It’s a genuine conundrum. Why do we love whales and dolphins so much? The particularly forceful nature of their attraction is something I have spent a long time pondering, since I am as affected by it as much as anybody, and some of my most memorable wildlife experiences have been with cetaceans (which is the whale and dolphin’s collective name).
Some of the animals, of course, are simply beautiful. Common dolphins in particular – the ones with the broad, pale band along their side, illustrated in wall frescoes in ancient Crete but often visible today off the coast of Britain – are among the most elegant of all creatures. But I don’t think that quite explains the particularly strong feeling we have for them.
Then again, some cetacean behaviour is spectacular, such as dolphins “bow-riding” a boat, or the occasions when a humpback whale breaches. I have seen this quite enormous animal leaping from the sea right out into the air. It makes you gasp in astonishment. But that’s not quite it either.
I think we get closer to the core of the attraction if we compare how we feel about cetaceans with how we feel about fish, even giant fish such as basking sharks, which are as big as some whales, and can be seen off our western coasts in the summer. I would contend that even though we may find fish fascinating – and basking sharks are certainly that – there is an element missing, compared to our feelings for whales and dolphins, and that element is a sense of wonder.
We feel there is a mystery to cetaceans which does not apply to fish. And I think that must firstly be because they are mammals like us, and so we feel a sense of kinship, reinforced by the fact that they are clearly very intelligent – and yet so very different.
My daughter, who enjoyed numerous whale-watching episodes in her childhood and was thrilled by any cetacean sighting (she’s now 22) put her finger on this recently when we were talking about them, and she said: “They’re like beings from a different dimension.” I was struck by this, and we talked about it further, and in the end I asked her to write her thoughts down so I could remember them.
She wrote: “Why I like whales is something to do with the fact that they are ‘other-worldly’, which is manifested in their physical strangeness – they are so big, so slow, out of time with the rest of nature, almost a throwback to the dinosaurs.
“Their other-worldliness relativises and undermines our world view – ie life is richer/stranger than we remember on a daily basis. There are other hidden dimensions (eg the ocean) that are just as much a part of the Earth, but which are so forgotten by us day-to-day, and quite literally invisible to us, as the deep ocean has no sunlight.”
And she concluded: “So whales are so magical because when they surface, they offer a physical token of another realm which is veiled from us, but which also comprises part of our planet.”
Creatures like us, but from another realm, a different dimension – to my mind, that does go a long way to explaining it. Thank you, Flora. And I was put in mind of all of it, and started the conversation in the first place, because, although you may not have noticed, this week is the time for National Whale and Dolphin Watch, 2014.
It is organised by the cetacean charity the Sea Watch Foundation, who invite members of the public to join experienced observers all around the Britain on the lookout for whales, dolphins and porpoises. There are no fewer than 153 different observation sites from Shetland to Cornwall and you can find details of where watches are taking place by looking at their website, and the Sea Watch Foundation's 2014 watch list. If you want to watch on your own, they ask you to spend an hour in a given place, and the website has details of how to go about it.
This is the 13th year that National Whale and Dolphin Watch has taken place, and in that time 13 different cetacean species have been observed: one porpoise (harbour porpoise), six whales (minke, humpback, fin, sei, northern bottlenose and long-finned pilot whale) and six dolphins (bottlenose, common, Atlantic white-sided, Risso’s, white-beaked and killer whale, which is a dolphin, really).
Creatures from another realm, all of them. Beings from a different dimension. Why not try and spot one this week?