Whales and dolphins are too intelligent, too large and too mobile to ever thrive in a tank. Like us, when they are confined and their choices are taken away, their mental health suffers. Our Dark Side Of Captivity campaign has been uncovering the disturbing truth behind the glamour of the whale and dolphin shows and swim-with-dolphins experiences. Whales and dolphins belong in the wild, and seeing them in the wild can do amazing things for our mental health.
In this guest blog, WDC Shorewatch volunteer and whale watch skipper Steve Truluck shares how wild whales and dolphins altered the course of his life completely ...
Breach! And another. Over and over again the orcas breached. It was unbelievable to watch. We stood there smiling, shrieking with pure joy. Tears welled up, expletives were uttered involuntarily, voices went up several octaves. I glanced at the 55-year-old man next to me, an experienced birdwatcher of many years, who was in absolute pieces. Encountering a pod of orcas behaving naturally, especially for the first time, has a profound effect on us as we connect with these incredible creatures.
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In 2012 I moved to Scotland on a seven-month contract. Seeing the Moray Firth dolphins changed my life. 10 years later and I am still in Scotland. I blame the dolphins. I became totally enthralled in their presence and I still am. In 2013, I learnt there were orcas in Scottish waters and got myself a scope to look further out. I started seeing minke whales and joined WDC’s Shorewatch citizen science programme which introduced me to recording my observations to help protect the species I was seeing. I met other like-minded people and learnt about the threats that whales and dolphins face.
With this new network, I connected with the whales and dolphins on a more regular basis. I began to understand their movements and importantly, I started to care about them. So, when a planning proposal to transfer oil from ship to ship within the protected area for the dolphins was launched, I acted. Shorewatch had empowered me. I had finally found something I loved and cared about enough to protect, and it felt good to be able to do something about it.
Room to move
The move to Scotland had allowed me to find myself. I was liberated from my former life in the south of England living in a tiny bedsit in a stressful, far too busy, depressing world, surrounded by a culture I didn’t fit in with. Luckily for me I managed to seize the chance to escape to a life by the sea. I was lucky to get the chance. The pandemic emphasised how fortunate I was to have made those changes to my life. I know plenty of people who struggled with their mental health being alone or stuck somewhere they didn’t want to be. When I see orcas and dolphins in captivity, I think they must feel the same.
I was aware of the issue of orcas and dolphins in captivity from an early age. When I was six years old I lived in Hong Kong and my parents took me to Ocean Park. I recall seeing the lone young orca and the dolphins doing a routine in a swimming pool, but I wasn’t interested. I was more interested in the Atoll Reef aquarium as the animals were behaving more naturally and were not forced to do tricks. Six-year-old me was bored by seeing an orca breaching?!
Fast forward to 2016 and at 42 years old I was bawling my eyes out seeing my first wild orcas. Seeing wild orcas eight kilometres away made me cry. I guess it was due to the suspense built up by the drama of all my failures to see them, and then finally the reward of crossing paths with orcas wild and free and finding out who they are and their backstory. I remember everything about that encounter with Hulk and Mousa’s pod. Everything. It gripped me so much that I again acted and changed my life. I ditched my career in engineering and I am now a guide and skipper for a whale watching boat.
Sharing the love
With my newfound knowledge, it’s now my absolute privilege to connect people to whales and dolphins. For me, there’s nothing more satisfying than seeing people connect with orcas. This year I saw orcas at Fraserburgh on the Moray Firth coast for the first time. When I first spotted them I was alone. No one really watched from there, but after several weeks of watching, there were about 200 happy people stood at the lighthouse each day watching out for these beautiful creatures with their newborn calf. The camaraderie amongst watchers was so uplifting, and it was all for free. All you need is a set of decent binoculars, outdoor clothing and some time to spend on the coast.
I am also one of the co-authors of the Scottish Killer Whale Photo ID Catalogue. Following the wild orca population in Scotland in detail allows us to understand how far orcas travel. For example, we have more than 30 orcas who have been identified as orcas also seen in Iceland, and the West Coast Community orcas regularly travel 100 kilometres a day. We observe their hunting strategies, their births and sadly their deaths. We witness how some individuals mingle with other groups and others are loners. We watch orcas being themselves, something which is simply not possible in captivity.
Empathy with others
I believe we see a bit of ourselves in orcas. We observe their intelligence and also their brutality, we watch them mourning their dead, we see them at their most loving and they lead us by example by living sustainably and in balance with their environment. But sadly, we also see their physical and mental health suffering in captivity, just like we see our fellow human beings suffering. We are similar in so many ways.
During the lockdowns, so many of us hated the taste of loneliness from being separated from our families and friends, stuck in a confined space with limited freedom. So why should it be any different for creatures that we share so many similarities with?
There’s so much joy to be had encountering whales and dolphins in the wild. Do it for yourself, I urge you.
Keep an eye out for my next blog on where to go whale and dolphin watching in the UK.
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