Momentous moonlit meeting with Cetaceans
Mark and Hugh go to sea, find dolphins in the Solent and reflect on related subjects
(For those like me who have to look up the exact meaning of the word cetacean here you go from Wikipedia: "Cetaceans are aquatic mammals constituting the infraorder Cetacea. There are around 89 living species, which are divided into two parvorders. The first is the Odontoceti, the toothed whales, which consist of around 70 species, including the dolphin, porpoise, beluga whale, narwhal, sperm whale, and beaked whale.")
A rare moonlit glimpse into the undersea world.
I had an idea back in 2014 when I was newly retired. House prices in England were, and still are, criminally out of reach for the majority, (the older generation are certainly lucky in this respect). In order to try to make a new home, a new start as it were, I suggested to my wife that we take my yacht to France and cruise the canals; just to see what came along. Despite her concerns she agreed and soon we found ourselves, with another knowledgeable and experienced crew member, sailing from Hythe Marina headed for Le Havre.
It was to be a night crossing which would mean arriving in the unfamiliar port of Le Havre in daylight which is vitally important. Entering a familiar port at night is a daunting task but to try the same with an unfamiliar one is a recipe for disaster. That is why insurance companies will not insure you for night sailing. It’s dangerous. We left Hythe Marina at around 1700 and when we rounded Bembridge on the east side of the Isle of Wight we encountered a horrible sea which pitched the boat this way and that. My wife soon felt ill, but, to her credit, she saw sense and simply went below and found herself a safe and comfy place where she soon fell fast asleep. My crew went below at midnight leaving me alone at the helm to enjoy the clear star-studded skies with a bright moon almost dead ahead. As I fastidiously maintained my watch, alternating my attention between the navigation lights of approaching ships, the heading, engine temperature, oil pressure and staying alert, my wife reappeared. I remember this as if it were yesterday. It was 0145 and after a short hug we settled to enjoy the serene vista.
I jerked my head to the right as I saw a large black fin which had suddenly surfaced menacingly just to starboard and then, just as quickly, disappeared. Were we to be eaten alive? Were we trespassing! Had my wife seen this? Was my life insurance up to date?
A moment later she saw the same and of course, they were just dolphins, playing; we would survive the night. There was a pod of about twenty, some to starboard, some to port and others playing in the bow wave. After five minutes or so and without any apparent signal they simply disappeared and once again we were alone. I remember saying to her as she stared open mouthed at the display, “How many of your friends have experienced this? This is how your bravery has been rewarded”. We have absolutely no idea where they came from or where they went to. It was a delightful experience.
The social side of life.
In 2017 a family were surprised to see a dolphin swimming in the river Medina which runs through the sailing village of Cowes on the Isle of Wight. Three of the party jumped into the water where, to their amazement the dolphin came so close that they were able to stroke the creature. Dear reader, this is the type of activity that is normally only available to squillionaires and typically takes place in a fictional tabloid holiday dream land called Unobtania. To experience this in the Solent, on the Medina if you please, is really something special. I did read whilst doing my research that an expert said that the creature was probably lost and alone and craved social attention. Some experts recommend that we stay away, that these creatures are potentially dangerous and harbour diseases. Don’t you just love experts sometimes? If this family had heeded the warnings then this lonely dolphin, thought to be a bottlenose, might not have had the social experience it appeared to crave. Yes, there are risks and there is a possibility of transmission of diseases in either direction. However, there is risk in life and we make judgements almost every day. In my book the family made a reasoned assessment, took a small chance and were rewarded handsomely for their actions.
Mercury, not the planet, the pollutant.
Unfortunately, we humans tend to have a poor track record of protecting our marine life. Large water companies in the UK are still allowed to run outdated treatment plants that cannot cope with heavy rain. Today’s laws presently allow these apparently prosperous monopolies to dump the overflow of human waste into our rivers. Surely this is unacceptable and our government ought to act more quickly and positively. Well done to Feargal Sharkey, the singer, for highlighting this matter in the national press. Incidentally, it might be worth looking up the topic on line as there are many rivers, particularly our own River Test, that are directly affected. Landowners have every right to complain that their hobby of fly fishing on their particular stretch of river has been adversely affected. Those who own houses that back onto the river and rent the bank to fishermen also have the right to feel aggrieved. But, should we less fortunate folk feel nervous about water quality? Surely, we ought to be able to watch our grandchildren paddle in local rivers without fear of a spiteful water borne infection entering the child’s body through a small scratch.
Dolphins, which are at the top of their particular food chain, can tell us how much mercury is entering our rivers and coastal waters. The consumption of fish by this apex predator leads to the deposition of mercury in their blubber, samples of which when taken by scientists can reveal the environmental damage that we humans continue to create. Commerce will only ever be reined in by regulation.
Sorry, I missed that, could you squeak it again?
I have found it fascinating that whilst researching this topic, various statements appeared to be vague and seemingly non-factual. I found myself reading so many ‘it is thought’ and ‘it is assumed that’ phrases that I thought I was watching a government Covid briefing. I must say though that I find this news very refreshing. The fact that we know more about our new mobile phones than we do of the world’s oceans and the creatures within is something that I find comforting. There are apparently still mysteries out there, not in space but right here in our very own waters.
Experts tell us that dolphins communicate in a similar manner to bats in that they use sonar reflection. Apparently, we humans invented this in WW2 in order to ascertain the location of submarines deep beneath the surface. Aren’t we clever? Dolphins make a squeak noise to communicate with others but a sharp click to employ their innate sonar reflection capability. Again, this is mostly supposition. It is a common statistic that more people have successfully climbed Mount Everest than have travelled to the bottom of the seas. We appear to be woefully ignorant of our oceans and its denizens.
Journey’s end and beginning.
After the thought-provoking encounter with the pod of dolphins our journey continued without any further drama. Le Havre became our home for the next week. Our crew accepted the offer of a free ticket home and suddenly we were in France with the canal network ahead of us. Foreign territory. I often think of that pod of dolphins and wonder if they have a foreign territory? Perhaps the sea is all theirs and let me tell you, that’s a lot of territory.
More tales and cartoons for Lymington and the New Forest from Mark and Hugh
If you enjoy these skilfully told tales and cartoons and you don't already receive our Weekly What's On e-newsletter do sign up to receive it on Friday mornings!
Meanwhile, if you'd like to read previous articles on diverse subjects written by Mark and illustrated by Hugh's cartoons here they are, click the links embedded in the titles:
Trees and what they tell us
Cartography and trig pillars
Pony drifts and pannage in the New Forest
A journey from the New Forest via Lymington
The brilliance - and persistence - of Marconi
Equality in the skies
Bees pollinators par excellence
Cordless home entertainment
The joy of sheds
When the Isle of Wight was just Wight
Pond Life in our Forests
Rufus Stone and Sir Walter Tyrrell
Graffiti through the ages
Freedom of the roads
Watch the birdie
Unstoppable momentum of nature
Socially distanced socialising
Calshot Spit, a curse for mariners...