The joy of wild whale watching

Jen Graham is a residential volunteer at WDC’s Scottish Dolphin Centre. Experiencing whales and dolphins in the wild in Scotland has given her cause to reflect, and in her guest blog she explores why we need to remember that we inhabit a shared planet.

The views and opinions expressed by our guest bloggers are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of WDC.    

Dolphins and whales are some of the most charismatic and best loved creatures in the world. That’s no surprise given their social nature, size and somewhat secret lives. Many people may never have experienced dolphins in the wild, and yet they are drawn to them. And for those who have, dolphin and whale watching can become something of an obsession. Many people will tell you of their encounters in the wild with whales, dolphins and porpoises and almost all of them will speak with a great deal of reverence and awe about their experiences.

I’ve been volunteering at WDC’s Scottish Dolphin Centre for seven months now and in that time I have watched dolphins and whales in the wild countless times. I’ve been extremely fortunate that in my life I have had encounters with these large, intelligent, and social mammals by complete chance. I have not paid to see them and they are not there waiting for me to present my ticket stub or buy a bucket of fish.

Bottlenose dolphin Zephyr with salmon,.
Bottlenose dolphin Zephyr with salmon.

Every day as I stand in the Scottish Dolphin Centre shop I am surrounded by beautiful images and footage of whales and dolphins. These images show dolphins much closer than I ever see them from land, and yet seeing them for myself is so uniquely wonderful that they don’t compare.

Whilst standing in front of a postcard rack admiring an amazing photograph of an orca breaching out of the water, I thought: ‘What makes watching whales in the wild so special compared with watching them on television or in a captive environment, or even seeing them on a postcard? Almost always you can see the individuals much closer on TV than you ever would in the wild, but it’s not quite the same. Why?’

Truly I believe that the difference between watching whales and dolphins in the wild versus other means is one of category rather than scale. They seem such separate experiences. Whilst watching more intricate details of their lives on TV can be incredibly enlightening, you lose the sense that the world which whales and dolphins inhabit is the same as our own. The context in which they live is somehow separate from us.  

Similarly, I’ve come to believe that a lack of control makes watching whales in the wild so much more rewarding than seeing them by other means. When watching in the wild you are looking at an individual in his or her own environment. The whale or dolphin is indifferent to the preconceptions and wishes of the humans observing. Humans may spend a fair amount of time on the water, but it’s clear how poorly we are adapted for it when we see whales and dolphins in the wild. We are no match. We have no natural control in this context. This lack of control leaves us very much in awe of these whales or dolphins who are there on their own terms, the chance encounter leaves us feeling very lucky.

Harbour porpoise © Charlie Phillips
Harbour porpoise © Charlie Phillips

We can appreciate the intelligence and beauty of these whales and dolphins in a multitude of ways, and as filmography has developed we can get even closer to them by means of wonderful documentaries such as Blue Planet, which allow us to understand them more. But there is nothing that makes me feel more fortunate than to be able to stand on the rugged Scottish coastline and watch dolphins come and go, jumping and diving, and living right here, in our shared home. It is something that makes me feel so connected to my local environment and that feeling can’t be faked.

Just because they live most of their lives under the waves, hidden from our view, we shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that our world is detached from the world of whales and dolphins – it isn’t. We must look after it for the sake of these amazing creatures, and for ourselves, and we can continue to be inspired and humbled at the sight of whales and dolphins in our shared home.

If you’d like to volunteer at our Scottish Dolphin Centre, find out more and get in touch.