are more likely to eat marine mammals. Tilikum was most likely an Icelandic transient, although Iceland does have some residents as well. The bullying he experiences from other whales certainly at least suggests a difference in culture between him and other whales. This bullying is relatively common in captivity and often documented as different whales assert their dominance or frustration. Whales regularly have to be moved as Winnie and Tilikum both experienced (Winnie also being an Icelandic transient) to protect them, although I use the term ‘protect’ loosely in the context of SeaWorld procedures.

On top of all this, the whales typically show signs of depression (including logging at the water’s surface almost motionless), lethargy and violent mood swings.

I have visited both Sea-world and Windsor Safari Park and seen the whale and dolphin shows. I’ve paid my money and I’ve enjoyed the experience and being up close to the whales. But I’ve also seen the signs that things weren’t right. Most notably was the whale that posed cutely at the viewing window at sea-world, waited until a crowd of adoring fans had gathered and then rammed the window violently in order to literally scare the tourists. This is a behaviour described in the book and I now know that the whale I saw was one particular whale or a whale that had learnt that specific behaviour from the whale in question. The whale does this because she is bored and has invented a way of keeping herself amused. They are also quite good at swimming slowly and cutely past guests as they leave the shamu stadium, only to send just enough water over the top to soak anyone who dawdles. Again, this is something I have experienced myself personally! The intelligence involved here is considerable and should not be under-estimated.

The issue I have most with is the attitude and lack of recognition on the captors part that there are issues with keeping these animals in captivity. If they recognised that captive whales live shorter lives it would go a long way. If they showed more respect for the maternal bond between mother and calf and how long it lasts (all their lives. Male whales are mummy’s boys suspected never to venture further than half a mile from their mother’s side), less behavioural problems could be a result. If residents and transients were kept apart. If whales weren’t forced to mate before they would in the wild. If tanks were designed to be more interactive and engaging for the whales, rather than on a basis of how easy they are to clean. If incidents were documented and the danger of working with an apex predator was at least recognised then things like the “Tilly talk” (in short, get in the water with Tilly, come out a corpse) would be less of a surprise for trainers and not something that they feel had to be kept from the public. If real educational material was made available at SeaWorld parks then marine conservation could become a real part of their work. Most importantly, if sea-pens could be built where whales could retire and still be viewed and adored by the public, where natural behaviour is more likely to be seen, where care and attention can still be given to human-accepting whales by trainers then there could still be a future for captive whales in a de-escalating programme that moved away from exhibitions and performing. But whilst there is even a hint that the truth is hidden or not recognised by such corporations, whilst they are promoted more as circus animals than intelligent, individuals (every animal is called Shamu not just for show purposes but because if you were given their real name, you’d be able to track how often they died) then things will inevitably get worse and equally inevitably, it is only a matter of time before a killer whale kills its trainer again.

I don’t think that releasing captive whales into the wild is always a viable end for some whales in captivity, which is why I am holding off damning SeaWorld completely and rallying for their all out closure tomorrow. Whales have personalities as diverse as ours. Keiko for instance, the most famous whale other than Tilikum and the star of Free Willy was generally thought of as one of the most kindly, compassionate whales in captivity who literally adored human company. When a caretaker’s toddler fell into his inhumanely small pool, Keiko, covered in warts and blisters and emaciated from living under the harsh Mexican sun, rescued the child and kept him at the surface until he could be rescued. His wild release was pretty much a marketing ploy and ultimately resulted in Keiko never really acclimatising to life in the wild, seeking out human company in both Iceland and Norway. He died of bacterial pneumonia, ultimately possibly because his immune system had been irreversibly compromised by living in captivity. Although it was almost irresistable given the movie to try the endeavour with Keiko, he was not a suitable whale for release in my opinion.

Expansive sea pens where whales can receive medical care but also have the opportunity to feed naturally or go for wild walks as Keiko did are where I think the future could lie for most captive whales. There is no reason why corporations like SeaWorld couldn’t build such enclosures with viewing windows and charge the public to visit as they do their parks. Imagine seeing a whale like Tilikum from the deck of a boat, seeing him feed on wild herring or being taken for a walk by a SeaWorld support ship into the open ocean. Wouldn’t he be happier? Wouldn’t you?

The Philosopher and the Wolf

I feel a little naked at the moment, for I am a naturalist without binoculars. In a bid to survive a little longer I decided to let others bid via Ebay on my prized bins. Enough money has been raised and the rent has been paid, but I mourn their parting. So, whilst I start saving up and spend my walks squinting at the tree tops and underbrush, I thought I’d at least share what I’ve been reading.

The Philosopher and the Wolf is a book by Mark Rowlands, an actual professor of philosophy at Miami university who decides his life needs a dose of wolfish input. He buys a wolf cub, as is apparently possible in the grand U.S of A and his life is changed forever. It soon becomes clear that a wolf cub and a home left unguarded are not to be mixed unless you are a fan of the recently hit by a lupine hurricane look. From that moment, Mark and wolf named Brenin are inseparable and travel the world together, from philosophy lectures to Ireland to various places across the USA.

What we are treated to as readers is not just the insight Mark gives us on the bond between man and wolf, possibly the oldest and most successful relationship between us and the natural world, but also the philosophical lessons Mark takes from Brenin and how they both see and tackle the world.

It is a great book that should be read slowly so you can take it all in, piece by piece. I personally don’t agree with everything that Mark concludes or suggests. He is in the Farley Mowat category of nature writer in that you get the impression that he doesn’t really like or even approve of humans quite as much as he does the wildlife in question, in this case Brenin, but it is therefore a challenging and intelligent read that makes you look at things much closer than may be comfortable.


A Whale’s Tale

Some time ago on Twitter, I heard of a series being filmed called Ocean Giants. It’s coming was given a great deal of publicity through that and other social networks and publications such as BBC Wildlife magazine. It was hotly anticipated by our wildlife celebrities who buzzed about the beautiful photography and the amazing grace of the leviathan creatures that the programme would encounter. When I caught the short advert for it on the BBC, I couldn’t wait, as like many cosy-chair conservationists, I yearned for a televisual bridge between Springwatch and Autumnwatch.

For the last two Sundays I have sat glued to the box, a cup of tea in hand and a deep feeling of satisfaction that this was exactly what the last day of the weekend was meant for. Throw in that at the same time, Monty Hall is back on the beeb too with his Irish adventure, working for a whale and dolphin conservation charity and I find myself leaving the flat only out of necessity to forage. But late on Sunday evening, something began to niggle me. I wasn’t sure what it was, but I felt uncomfortable. Surely, there couldn’t be anything about this programme to dislike? This programme that I had been waiting months for?

It couldn’t be good old Stephen Fry’s narration. Having Stephen Fry narrate this series is like going for a walk in the park with a knowledgable and enthusiastic uncle who points out the wonders of the world as you stroll along, or spending time with a teacher you actually like and therefore might just learn something from. His soothing charm and good manners are as effective as hot milky drinks in making the world seem endlessly right and cheerful before you are off to bed. No, it can’t be that.

It can’t be the animals and stars themselves either. Surely they must be directly responsible for all the good vibes and feelings. They can’t be making me feel uncomfortable.

Maybe it’s something outside of the programme itself, some external influence. Maybe it’s that e-mail I got a few days ago from Ric O’ Barry. You know Ric, he was the animal trainer for the original TV series ‘Flipper’. He went a bit screwy when one of his charges died in his arms one night for no reason other than seeming to no longer wish to swim in circles in a 60 foot pool. The contents of the e-mail were I admit, a little contrary to the feel good factor of Ocean Giants. On the 1st of September, in a small cove on the East coast of Japan, a six month annual slaughter of dolphins and porpoises will begin. Don’t worry though, the best and most beautiful won’t be killed. They are saved for the world’s animal trainers and keepers who come to pick them out for their zoos and aquariums. They gather at the water’s edge and walk the nets of animals that are thrashing and crying out in fear and pain. They eye the animals over, like eager bachelors in a street of prostitutes. Like the bachelors, they wear rimmed hats and dark glasses, should they be seen or recognised. Those who aren’t picked and are left behind aren’t just beaten and punished by their pimps, they are hacked to pieces, along with 2,000 brothers and sisters during the season. Ric’s e-mail was about celebrating Japanese dolphin day on the 1st September. He’ll be in Japan, facing arrest, violent confrontation, harassment, death threats and apparently throwing a party. I don’t think we’ll see it on Ocean Giants though and Monty Hall is unlikely to spend six months in Taijii next year. Certainly not those six months anyway.

But I’ve known about the cove and Japanese whaling for that matter, for years. Maybe it’s not just that. Maybe its how the niggling sensation made me walk over to the bookcase after last Sunday’s episode and pick up Farley Mowat’s book ‘A Whale For The Killing’. On the last episode of Ocean Giants, recent research was explored of how we now know that whale’s brains contain spindle neurons and that they are directly linked to social organisation, empathy, speech, intuitive feelings about how other beings feel and what we refer to as ‘gut’ reactions. For a long time we thought that these cells were characteristic of just us. Then we found that some of the great apes had them. Then we discovered that some dolphins had them. Then we realised that toothed whales like dolphins were further down the evolutionary tree than ocean giants like the rorquals and baleen whales. When we eventually got round to checking some of them for spindle cells, we found congregations 30 times more dense than in a human brain.

In ‘A Whale For The Killing’, Mowat tells the tale of a female ‘finner’, or fin whale that during a night-time, pregnancy induced craving chased a school of herring into a channelled pond and became trapped there as the tide fell in a remote Newfoundland fishing village. This was in the late 1960’s and whales were not protected and were only studied in order to make killing methods more effective. I say again, this is 1969. Not 1869, just 40 odd years ago. A number of things stand out from the book, but the thing that most haunted me since I first read it was the presence of ‘the guardian’, her mate. He took up a post in the channel and sound outside of the pond and never left. When she began to starve, he chased herring into the pond for her. Even when he could not see her and they were over half a mile apart in distance, he would surface when she did and sound when she did. He watched her starving to death over the course of a fortnight. He heard her mad thrashing and cries of pain when over 150 bullets peppered her hide as some men from the village used her for target practice. He could smell the infection and her vomit in the water as the bullet wounds became sceptic. He no doubt heard her last mournful cry, which was said to echo round the pond like an underwater volcano. He probably heard and felt the vibrations of her body hitting the bottom of the pond in nine fathoms of water. When she had become too weak to swim, she had rested in shallow water with her head on the rocky shore. When even this became too much, she most likely let herself roll out to deeper water where she sank and drowned. The guardian at his post probably listened to his life mate die in agony. If you are reading this, you are probably moved, feeling some anguish, maybe even sorrow and empathy for the whale. Multiply what you are feeling by 30.

I think that my uncomfortable feeling is simply because I feel a little ashamed watching Ocean Giants and similar programmes. I have travelled the world in search of encounters with whales and dolphins, through the Bay of Biscay and the Med, to the Azores and from the Gulf of Mexico and along the western USA. But I know that there are also humans seeking whales to harm them, even today, and this isn’t something reflected in Ocean Giants. There’s an aspect of kidding ourselves that everything’s ok. I have seen and touched a Pacific grey whale and her calf as they openly sought human contact. I was in a  7 foot long kayak at the time and was approached by the 40 foot mother and her 15 foot calf. This was the whale the whalers called the devil-fish and feared almost as much as the sperm whale in terms of ferocity. My encounter, in contrast was with an animal that knew how gentle she had to be in order not to swamp or rock my tiny boat and wanted her tongue rubbed. Consider that in this same bay, fifty years ago, human beings gathered in order to kill the congregations of mothers and calves and that without a doubt, some older whales carry the memories of being hunted yet still seek us out for contact, and we begin to really get an insight into the depth of intelligence, compassion and empathy these creatures must have. And I was very happy to see that showcased on Ocean Giants.

I guess I’m just a little ill at ease at how quickly we seem to have forgiven ourselves for what we have done to the whales. They have only been protected, and not very well since 1989. 250 years ago, the eight species of great whale probably had a joint worldwide population of 4.5 million. By about 1930, we’d reduced that to about 1.5 million. By 2005, we were talking 350,000. It took the Ocean Giants team two years to find and film an appropriately sized Blue Whale. For the BBC series ‘Life’, a similar amount of time was spent finding a Bryde’s Whale on a herring run. Don’t get me wrong, I realise that filming conditions and other restrictions no doubt played their part, but at the same time lets not be fooled into thinking they turned up at the right time and right place and just set up camera. They searched the oceans for these animals with the best help available and had a great deal of luck, and worked tirelessly to bring us the programme.

And whaling has not ceased. Cetaceans are not free to wander the oceans without fear and they haven’t had time for their numbers to recover. The vast majority of the great whales are monogamous and mate for life. Blues and fins aren’t even sexually mature until into their early teens. That means that they’ve only had two successive generations since they became protected to get back on their feet. Some organisations estimate that between 30-50,000 animals are still killed by those nations still whaling and pirate whalers. The Faroes are already in their grinding months, where they will drive pods of pilot whales (one of my personal favourites) into the shallows and hack them to pieces with hooks, machetes, hunting knives or anything that comes to hand. As already mentioned, Japan is gearing up for their annual dolphin slaughter and after that they will set sail for the designated whale sanctuary of Antarctica to hunt and kill a further 1,000 whales, mainly Minkes, Seis and Fins. The pirate whalers, mainly made up of Japanese, Icelandic, Norwegian and South African vessels that just take their flags down are not so discriminating. Any species, regardless of age or sex will be taken. And then there are the ‘accidentals’. Whaling nations often take protected species ‘by accident’, but fear little repercussion and have to either admit to such killings or get caught in the first place for there to be any. This doesn’t happen often. In any case, it is clear that the whalers have not given up from the lack of great whales and have simply begun concentrating on the smaller ones too.

Unfortunately, it’s just not all sweetness and light bouncing off the waves out there in the oceans and that’s all I’m tasked to remember and what I ask you to consider. Ocean Giants is a breathtaking and beautiful programme about some of the most remarkable and amazing animals on Earth, but we have been equally remarkable and amazing in our slowness, even hesitancy, to recognise them as such.

The Natural History of Selborne has an almost legendary status among those who cherish wildlife. Written by Gilbert White a hundred years before Darwin, White was a man enthralled by the natural world around him. Not the tiniest detail would escape him and he would make detailed records of his wild encounters. He understood the significance of territory and song in birds and his interpretation of animal behaviour somehow went further than just mere scientific record. A love for the natural world and genuine affection and fascination for his wild neighbours comes across in each letter with complete sincerity.

I have to admit that it is a book that I have had for some time, but only recently started reading. White’s writings are now found in so many collected works, that it is difficult not to have read at least some of it though.

The book is made up of a series of letters between White and the explorer and naturalist Daines Barrington and also the eminent zoologist Thomas Pennant. It paints a charming and beautiful picture of eighteenth century England.

One of the lovelier things about reading the letters is discovering the old English names and descriptions for some of the birds and animals. White’s fascination with the tiny mouse he discovers, that we know and recognise as the harvest mouse is especially lovely. Trying to work out some of the others only lends to the mystique and charm of the writing.

If the BBC are wondering what could be the new direction for their natural history programmes, might I perhaps suggest a period drama? What could be better Sunday night viewing? Surely the reputed fourth most published book in the English language deserves a classy production. Just a thought.

Get yourself a copy and save it for rainy days in the meantime is my advice.


A Wild Love Story

I always had a thing for Philippa Forrester when I watched her present from the children’s BBC broom cupboard. She was and is the lovely girl next door who under no circumstances will stiffle the fit of giggles that she has just burst into. Throw in a love of wildlife that seemed to emerge at the same time as your own and we are talking an all time favourite crush!

Alas, Philippa is married now to dashing wildlife cameraman Charlie and they have three boys, but the prequel to this story which is being shown on BBC television at the moment as Halcyon River Diaries, is told in her beautiful and moving book, The River. She covers everything with the fun and passion that she always had, from how annoying your partner can be, pregnancy and mortgages to the highs and lows of being a working mother.

Then, there’s the wildlife. Kingfishers, Otters, Eels, Trout and everything inbetween is taken in and appreciated, served with wit and passion that made every page what the Americans would call a romantic dramedy (comedy/drama). Heartily recommended.

A Good Find

I was exploring Tunbridge Wells the other day when I discovered a fantastic second hand bookshop in the Pantiles shopping gallery. This little gathering of shops holds many great places, including a fantastic kitchen shop and a couple of good places to eat. Unfortunately, it is a relatively poor place for spotting wildlife. However, it served up gold as far as I’m concerned with that bookshop. Within the dusty shelves were hidden a complete set of the Handbook Of British Birds! Originally published in the 1940’s, it holds incredible detail and beautiful colour plates of each and every bird ever recorded in the UK. It describes everything from appearance to the look of the nest and eggs. It has been out of print for years  and is definitely the birders ‘bible’.  It is in an incredible five volumes, each about the size of a concise English dictionary. It has become an instant favourite!