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Interactive Whale Art: Majuba’s Sperm Whale Surprise

Hello everyone! It’s been a while since I have posted anything on my blog and I admit, I have struggled to make time to sit and write whilst I have been working abroad, but here I am with a little update about something unexpected that happened back in May of this year.

For anyone who didn’t know, I just spent six months working on board the DFDS ferry that runs from North Shields (Newcastle) to Ijmuiden (Amsterdam), in search of whales, dolphins and porpoises. It was on the last day of my rotation when I had the shock of my life. As we crossed the North Sea from Ijmuiden back to Newcastle, we had an unexpected ‘guest’ being transported in our car deck. When I first glimpsed this ‘guest’ of ours, I was confused and disheartened, but all was to be revealed in the coming days. To my utter shock and surprise, an extremely large whale was being transported on the back of an open lorry out of the terminal. Upon further investigation and after the exchange of a few frantic emails, I had found out that Belgium-based artists, The Captain Boomer Collective, in collaboration with Zephyr Wildlife Reproductions, had created a hyperreal sperm whale art installation that was set to tour UK beaches. Its purpose was to convey a powerful statement to the public about our environment and how whales play an integral role in regulating climate change. The life-size sperm whale replica, made from fibreglass, was installed on Redcar’s Majuba beach as part of an interactive street art performance. The actors involved carried out ‘examinations and tests’ on the specimen and even watered it down with a hose, as if to appear to clean it. This action triggered a rotting smell and many onlookers were convinced it was a real dead whale.

Image: Interactive replica sperm whale on Majuba beach. Redcar, North Yorkshire, 2022.

One of the main messages conveyed by the installation was the importance of large whales and how they, as ecosystem engineers, benefit the earth’s terrestrial, atmospheric and oceanic environments. Whales continuously participate in underwater nutrient exchange, which promotes oxygen production in the atmosphere. In a process known as the whale pump, large whales circulate nutrient exchanges through the water columns by feeding on phytoplankton and other organisms at the water’s surface and in turn, release faeces. Phytoplankton feeds on the faeces, absorbing the carbon dioxide and then emits oxygen into the air as a by-product. Without these magnificent mammals, over 50% of the oxygen we breathe simply wouldn’t exist.

Images: Fibreglass sperm whale on Majuba beach. Redcar, North Yorkshire, 2022.

Interestingly, the location of this interactive street art may not have been by chance. In 2011, an adult sperm whale live-stranded on Redcar beach, attracting large crowds and rescue efforts were made in vain to save the extraordinary mammal. A juvenile minke whale also washed up last year, with what looked like propellor damage to its fluke (see for more info). These unfortunate events have been catalysed by anthropogenic activity and continue to rise. ORCA Ocean Conservationists such as myself strive to educate and inspire guests on board platforms of opportunity about these events and how to reduce their occurrence. By sharing knowledge, ORCA aims to encourage change and seek to safeguard these wonderful whales, dolphins and porpoises for future generations.

The art installation highlights why the sperm whale is a particular concern to see in this region. They are a deep-diving species, and their diet consists primarily of squid and large fish which reside in deep ocean waters. The sperm whale is simply not adapted to live in the North Sea as it is too shallow, making the habitat unsuitable to hunt and breed in. Other reasons large whales may strand include ship strike, where vessels collide with large animals. Overfishing and bottom-trawling can also increase the risk of bycatch and entanglement of cetaceans, as many often mistake fishing gear for food. Noise pollution is also a growing concern, especially with toothed whales such as the sperm whale, who rely on echolocation as a form of communication, hunting and navigation. This area of the North Sea is a particularly active region, with ferries, cargo ships and fishermen dominating the area – it highlights the importance of ORCA’s work monitoring marine mammals and their environments.

Image: Sperm whale art installation at Redcar, North Yorkshire. 2022.

Image: Sperm whale replica at Redcar, North Yorkshire, 2022.

Cetacean sightings like these along the Yorkshire coastline, and indeed the North Sea in general, highlight the importance of understanding marine habitats and the distribution of certain cetacean species. Due to the shallow nature of this area, larger cetaceans are not expected to be present here due to the unavailability of prey and inadequate feeding and breeding grounds. Sometimes larger whales do visit the area and it is necessary to keep a keen eye on their behaviour as they might unfortunately become disorientated and strand. ORCA’s presence on ships is vital to help inform guests and crew of the threats currently facing cetaceans and offer knowledge and advice on how to minimise these events and reduce the negative impacts on marine mammals. We love spotting cetaceans as much as you do, and we want to keep safeguarding them for future generations!

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