By Emma-Louise Nicholls, on 7 November 2012
The sounds you hear in the main hall are those that would be heard on any SCUBA diving trip. The main difference being that every few seconds in this particular extravaganza of acoustic delights, whale songs and dolphin clicks break through the background noise. With very little imagination you could believe you really were underwater as a large number of life size whales and dolphins surround you and blue and green streams of crepe paper hang from the ceiling, looking like waves in the dimmed lights. This was WhaleFest, making an exquisite entrance into my life.
Resisting the temptation to attempt a flying jump onto the back of the enormous blue whale that occupied the majority of the central floor space, I entered a world of underwater noises, life size whales, a great white shark interloping at the back and a wolf howling… wait, that’s a message coming through on my phone. Forget the wolf howling. In the next room was the first of many areas comprising stand after stand of enthusiastic people wanting to talk to me about cetaceans and all of whom deserve to be mentioned here. Word-limits dictate a blogger’s life however and so I have chosen a couple of ‘case studies’ to give you a taste of what you can discover at WhaleFest 2012, which is organised by the super friendly and highly accommodating geniuses over at Planet Whale.
As a scientist, I feel there’s nothing like a good debunking of myths, and IFAW (International Fund for Animal Welfare) had a cracker to share. The beautiful country of Iceland (I speak first hand) sees over 500,000 tourists each year (more people than in the resident population interestingly). Many tourists, wherever they visit, enjoy acting like the locals to get a real feel for the country and in Iceland, many travellers are led to believe that whale meat is a traditional dish. Prepare for your mind to be blown as I share with you that out of all of the seemingly wonderful, nature loving people who pay to go whale watching in Iceland, 40% of them step off the ship after a close encounter with one of the world’s most majestic groups of animals, and then walk into a restaurant and order them for dinner.
“WHAT??” I hear you cry, and I’m right there with you. If you ask them why, they say
“I just wanted to sample the culture” or
“I’ll only try it this once, I just want to see what it’s like”.
The truth is that whale meat is not even a traditional dish. In fact, a Gallup poll survey carried out in 2010 found that less than 5% of Icelanders eat whale meat on a regular basis, meaning it’s not even part of their culture. And yet tourists continue to munch their way through the whale population because they are led to believe it is part of Icelandic tradition. Who tells them these things? The people who profit from whale meat of course.
Enter IFAW and Ice Whale (Icelandic Whale Watching Association). Together, they started a campaign called ‘Meet us don’t eat us’. Catchy, I like it. Within a single year, tourist consumption of whale meat has halved to an estimated 20% of whale watching tourists. An amazing feat worthy of high praise. I do not suppose they will rest until it is 0% and at present, tourist boats coming back from whale watching trips are met by charming people with a placard in their hand and an education up their sleeve. Here’s hoping people wake up to the reality of what they are doing and start travelling more responsibly. Find out more about this fantastic campaign here.
A Material World
It was perhaps poignant that there was a posse of groups and individuals talking about the scourge of plastics upon the land (or, in this case, the sea) as the situation has unequivocally become both global and serious. Look around the room you are in right now at all the things that are, or contain, plastic. Now go in to the kitchen, there’s the real shocker. I would guess that most people discard plastic food packaging every day without even thinking about it. The problem is that a) many plastic items do not get discarded properly and b) even when they are, they are susceptible to escaping from bins via a number of ways including the elements- it doesn’t need a particularly strong gust of wind to translocate a plastic bag for example.
Do you know how often we go through 60,000 plastic bags? Sixty thousand plastic bags? Go on, take a guess. Every three seconds. That was the first shocking statistic that Emily Penn, from Pangaea Explorations, gave in her talk Our massive tiny problem. Did you also know, that only 3.5% of plastic is recycled? Every time you throw away a plastic bottle with your daily supermarket oh-so-convenient-lunchtime meal-deal, where does it go? Well, a lot of what doesn’t find its way to a landfill (just how many holes can we dig in the ground to hide our rubbish?) ends up in the sea because everything washes or is blown downhill. Once there, ocean currents join forces with wind and the effects of the earth’s rotation, forcing the plastics to accumulate into huge, slowly rotating whirlpools of rubbish, called gyres. Unfortunately, plastic a) looks edible to many marine species, to whom it is actually poisonous and b) is designed to last forever. The result in a nutshell? Lots of dead animals and oceans full of crap. I really encourage you to dedicate 5 minutes of your life to flicking through this straightforward educational website. That five minutes could after all, change the world.
Let me now introduce you to a feat of genius called the Plastic Cove. This stand was designed to give people a virtual whale watching experience, the only condition being that you had to watch through a small hole in a plastic tent. The result was a slightly disturbed visual experience in which the whales were amazing but you were constantly distracted by the atmosphere, coupled with, well, a bad smell. It gave a stark insight in to what the world may well be like if we do not curb our plastic habit. The only difference being, there may be no whales left to watch, amongst rubbish or not.
It is frustrating that I cannot tell you a whole lot more about my day at WhaleFest as there is so much to say and so many inspiring, heart-breaking, joyous and gut wrenching things to cover. Luckily, I hear on the grapevine that WhaleFest is already shaping up to be just as fantastic next year. Where else can you walk through the belly of a whale (you don’t need to re-read that sentence, it says what you thought), and hear a host of different whale and dolphin calls by standing on different floor panels? Adult or kid, that’s a great day for everybody.