Churchill Fellowship 2014 Archive

Animals, Blog, Churchill 2014

Storying with CETUS, Victoria BC

NewCetusLogo2010It’s nice when someone gets it. Not only get it, but when what you want to do is something the people you’re talking to want as well. That’s what happened with Leah Thorpe from CETUS, the Cetacean Research and Conservation Society based on Vancouver Island, when we met for lunch at the beginning of the month so I could hear what their organisation is achieving with its education programmes to help support the resident orca and cetacean populations.

Leah has been working with CETUS for a while now. She came in originally to run the education programmes and has found herself, with her co-worker Megan, running the organisation at a challenging time, when the Canadian government has slashed its funds for theirs and similar programmes. With some last minute funding, Leah and her staff have been busily getting ready for the summer preparing boats and crew to get out into the water and support the protection of the Salish Sea’s whales.

The waters from the Puget Sound north, around the Islands, and up to Alaska, are home to 33 different cetaceans and marine mammals. There are gray whales, humpbacks, fin and sei whales, as well as harbour and Dall’s porpoises, and minke whales. But the undoubted stars are the orca – the killer whales (actually dolphins, but who’s quibbling?).

There are two resident orca populations – the Southern (PDF) and Northern residents, each made up of a number of families, or pods. Both have declined in numbers over the last few decades, mainly due to difficulty finding their preferred food source, Chinook salmon. The salmon numbers have fallen because of, predictably, overfishing by us, and also, according to the marine biologist and activist Alexandra Morton, because BC’s wild salmon are testing positive for dangerous European salmon viruses associated with salmon farming (the salmon farmed in the US and Canada is Atlantic salmon). Either way, salmon numbers are down 92% on previously recorded populations. And the orca are suffering.

But human activity also threatens the pods. This is where CETUS, and the Soundwatch Programme at the Whale Museum in Friday Harbour, come in. Their main education programme is face-to-face with boaters out on the water, educating the boaters on the Be Whale Wise guidelines for safe engagement with the orca and other cetaceans and marine mammals.  CETUS works on a daily basis to monitor boat activity around the orca, and approach boats where there are signs that the guidelines—which are legal regulations in US waters, but only guidelines in Canadian waters—are being transgressed, and the orca are being harassed.

“One of the hardest things is that even if people do know about and understand the guidelines, they don’t understand orca behaviour,” says Leah. “People think that if the orca are coming towards their boats, then that’s okay, the orca are not bothered by their presence. But I try to tell them, well, people do lots of things that aren’t good for them too, and sometimes we need to back away from those people; it’s the same with orca.”

CETUS run a number of programmes such as the Straitwatch and BC marine mammal response network, as well as the Robson Bight Warden Programme, and also the removal of old fishing gear from the water. This last one is a successful programme, and one that is easy to communicate and sell to people about the value of CETUS’s work.

“And that’s because people can see it,” says Leah, “it’s clear to them what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, and the potential results. Old stuff that whales get tangled up in gets taken away: clear.”

But with the boater education programme, there are still ways in which CETUS wants to tell its story more clearly, as boaters, often fishermen or visiting tourists—not usually the locals—can respond negatively to what appears, at first, like an official boat approaching across the water. What Leah and her crew try to do is always start by talking about the whales first, and using the anecdotes and stories of the whales, to engage the boaters and watchers.

“We sometimes tell them about the mother orca who lost her son, and the three brothers who lost their mother,” Leah begins. “And then, a few months later, we find the four of them together. The single female was actually their aunt. But to see them come together as a pod was wonderful. People like that story.”

It’s only then that CETUS discusses the whale wise guidelines.

And beyond this, strategically, as with many environmental groups, the ‘selling’ of its value to stakeholders, donors and government funding bodies, either direct or through public pressure, is a critical part of how CETUS manages its future.

And this is where a writer and storyteller can come into the picture. Without getting weighted down with the formalized languages of fundraising or communication, marketing or social media, how can a creative writer come in and work with an organisation such as CETUS to simply tell a story about themselves in a way that is both authentic and that helps them realise their aims? That translates the wealth of research about orcas and their behaviour, and their decline, into something the boaters and public get immediately, and which changes their behaviour. And it’s here where things click.

“We’d love you to come out on the boat with us and help us work out what story it might be that works best,” she says. It’s gratifying that so early on this trip the whole idea of a creative writer working with an environmental organisation to tell the story better to help animals and nature seems to be one that could work. [I’ll be out on the water with the Friday Harbour Soundwatch people on Weds 9th July]

Leah and Megan have been working on this, and in a few weeks they go live with their first youtube.com viral video about the dangers of not properly monitoring and protecting the orca from overzealous or ignorant human interaction. As a mainstream organisation—a registered charity, and not a campaigning or pressure group—Leah is both hesitant and excited about what will happen when the video is launched.

“But with less funds, we may need to take more risks,” she says. And we talk a little more about the aims they hope to achieve through the video. Wider recognition for CETUS’s work; wider public awareness; a clearer story. “Whatever makes it easier for the whales,” she finishes.

It’s obvious with the decline of the orca populations, and their cultural, economic and ecological value to the region – although of course the orca are valuable in and of themselves, not in any metric that can be measured by us – that any and all attempts to protect their habitats and keep human-whale interactions to a safe minimum level is necessary. CETUS’s work, then, is necessary. So how to better tell their story, so their work not only continues, but grows?

*

P1040302The next day I travel out with Five Star Whales on an evening whale watching trip. CETUS work closely with the whale watching industry, and there is a Pacific Whale Watching Organisation with the registration of 33 tour operators who all work together to ensure the safe and sustainable practice of whale watching. Most are part of the Orca Spotting Network, set up by Ron Bates, who comes out on the boat with us, voluntary now in his retirement, to help the boat find the orca. There are two other biologists on the boat, Kaegan, and Sarah, a young marine biologist with a BSc, moving on to do her MSc research on sticklebacks, but with, having grown up on the island, a healthy knowledge of the orca and of the surrounding ecosystem.

Today we’re lucky. One in a hundred lucky, according to Captain Trevor. When we find the orca we find them happily fed, gorged on salmon, and in a playful and sociable mood—both with each other, and with us. We see pretty much the whole of J-Pod, including the oldest orca on record, Granny (pictured above, identifiable from her saddle patch) who is 103-years-old, and who has children’s books written after her. They spyhop, tail strike, and breach, the adults and calves, all around us. It’s a mesmerizing display, everyone on board becoming, for the moment, children again as we stand and watch and take photos and cheer and gasp as we spot one, then another, then closer, then further away.

I count 12 tour boats in the water in a half-mile radius around the whales, although really the whales are around us. They dive and reappear in far places from where they went under, and are always on the move, and when they are done playing (with us), they all dive and swim away, and we don’t see where they go—ready to move on to the next feed, or, having played, ready for other activity.

P1040286Being with the orca, and on the best (the oldest, family owned) whale boat, with the man who set up the original spotting network (left, he looks asleep but he was just twiddling with the radio) feels a great privilege. When I told people all about the trip, this was the part they were most jealous of. It certainly made better for the jetlag and lonely intensity of the first few days of this seven-week journey. Stopping to think of the orca, being close to these incredibly sentient, emotional, social animals, thinking of what I learnt by watching Blackfish and by working with ORCA Your Seas in the UK, and what I’m already learning here, the reasons to be here make more sense.

Churchill 2014

Conversation for Humans and Nature

LogoBoth Barack Obama and I visited Tasmania in 2012. One night back at my hotel I was watching the news on TV and the lead story was about that evening’s state visit. The great and good of the Australian civic society were invited. As the presenter announced, “the business people, politicians and academics are all here to welcome the President of the United States.”

I sat up. Academics? Invited and up there with business people and politicians? I was amazed. It struck me as something that would never happen in the UK; that academics would be invited, or that it would be reported on the news in this way. And I felt immediately deflated about the status of the general academic in Britain, and the value of deep thought to our collective future.

It’s a question that was on my mind as I landed at Cedar Rapids airport, just outside of Iowa City, where I was headed for the Affect and Inquiry conference this March, to debate the nature of inquiry as engaged with the feelings and motions of affect in everyday life, such as Ann Cvetkovich’s simple question in her book Depression: A Public Feeling: “How does capitalism feel?”.

And who else should be in Cedar Rapids that morning? Obama of course. My coach ride down to Iowa City was disrupted by his cars crossing the highway. Apparently he comes here a lot, as Iowa, the first caucus to announce its support in the US election primaries, is a key state in their political system. But I couldn’t help but think: twice? Okay, this is getting to be more than a coincidence.

But the highlight of the ten day trip, and as the question continued to percolate through my mind along with the Java House’s excellent coffee, was a visit to see the work done by the Centre for Humans and Nature, based in Chicago. As another part of the process in refining some thoughts around my Winston Churchill Travel Fellowship this summer, in April this year I met with Brooke Hecht and Kate Cummings from the Centre. They are, in their words,

a group of engaged and curious thinkers who understand that ideas matter. We invite Fellows to work with staff to broaden and deepen our Project work.

They have a set of outputs focused on the role of the thinker/academic/writer in the debate on the relationship between humans and nature. Their organisation is particularly interesting as they are invested deeply in a belief of the value of engagement through this kind of deep thought that is often best done by those paid to think, and think critically, for a long time: academics, philosophers, and writers/artists. For them, academics and deep thinkers should always be at the table when these issues of our future are being thought out. Their questions include

(I think also there are important questions here about what it takes to form an “us” who can together ask these questions.) It was a full and engaging talk with Brooke and Kate in particular, with other colleagues joining us when they could, and I was hugely grateful for the time they provided to talk with me, which only modeled their ethos of being invested in and generous around the value of thought and conversation. What I gathered from our talk were four questions they were facing that could inform my Churchill project about “The Creative Writer in Conservation / Nature / Animal Education” and the potential structure and forms any work or outcomes could take, and what to take into account when assessing the cultural value of art and thought in these fields:

  1. How to evaluate the work you do
  2. How to develop a strategy for a portfolio of products to have strong conversations that lead to action (e.g. blog posts, journals, events)
  3. How to link into creative activity and output from learning
  4. How to pick an organisational structure (charity, non-profit, tied to academia?)

It was a long and lovely meeting, not least because I got some tips for the best raw food and vegan restaurants in Chicago. It’s helped me think about two key things, re-emphasised in meetings I’ve had since with other organisations, including William Fiennes’ First Story charity, and Newcastle Centre for Literary Arts. (More on those to follow). Those two things are:

– how do we value thought, and the role of the thinker, in debates that are central to our collective future?

– how do I play with and connect what I am doing here on this project to the work I want to produce, and what is its value?

And that night, as my friends and I made our way across town to a Buddhist vegan cafe and then onto Al Capone’s jazz club, The Green Mill, guess who should turn up again, but my buddy Barack. The metro station was cleared so Obama’s motorcade could pass under the bridge. We jumped on the last train out of there before the station was cleared, but I couldn’t help think the guy was following me. Perhaps academics and writers are wanted people after all…

Churchill 2014, Nature Stories, Projects

Churchill Fellow for 2014

Winston Churchill memorial trustSometimes when you have an idea, you don’t know where it’s going to go. Sometimes, it goes straight into my ideas box (a small, silver gift box I didn’t send the gift in(!), but kept and is now full of post-its and scraps of paper with ideas that I wanted to not lose, but needed to park for later). Sometimes you act on the idea, and it takes off. It forms a trajectory of its own. And it begins to change from a trickle to a stream in your life. And then who knows, perhaps to become the whole ocean of what it is you are, or what you do.

That seems to be the way my writing work around animals and conservation is heading. With the wonderful news that I’ve been awarded a Churchill Travel Fellowship for 2014, to research best practice in the USA and Canada in the field of writing practice as it takes place in the field of conservation education.

The Fellowship, one of 137 this year, out of around 1,200 applications, gives me the opportunity to spend six weeks developing knowledge and practice in conservation education, learning from some of the world’s leading organisations and individuals in taking conservation education to school and community groups.

The main focus of this work so far has been on marine mammal conservation. It began when I got involved with the charity ORCA and their cetacean data project in the North East of England–whale and dolphin watching, basically, to gather data about the populations in the sea along the North East coast, and in the North Sea, seen from the DFDS Ferries that cross to continental Europe.

But I wanted to do more, and learn more. So I applied for a small grant from HEFCE via the Unlimited Fund, which supports new social enterprises. And I was successful — and Nature Stories was born. ORCA already did school visits, taking the school kids out on the ferries to Amsterdam, to see the whales and dolphins. I then proposed writing workshops with them afterwards. You can read more about that on the project overview.

This work seemed so important I wanted to take it further. And the Churchill Fellowship looked like a good way to do that. And I was delighted when I was awarded the grant.

So I’m beginning to plan out the trip, which will take in some writing for/at the Vancouver Aquarium; joining Jackie Hildering the marine detective on some killer whale education boat tours with the Killer Whale Center; a visit to San Juan’s Whale Museum; attending the Mid-Atlantic Marine Educators Network Conference in Maryland; and then back over to Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (with, I hope, time for a trip to Farm Sanctuary and Animal Place in between).

I’m also going to spend a week of my own time in Toronto with the marvelous Toronto Pig Save people, and Jo-Anne McArthur, the author of We Animals, and who runs the Humane Education project, because I want to extend this work into writing practice around farmed animals too, seeing how writing (my own, inspiring that of others) can generate greater awareness and deeper reflection, leading to change, in people’s treatment of animals, and an improvement in the recognition and interests of animals, especially those billions (fish, farmed animals) who are all but invisible to us as living, sentient beings. Who are, as the film suggests, the Ghosts in Our Machine.

I’ll be using the Nature Stories site as my project blog to record the experience and connections, ideas, and discoveries — of which I hope and expect there to be many.