On Thursday 4th February, a sperm whale was found stranded on Hunstanton beach on the Norfolk coast, the latest in a spate of whale deaths on British beaches this year. Many people from the surrounding area travelled to Hunstanton to see the beached whale and find out what could be done to help. Some, myself included, made journeys of over a hour to get there.
It was unclear what would constitute a successful trip. Where people there to witness a phenomenon? If not, what kind of experience were they looking for? By the time many got to the beach, seeing the whale would have been impossible due to the tide, and by this point the whale was likely to be dead in any case. For those who travelled at this time, a successful trip might have been described as getting there and finding the whale was already gone. For me, it was arriving in time to ask the local people about what they thought this all meant.
Although little is known about why there have been so many whales stranded on the shores of Europe recently – 30 since the start of 2016 – everyone has a theory. When I first arrived, one man told me that he thought it was either the rising temperature of the water, or possibly the radar that fishermen use now: it confuses the sonar the whales use for their own navigation. Another man pointed to the offshore wind farm, telling me he suspected it was their fault, frowning and remarking: “I don’t like them”. Possibly more frightening, some speculators are saying that this is quite a tragic but natural part of life – sometimes whales strand themselves.
The fact is that the whales are coming to the North sea for reasons we cannot understand right now, and we don’t know how to deal with them. We want to explain it, we want to document it with selfies beside them, we want to decide whether it is morally right to even go and visit them; whether to take children on school trips to see the bodies; or whether to avoid the beach all together out of respect. The CND slogans graffitied onto two of the whales beached at Skegness are possibly misguided: most likely well-meaning but, in reality, ridiculous. It was an appeal for people to see the truth of what we are doing to the ocean, when in fact, at the moment, there is no truth.
On the Norfolk coast, there is no protocol for getting a 15,000kg sperm whale back into the water, just as there is no protocol as to what you are supposed to think or feel when it is there on the beach. Arguably, that is the only thing that is clear in all of this.