The whale reminds me of a Jim Henson puppet. Large scale Bert or Ernie. It’s because of the way it’s come out of the water with its jaws stretched open towards the sky, presumably in a whale equivalent of downing a shot (in this case of anchovy filled seawater). I’m not sure what a whale on tequila would be like. Although considering whale puke is worth more pound for pound than gold, it might be worthy of investigation sometime. It bobs there a long moment, gob gaping like a kid at school when the teacher google imaged great tit and got more than they bargained for.
When someone first told me I could go whale watching in the Gulf of Thailand I assumed they’d been on the hardcore red bull, or were making a mean joke about me in the swimming pool. But it’s true, you can jump in a minibus in Bangkok at the ungodly hour of 6.30am, rumble out of town an hour or so, and find yourself at the edge of a river leading straight out into the open ocean.
The river is lined with fisherman’s huts which in themselves make for a picturesque scene. Long tailed boats with fading turquoise paint and masts draped with ribbons and flower garlands are moored and waiting for a long day hauling in catches. The fishermen squat on their haunches and watch as our boat passes. I think about their lives under the merciless sun hauling in enough to get by, struggling more every day as fish stocks diminish.
We head out into the gulf, waving at egrets and mudskippers on the way. We pass through a long line of wooden poles fishermen have erected to guide boats into the gulf. They are barnacle clad and knobbly with gulls perched on top, worn by years of life at sea.
It’s a stunning day – a clear sky and a calm ocean. The air is clean and soothing. It’s a day with so much promise, but something has been creeping into all of my wildlife encounters recently, especially those at sea. It’s to do with guilt. It’s to do with an awareness of things slipping away. It’s to do with feeling partly responsible for this, and not knowing how to act on it.
Our guides set up a powerpoint and introduce the day to us. The whales we will see are Bryde’s whales they tell us. They reach 15.5metres long and can weigh 20 tons. They come to the Gulf to feed from October to December because it’s rainy season in Thailand and nutrients are washed down the rivers and into the sea, where they spill into the gulf and cause plankton blooms. The fish come to feast on the plankton, the whales come to feast on the fish. There are 55 whales they’ve identified in the area. Apparently these whales have to consume 1,320-1,450 lbs of food per day, 4% of their body weight.
20 tons. Imagine that. I think about us, bobbing on top of the sea, a teeny speck, and all we can see is the sun glinting from the surface. Then I think about all the invisible life going on below, those behemoth creatures cruising around looking for tiny anchovies, the things crawling and swimming and the reefs and the riots of colour.
They are sneaky buggers in the end. They wait hours before they appear, until everyone is distracted by lunch – queueing with plates in hand for lovely salty omelettes with rice. A man with a gigantic lens is still scanning the horizon, the only one not thinking of his stomach. Am I going crazy or is there something over there? He asks, pointing. There’s stillness on the horizon, stillness, and then suddenly a dark shape, an explosion of water, so far in the distance it looks like it’s in slow motion. ‘Whale! Excuse me, there’s a whale over there!’ I cry.
And suddenly the boat is moving at speed and we’re all crowded onto the prow, cameras poised. A blast of water from a blowhole is met with a crescendo of gasps and cries of wonder and shutter clicks. A sleek, black creature is emerging from the sea, smooth as a pebble. A curved black fin rises and submerges, and suddenly we realise there’s another smaller version next to it. ‘Mother and calf!’ declare the boat crews. Their voices are shrill with excitement. It’s a very young calf, a few months is their guess. We leave the pair to feed, as the crew want to ensure nothing distracts the mother from her much needed energy hit.
It’s a thrilling moment, and the children on board the boat are beside themselves, most of them clutching their own cameras or binoculars and excitedly chattering to each other.
And that gets me thinking. I really feel this is one of the most important things children can see. This is the kind of thing that inspires a lifelong desire to act responsibly towards the environment. What an absolute wonder – a mammal – like us but not, so large, so intelligent, so mysterious. I think, look how magical these creatures are, and us adults are in the process of wiping them out. Sorry kids of the future. You might well not get to see this. I imagine my nieces and nephews asking me what I did to stop the decimation of our oceans, the extinction of marine life. And I’m stuck. What am I doing? What can I do?
To be clear, the Bryde’s whale is not currently on any endangered lists. But as we’re cruising the waters of the Gulf, we pass a lot of plastic carrier bags, polystyrene trays, flip flops and other signs of human wastefulness. Thailand is among the world’s top 5 plastic polluters. The banks of the Chao Phraya river are choked with it. I know plastics have been found in large quantities in the stomachs of stranded sperm whales in Germany, and there’s a possibility they starved to death because their stomachs were too full to eat what they needed to. And even if Bryde’s whales are unlikely to ingest the plastic bags themselves because they don’t feed on jellyfish, the contamination of their food sources with plastics is likely to be harmful, and is a worry. In the UK the Cetaceans Stranding Investigation Programme (CSIP) found a connection between chemicals known as PCBs and a decline in birthrates in killer whales. These chemicals have been banned for 30 years but the effects are only now being seen. It goes to show the impacts of pollutants in our environment are not always immediately obvious.
On top of this, Thailand’s fisheries policies are highly disturbing. While the government’s scientists insist the situation is improving, when Greenpeace patrolled the Gulf of Thailand in 2013 they documented more than a hundred examples of illegal and destructive fishing. According to a 2015 report by the Environmental Justice Foundation Thai fishing boats now catch just 14% of what they caught in the mid-1960s. Illegal trawling is apparently rife – this practice decimates the seabeds, destroying entire ecosystems in one sweep. Surely not great news for whales which need to eat more than 1,400lbs of fish a day.
This is without even considering the human cost of Thailand’s fishing industry. Trafficking is a major issue, with migrant workers from neighbouring countries such as Myanmar being forced to spend up to four years at sea and suffering appalling treatment at the hands of their employers.
I know all of this as another magnificent whale bursts from the waves and crashes back into them, and I think again, what the hell can I do about it?
Well clearly I don’t have it figured out at all yet, but I’m trying. I feel that by living here I’m complicit in this environmental destruction and these human rights abuses. So I’m trying to do a few things differently. I’m taking tentative steps towards being a vegetarian. I’m a flawed human being, so I do things like every so often forgetting and ordering meat, or dipping my spoon into someone else’s tom yum soup when I know it’s probably got fish sauce in it. Uh oh.
People ask what’s the point, what difference is it making? Wouldn’t it be better to ask for sustainable seafood where I’m eating out? That’s a good point and the Environmental Justice Foundation encourages consumers to ask businesses if their seafood is slavery free. Personally I feel that Thailand (in fact, Asia in general) is so so far behind in the sustainability stakes that it’s virtually impossible to get sustainable seafood. I can find two restaurant recommendations on the whole internet for eating sustainable seafood in Bangkok. There are no sustainable fisheries in Thailand listed on the Marine Stewardship Council website, and only one on the Aquaculture Stewardship Council. Even if there is sustainable seafood fished from Thai waters I’d be very concerned about what it has been feeding on given the pollutants in the water here. So the logical step (for this and other reasons I won’t go into) while I’m living here seems to be to give it up altogether.
But for those who want to try and buy sustainable seafood in Thailand there are some (limited) tips on the Urban Green Scene website. This includes one prawn fishery, Sureerath Prawns that sounds like it’s a winner, although I couldn’t find any information on their website about where they are stocked or how to order them.
I have learned how to say ‘no bag please’ in Thai (because they will always try and hand you one, with an additional bag for your bag. They even put plastic cups into little bags) and I’ve now eliminated virtually all carrier bags from the infamous bag full of bags under the sink. I’m taking my Tupperware and my reusable cup out with me and trying not to buy drinks in plastic bottles. I’m nagging myself each time I buy a packet of crisps or packet of any snack, reminding myself I don’t need it and the packet will probably end up in the sea. It doesn’t always stop me, shamefully, but I’m starting to annoy myself enough to pre-think what I’m eating on a particular day, before I just go ahead and buy something that will produce waste. And more and more often, to not buy it.
Yes one person giving up perhaps makes no difference. Maybe I’m just doing it for me. So I can tell myself I’m refusing to consume something that I don’t think is ethically produced. What about all the other things I consume that are unethically produced – that’s another common question. I’ve mulled this and I think whatever ethical decisions we try to make in life, there’s hypocrisy involved, because supply chains are frequently convoluted and murky and corrupt and international. I’m trying to take a step towards phasing out the bad stuff, starting with meat and fish and some plastics. Maybe rather than picking apart the choices of others, think what your solutions would be? And share what you come up with.
Another mother and calf appear in the ocean, this time the calf is more mature. It’s called Alice the guide tells us. My sister’s name, and it gives me a little glow. As we chug along we see some luminous orange blobs in the water, so bright I assume they are artificial and some sort of detritus from one of the fishing boats. But suddenly there’s a biologist rushing past me shouting in Thai and the boat is creaking to a halt. Seeing my quizzical look he cries excitedly ‘whale poo!’
What the actual?! But it’s true, Bryde’s whale poo is the colour of one of those fluorescent orange marker pens you used to mess around with at school. So now you know. The biologist hurriedly tries to scoop a sample into a bucket before it dissolves in the water.
His passion is infectious. And important. The more scientists understand about these creatures, the easier it will be to conserve them. Which brings me to another point about taking action. By booking onto the tour with Wild Encounters Thailand we educated ourselves a little, and invested money in eco-tourism. The more of us who show Thailand’s tourism industry that keeping marine life healthy is important, the more the realisation will hopefully dawn that decimating the oceans makes economic sense for nobody.
In writing this one of my main objectives was to ask you darling reader to please help me. Tell me what you would do. Tell me what you are doing.
I want to watch the whales and for it to just be sweeeeeet.
Wild Encounters Thailand run whale watching tours October to December. I emailed them on firstname.lastname@example.org to book our place. It costs 2,300 baht per person. It’s a very long day so cover up, bring a hat, sunglasses, sunscreen and snacks (in a tupperware container 😉