A number of weeks back, a small pod of whales swam up the Burrard Inlet, causing a stir and many a camera phone taken out and photos snapped. The whales, orcas, were proof that our Lotus Land ways are given over to whimsy. Maybe a bit moreso when it’s whales, and thus our populace did a number of cute things – such as call in sick to work – to go have a look at the cetaceans. This isn’t anything new. In May of 2010 a grey whale swam idly up False Creek, startling people in the marinas, jamming traffic on three bridges, and caused such a wave of photos to be uploaded to the internet, Twitter threatened to crash and Instagram burn out. A few even joked that it was the best thing to happen to False Creek since Expo ’86. But the fact that grown adults were treating it like a Snow Day (“Sorry Jenkins, I can’t come into work today – there’s a whale near Science World”) and rushing to see it’s progress is a sign we are still enchanted by nature and it’s little surprise intrusions into our urban life.
We are lucky, we Vancouverites. Despite the inflated price tag that accompanies the real estate here, the surrounding natural beauty makes it worth it. I’m even at a risk for taking it for granted until I travel elsewhere that is not as visually stunning, only to be shocked when I come home. I look at the mountains, the ocean, the really attractive people on their way to yoga and think, ‘Oh thank Christ, I’m back in Vancity…” and then eat my chia seeds and drink my coconut water and grab my mat and head to an Ashtanga yoga class. But even the person who lives here and is impervious to the scenic splendour that is Vancouver loses their shit when they hear there is a wild whale (or several) that has decided to grace our denizens with it’s presence. We dance around from foot to foot, clap out hands and get excited. As one should.
It’s because these amazing creatures aren’t often visitors to this area, so close to our metropolitan area that it causes a stir. We live with many critters that are easily recognized as ‘West Coast’ in Vancouver, as it dances the line of being a water-locked lush city with large green spaces and a world-class city. It was when I was in one of these large green spaces, Stanley Park, that I really stopped and thought about the dynamic between humans and animals in Vancouver over the years. In fact, I was wandering past where the old sea otter enclosure once stood when my travels took me past the Vancouver Aquarium. I could hear the whoosh of the beluga whales’ breaths. I paused and stood there listening to them, glancing back the path I had come, seeing and hearing the ocean on either side of what makes up the peninsula that is Stanley Park. Then an awful thought occurred to me.
Given the location of the beluga’s enclosure, and the nearby former orca pool, I was impressed at how far their sounds travelled to where I was. While I’m aware that sound does travel faster underwater, it’s also a fact that whales, belugas in particular have amazing hearing. While humans typically have a hearing range of 64-23,000 Hertz, belugas boast a whopping 1,000-123,000. My mind took the turn of considering if they could hear any fellow whales out in Coal Harbour or Burrard Inlet, and vice versa. With most of the pod in captivity being wild-caught the horror of the situation hit me: what if these whales were self-aware of their captivity and that freedom in open ocean wasn’t so far removed from them, but ultimately hopeless for them to ever?
This did not sit well with me.
With this little piece of existentialisim stuck in my craw, I went for a walk. I thought about the hours I had spent at the aquarium and how I’d come to learn, love and revere all the animals there. While many were native to my West Coast home, there were scores I’d never see if not for the aquarium, other than partial glimpses in the wild and National Geographic specials on television. The program also, while keeping the animals captive, did allow the staff to learn about how to heal their injured wild brethren and then return them to the wild. It seemed a strange sacrifice that’s been made, but I can attest to how it enriched and influenced my life, as well as countless others. As well, while they’re not yet on the endangered list, many ocean species are getting decimated by my simian compatriots around the globe by irresponsible commercial fishing, pollution, and general fucktardedness. So as cruel as it felt, in a number of year’s time it might be the only way anyone ever sees them at all.
This weekend past I had the unique opportunity to be a mermaid with four others at the Paradiso Festival in WA. Our cove was set up for us to lounge in as well as a 40 foot tank to swim and perform in. While the tank is the largest mobile aquarium in the world, it also was confining on the inside. Not to say I didn’t enjoy it, but it made swimming quickly a challenge. But I remember looking out and seeing the ravers to utterly enthralled by we mermaids as well. They all pretty much looked like I imagined I’d look if I saw the same thing. When we were in our lagoon ‘habitat’ the people who would all come right up as close as the barrier would allow them would make the most excited noises to see us flip our flukes and splash them, or comb each other’s hair, or toss them gold coins from our pirate ship, I felt that getting to experience something you don’t see every day is important to our cerebral make up that allows us to want to protect the rest of the species.
So I am grateful for two things: the presence and canonization of these animals in captivity and the fact that the wild ones remind us that the wild is still beautiful. Still worth fighting for and protecting. The strange balance between the two I hope is enough to make young people want to learn and cherish their planet, and to have an appreciation for species other than our own.
Next time there’s a whale at English Bay – I’m calling in to work saying I’m hungover and can’t make it in today. I’ll see you there.
Little Miss Risk