WhaleFest 2015

Since crossing the Bay of Biscay my attention, energy and focus has been for WhaleFest 2015. This annual festival held in Brighton is the world’s biggest celebration of wild whales and dolphins. Since its beginnings in 2011 I have been involved with the virtual whale watch. There are not too many opportunities to go whale watching off Brighton, with perhaps the odd harbour porpoise to be encountered. But what is a whale and dolphin festival without whale watching? So each year we have set up boats, used some clever props and a screen and taken people responsible whale watching from the comfort of the venue.

So once again I found myself sitting in a small inflatable boat with a group of kids and adults dressed in bright orange life jackets, bouncing on our new banana-type boat, cast in a blue glow. Only this time there is not one massive screen ahead of us. Around the boat stand up waves are positioned behind which a team of volunteers crouched, hidden from view. Above birds swoop from the ceiling, suspended in this magical blue light. Ahead are positioned two screens, not just one. The trip starts with me again requesting the life jacket whistles not be blown, and for people to remain on board our boat. We run through the responsible whale watching guidelines we will be sticking to should we be lucky enough to see whales and dolphins. Then we are leaving harbour and the calls of gulls and general background noise disappears as the engines gear up. A lighthouse just ahead moves away as we head out to sea. For the next 10 minutes or so whales and dolphins and even a beautiful turtle, appear not just from up ahead but from all sides. The massive dorsal fins of a pod of orca, a head as one spy hops, a stunning turtle swims past (it’s the most amazing turtle I have ever seen anyone make!), a giant sperm whale’s tail gloriously lifts up from behind one of those waves, while yet more whale backs are seen surfacing amongst the waves. The spray of their blow catches the blue light, swirling briefly before disappearing, catching the nearby passengers and making them call out in delighted surprise.

The Virtual Whale Watch set up

We remove netting from over the side of the boat, before putting down not only a hydrophone to listen to the clicks of sperm whales, but also, its seems everyone’s latest toy, a GoPro. On one of the screens ahead a sperm whale appears out of the blue abyss, swimming upside down and then disappearing again. The kids love yelling every time something appears, screaming out what they reckon it could be, taking in the whole adventure and for the most part accepting the odd appearance of an arm or top of a head from behind a wave. As the trip nears its end, the setting sun appears behind the larger screen before the shadows of dolphins begin breaching against its orange glow. Out of nowhere more dolphins appear from behind the waves, the kid’s head whipping round as groups of three or four dolphins appear simultaneously from all angles. Then, seamlessly, footage of dolphins appears on the bow at the front of the boats, they are riding the pressure wave a boat creates, effortlessly keeping up. They are so close, seeming to peer up at us as we gaze down at them. As the trip ends the lighthouse reappears and there is one last chance to say thank you before the passengers pile off the boats and make their way out. We may in reality have never left the room, but it’s amazing what a little bit of imagination and one rather excitable guide can do to get kids and adults alike inspired by our truly breath taking ocean world.

The Virtual Whale Watch at WhaleFest 2015

Once again WhaleFest has reached out to thousands. It was so easy to forget the thousands of people passing through outside the doors to our blue watery world of the virtual whale watch. There were sea shanties being sung, a shark zone with life sized inflatable sharks and a cave experience, hundreds of stands of whale watch companies and charities, campaigners and researchers giving inspirational talks on their work, people dressed as sharks and orca, life sized inflatable whales and dolphins surrounding a main stage where people like Steve Backshall, Monty Halls, Micheala Strachan, Gordon Buchananan, John Hargove, Ric O’ Barry and Will Travers talked to audiences of hundreds about their experiences with whales and dolphins. There was an auction of amazing experiences, kindly donated by World Cetacean Alliance partners, and 52 whale tails representing the wild soul of each of the orca currently in captivity. All raising money for the Wild and Free Campaign run by the WCA and Born Free Foundation. Out on the beach there was an emotionally charged arts installation of a mother and calf orca, made up of over 5000 crosses each representing f a whale or dolphin that has died in captivity. Through social media and by live streaming interviews with celebs, researchers and campaigners from the whale and dolphin world, the festival reached out to thousands more around the world who could not attend in person. Not only that, the Whale Graveyard on Brighton beach was seen by thousands, not just those who attended the festival itself, making passers-by stop and think about what we are doing to these sentient emotional beings locking them in tiny bath tubs and making them perform.

The WCA Whale Graveyard on Brighton Beach

The power, passion and inspiration of WhaleFest, the ripple effect of what a few dedicated volunteers are doing and the difference we are making across the world never ceases to amaze me, and I am so proud to be involved.

To find out more about WhaleFest please go to the website. To find out more about the WCA and the Wild and Free campaign please click here.

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