Greetings from my last day in the Azores – it’s been an incredibly fast six-plus weeks since I arrived from Tuscany. I had a wonderful gathering tonight with old and new friends here to say goodbye, which was a beautiful way to end my time here. I definitely couldn’t have accomplished what I was able to in the end without the help of people here, and it was wonderful to have so many of them gathered around the same table. While I’d like to write more about what this past week has held for me, I’m going to leave you now (as it’s 1a.m. and I need to be at the airport at 10…) with my final post that went up on National Geographic’s Explorer’s Journal today. Unless there’s free wi-fi in one of the Azorean airports tomorrow, my next contact will be from Boston! It’s been a fantastic time here and I just want to give a truly heartfelt thanks to all who’ve been involved for their support. More to come soon…!
My most recent post just went live on NG’s Explorer’s Journal site. Check it out for more stories! The days are dwindling for me – only five more! Today is the first day of orientation for my graduate school program – hard to imagine myself in Massachusetts right now but I better start getting used to the idea…. Hope to have more for you soon!
I came home last night to an inbox full of negative comments about my posts on the National Geographic Explorer’s Journal blog. I was actually surprised these comments didn’t come sooner, given the nature of my project. Yet still, to see them for real has been a bit jolting. I know no one is actually attacking me in these comments, but to see these things written about people who, to me, are the sweet old men I spend my days talking to, is a little hard to swallow without some sadness. I know comments like these are rampant on the internet, but they got me thinking. Below are excerpts:
what an inspiring story… not.
Serves him right. And good on the whale for taking the time to teach the idiots a lesson.
I am really surprised at the portrayal of José “Silvino” do Silveira Jorge as some kind of hero. As a story, yes it is amazing but my sympathys are with the whale.
And that is what he gets… he deserved it!!! the whale should’ve killed him…
And my favorite:
Why do you write about these ruthless men? They should be forgotten forever and with them their pointless, hollow, damaging lifes they spent killing those beautiful intelligent mammals in the most painful of ways. hope these guys end in burning hell
I’d like to take this opportunity to clear up a couple myths about whaling in general and my actual feelings about the topic, given that I steer clear of it in my posts to avoid any bias. I don’t expect that the people who are making these comments are the same people who will read this post, so my main hope is that all you lovely good-natured people out there might learn a little bit more about a topic that unfortunately has a lot of misunderstanding surrounding it.
1). Whaling is illegal. False. This is something you hear thrown around a lot among whale conservationists and organizations like Sea Shepherd. I even catch myself saying “when whaling was outlawed” sometimes because it’s so engrained in the way that we as people who grew up with “Save the Whales” think. The International Whaling Commission (IWC) is an intergovernmental and international organization created to effectively manage whaling and is comprised of many member countries. In 1986 a global moratorium was passed on commercial whaling, due to highly depleted stocks among the most targeted of whale species. Countries that agreed to the moratorium are bound to it, countries that lodged objections are not. Let me repeat: if you are not a member of the IWC or lodge an objection to a resolution, you are not bound to it. There is no illegality involved (which doesn’t mean all IWC member countries are happy about countries that still whale, however). Since the moratorium applied to commercial whaling only, aboriginal subsistence whaling and scientific permit whaling are still on the table – America and several other countries use the former, Japan uses the latter.
2). Japan says they’re whaling for research but the meat just “somehow” appears on the market. In the IWC’s Article VIII on Scientific Permit whaling, it stipulates: “Any whales taken under these special permits shall so far as practicable be processed and the proceeds shall be dealt with in accordance with directions issued by the Government by which the permit was granted.” This means Japan, as the government by which the permit is granted, has say over how to “so far as practicable” process these whales and the proceeds from them. Let’s get something straight here, after living in Japan and working on this topic, I’m not condoning what they’re doing. Setting a quota for fin whales, which are an endangered species, is a pretty cruel move. There’s a lot of secrecy involved in their whaling, but the point here is simply that they’re taking advantage of a bad system.
3). It’s just wrong to kill whales. This isn’t so much a myth as just a general sentiment I’ve encountered – particularly among Americans, British, Australians, South Africans, and New Zealanders. I don’t really know how this came to be so engrained in our cultures, given that whaling was an important part the history of all of these countries. The idea that whale are simply off-limits seems to be tied in with the belief that whales are super-intelligent animals, which is also something that took a major leap throughout the previous decades. Early whale researchers supposed whales were about as intelligent as cows, and somewhere along the “Save the Whales” campaign they became synonymous with high intelligence. Don’t like killing intelligent animals? Stop eating pork – pigs rank as some of the smarter mammals out there (and the cutest, I might add). Campaign against the cruelties of factory farms in our own country, don’t just attack old men in other countries and condemn them to hell because they were in a line of work you don’t morally agree with in order to survive. I have never been able to understand how people who eat meat draw lines regarding which animals are okay to eat and which aren’t (because there seem to be a great deal of contradictions within these choices), unless you’re talking about an endangered species. On that note…
4). All whales are endangered. Again, one of these ideas I’m not really sure where it’s basis is. No doubt that commercial whaling (particularly during the factory ship days in the 1950s) devastated many whale populations in, but that doesn’t mean we can paint all of them with the same color. Check out the IUCN Red List for more information.
There are times when I’m writing down all of these stories I’m collecting and stop to think: why do I spend much time thinking about whales dying? I don’t like thinking about what happened any more than the next person who grew up loving whales, but I know these men are the last of their kind and have incredible stories of a culture that will be lost with them in the coming years. My own beliefs lie in non-violence, meaning I’d no sooner want to kill a whale then wish death upon the man killing it. And while there is a part of me that still cries “you go whale!” when I hear a story of a whale escaping, at the same time I know that these men were not in this industry because they loved killing whales, but because it was what was they had to do to survive. There’s wasn’t a whole lot of opportunity to be picky with your career choice on little islands far away from everywhere else, and a lot of whalers left their work when tuna fishing became a more prominent industry.
My goal is merely to show that these men are human, driven by forces that affect all of us. Those of us who deride them are fortunate to have been privileged enough to include moral factors in choosing our line of work. Today a good number of us grow up dreaming about what we want to do instead of being faced with with the reality of what we need to do to survive, which is a great blessing.
Sorry there weren’t more pictures, but I didn’t really have anything that fit the ticket. Here’s me with the cutest old whaler ever from an interview in Calheta de Nesquim on Pico this week. He’s 96 and we have matching glasses!
My latest post went live on Nat Geo’s site a couple days ago. Enjoy! I’ve just come back from three days on Pico island and now have another ten interviews under my belt – more to come soon!
It’s been quite the roller coaster since I last wrote – this past week was Semana do Mar (Sea Week), the biggest celebration on the island of Faial. Lots of happenings, both related to work and related to fun. I’ve walked in the procession for Senhora da Guia, patron saint of whalers, interviewed a 92 year old whaler who was the official on the whaleboat that killed the last whale in the Azores in 1987, heard whaling stories mixed with love stories, and had one of the most interesting conversations yet with a man who told me his least favorite part of whaling was that they had to kill whales. For now, however, I’d like to touch on some of the more personal notes of my time here.
I’ve been out of the country for a month and a half now, and gone from my home in Seattle for two. For me, this is just a drop in the bucket of how long I’ve been away in the past. I’m realizing now that circumstances, intention, and expectations make for very different perceptions of time. I’ve had the unique privilege to come back to a country I experienced during my Watson, under very similar circumstances project-wise but very different circumstances expectation-wise. Four years ago I was here from July 16 to September 6th – this time I am here from July 13 to August 28th, meaning I’m here for the same festivals and events as last time. I am afforded the opportunity in so many moments to look around myself and know that I was standing in the same place four years ago, bringing with it a stark understanding of how different things are for me now.
I am not just out of college. I am not on a fellowship whose main purpose is for me to experience the world on my own time and in my own way. I used to write every day in my journal, now my writing has been solely for grant-related pieces. My priority is not myself, but my project, which is a huge distinction. I used to spend a lot more time alone, which was both a good and bad thing. I am now surrounded by people who have done so much to help my with my project, making the work I do here infinitely more streamlined and possible. My work with the whalers is richer now than it ever could have been during the Watson, and I feel the most joy in my life here when I am speaking with these men.
Part of what I’m getting used to is that knowledge of my existence is preceding people actually meeting me. I’m starting to meet people who, when we start talking about why I’m on the island, say “oh yeah, I heard about you!” which is both exciting and unnerving to learn. National Geographic’s name is carrying me places that I’d like to believe people would offer without it, but I’m not so sure all the time. It also makes me consider the way in which I conduct my interactions here in a way that the Watson didn’t. As an American, I feel like if people see me acting “unprofessionally” (I use this term very loosely) that it will somehow reflect badly on National Geographic as an institution. I feel like I am the face of NG to everyone here, but what I then consider is that, as Portuguese, people here are probably more apt to think badly about me if they didn’t see me having some wine and relaxing every once and a while.
Also, I miss food. A lot. And good beer. A lot. I’m realizing that during my Watson, fresh out of college, I was more open to adapting to various lifestyles (and diets). Something I remember writing in my last quarterly report (or maybe my final…) was that the Watson helped me learn which things for me are open to compromise or not. It afforded me the chance to hear myself in a way that no other piece of my life has, and I’ve taken that with me and let it settle in over the last three years. I became more flexible in some ways and less in others. I learned about the type of person I want to be and the ways in which I want to live my life, which leaves me wondering now if travel can be the same when you feel rooted in who you are.
I’ve been in the Azores for one month and have just over two weeks left. They are going to be full, with some very long days coming up! I’ve finally started making trips to Pico island, where a lot of the whalers are and where I’ll be basing myself out of for part of this upcoming week. I’ve had 17 interviews so far and this week should bump that number up quite a bit!
Thanks to all who’ve been following my work here – I really appreciate your interest and support. I’ll be writing a new post for Nat Geo tomorrow (usually takes a few days to go up) so there will be more whaler-related stuff in there. If you haven’t checked out my most recent one about the man who survived being pulled underwater in a sperm whale’s mouth, you should! Amazing story. For now I’ll leave you with a view of Pico from a few nights ago and a shot of me getting put in my place with the women’s rowing team – enjoy! Até logo!
My latest post just went live on Nat Geo’s site – make sure to tune in to this one, it’s one hell of a story!
Just wanted to share the passing of José Luís Garcia, age 81, one week ago. I interviewed him four years ago during my Watson and was very much looking forward to speaking with him again this time. When I arrived here and started setting up interviews I learned that he was very sick and bed-ridden at home. Soon after I learned he was in the hospital and had contracted pneumonia, and a few days ago I heard of his passing. This news showed me how important it is to be recording as many men’s stories as I can right now, as time truly is running out. I will remember Senhor Garcia for the room of his house he spoke with me in, which was covered wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling with pictures of his family, saints, soccer, whaling, and one of JFK. May he rest in peace…
Excuse my bad joke in the title, but whales don’t have feet (anymore)!
I’ve had a pretty action-packed week spent on three different islands, but I’d like to share a conversation I had with Serge Viallelle, the Frenchman who started the whale-watching industry here in the Azores in the late 1980s. He arrived in 1987, the year the last whale was killed on the island of Pico (the last whaling factory in Pico closed in 1984, but a whale was taken out of protest in 1987). He was a wandering sailor, with no tie to the Azores other than that the woman he loved (his current wife) is from the islands.
He knew nothing about whales when he arrived, let alone setting up a business around taking people to see them. His first year he had 56 clients, most of whom he tricked into going by using what he calls the “John technique,” where he would approach an incoming bus to Lajes (where he is based from) and ask people if they were Mr. and Mrs. John. Of course he knew they would say they weren’t, and then he would lament about how he was looking for them because he was supposed to take them to see the whales. This would pique people’s interest and they would ask if he could take them to see the whales as well. So it began. Now he has over 7,000 clients a year.
We had a very interesting conversation in general because the timing of his arrival at the end of whaling mixed with his involvement in whale watching is really the perfect combination to express how things were changing at that time. One of the men who worked as a vigia (lookout) for whaling also worked for him for many many years, and it was the old whalers who taught him everything he knows about whales and their behavior. It was also these old men that laughed at him when he said he was going to get people to pay to see a whale – for them “paying to see a whale was the same as paying to see a potato,” it was just something so normal they couldn’t imagine anyone would spend money for it. At the end of our talk we got to talking about his business though, and it led to some very interesting points…
Serge spoke about believing that the main purpose of his company was not to see whales, but to use seeing them to send a greater message about the environment and climate change – about “things that are bigger than dolphins and whales.” He spoke about wanting to keep smaller boats because he thinks the only good thing to come out of these trips was to educate people, and that you can’t have the same intimacy on a larger boat.
The hard part of his philosophy for those that grew up in the “save the whales” era was this: whaling was more sustainable than whale-watching (I’m speaking ONLY for the Azores here). He said they use about 200 liters of fuel (~50 gallons) for each boat every trip, not even counting the footprint of people having to fly from far away to get here or the food and other goods that have to be shipped in. He told me that at the peak of whaling, 80% of the population of Lajes was involved in whaling somehow or another – truly a local enterprise. If you’re wondering how killing a whale could be more sustainable than looking at one, the answer lies both in the truly small-scale industry that was Azorean whaling, but also in challenging some preconceived environmentalist ideas.
I have had conversations with people throughout the years who think that it is more important to save a single species than to do our best to preserve a climate in which all things currently existing depend on to survive. Serge and I were in agreement that it means nothing to “save the whales” if we cannot educate people about (and begin to change!) the larger issues at stake. In the beginning of whale watching he always said, if you have to shoot a whale, a camera is better than a harpoon – “now,” he says, “I don’t know.”
I understand that marketing charismatic megafauna as poster children for environmental campaigns is easier than larger-scale issues, but I think it’s steered a lot of our thinking (and our funding) down a dangerous path. We can throw all our efforts into saving the polar bears, but if current use of fossil fuel continues there’s not that much we can do about their habitat preservation. We become attached to saving the cute and fuzzy, unable to conceive of the geologic time scale wherein 99.99% of everything that has ever lived has gone extinct.
Serge’s briefing before whale watching trips is the only one I’ve encountered around the world that touches so heavily on overarching environmental issues – making people question how they travel, what they buy, how they eat, where they throw their cigarette butts and how much waste they produce along the way. I think the idea of ecotourism has skyrocketed in recent years and, unfortunately, well-intending people are becoming the new problem that faces fragile environments and ecosystems. Without education, I think it is probably very true that we are causing more harm than good with whale watching.
If you’re in search of a good read on the topic of climate change, this article that came out in Rolling Stone last week is actually really fantastic. I definitely suggest you check it out.
On a lighter note, things are gearing up for the Semana do Mar (Sea Week) celebrations that are about to start here. Food and beer tents are going up everywhere, mics are being tested for the endless concerts, and I’m preparing for a very busy next few days! Fingers crossed I’ll be in the boat carrying Senhora da Guia, patron saint of whalers, during the festival for her on Sunday. Lots more to come soon! But for now, CHEESE: