From Counting to Encountering: Whale Watching in British Columbia

We sit rocked by swells of grey water, waiting for the whale. Our boat is a small thing, easily missed by a wheeling bird overhead, easily discarded by the ocean around us. It is a yellow speck against the wooded slopes and distant blue peaks. The whale dives for six minutes, seven, eight. The water lifts us and drops us. Sea spray freezes on our faces. We hold breaths, cameras, the ghosts of harpoons. The whale rises. 

* * *

The ‘we’ on the boat are visitors to British Columbia from Britain, half the world across an ocean and a continent, tied together by our shared names and shared language, the story of colonialism literally written on the map. To be a tourist is an intentional strangeness, an othering of the self. Tourism is identified as the most apparent form of intercultural encounter most of us experience.[1] However, this encounter is at a remove: through a dark glass, to borrow Biblical phrasing, or experienced via lenses, to use the terminology of contemporary social sciences. This sense of distance is intrinsic to the touristic identity; tourists do not access places lived in by residents, instead creating and participating in an alternative space. Tourism is not experience, but an act of consumption.[2] It is an inherently consumerist activity that has shaped and is shaping late capitalism.[3] Tourism, like any process that offers a place up for consumption, stems from and feeds worldviews that make places into resources; worldviews that demand and support colonization and wildly unsustainable land ‘management.’ The disorientation of rapid travel, the sectioning of cities into ‘must visit’ and ‘no go’ areas, the waiting rooms of car rental companies: all of these construct a space inhabited by (and consumed by) the tourist but not by the resident. All of this is not to strip travel of all its enjoyment or even potential for learning, but to recognize that how we experience place, as outsiders, is shaped by that outsider identity. I am buffeted by travel in the airport queues and backseats of taxis, told you are nowhere as often as I am told here you are. On the water, where the immediacy of place is made so evident by the cold, sharp salt of the spray, I am (ironically) grounded, and yet my approach to this whale-watching trip remains rooted in my tourist identity. 

Canada, from my external perspective, is intimately associated with nature: moose, mountains, bears. This concept of a ‘wilderness’ heritage (which typically ignores historical and current Indigenous inhabitants, linguistically emptying the land) forms a significant part of Canada’s tourism industry, which increasingly incorporates both ecotourism and adventure tourism. As the Canadian tourism industry grew, the hunt for ‘the wild’ shifted away from the forests and into the ocean.[4] We join this hunt: we chat excitedly as we don our waterproof overalls and climb into the Zeppelin. We hunt place: we want to see animals here that we cannot see at home, something intrinsically Canadian, whatever that means. We want an experience that cannot be transported. 

* * *

Whale watching has shifted over time, from being seen as another way of using whales for human means, to a popular tourist activity centring the humans, to now being typically carried out with respect for the whales and recognition of the human impact on them.[5] For instance, legislation governs how close boats can approach. Our tour guide tells us how the humpbacks are coming back, their numbers stronger each year. No doubt the whales would be happiest left alone, but the complex web of awareness, human affection for specific species, and fundraising may make whale watching a reasonable part of conservation and protection movements. 

It is strange to consider how differently I view whales from my recent ancestors, who burnt blubber for light. The same applies to bears, who danced for medieval entertainment or warmed the floors of castles, but who I watch wonderingly at rescue centres. African savannahs were once full of trophies to be shot, while now hunters are demonised. I am happy to situate myself in a different tradition, to go out hunting with my camera and nothing more. 

However, for several Indigenous societies along the Pacific Northwest, whaling has social, subsistence and ritual importance. As Tseshaht scholar Charlotte Coté puts it, “It’s who we are.”[6] Indigenous whaling rights permit limited whaling in Canadian waters for certain Nations. Despite understanding the moral difference between sustainable and unsustainable hunting, I struggle a little reading joyful accounts of a successful modern whale hunt. Yet I notice that I do not feel the same discomfort reading about salmon catches, despite the fact that I eat neither fish nor whale—evidently I can accept the idea that sustainable, respectful hunting can form part of human/nonhuman interactions, despite my personal food choices. It is the unfamiliar cultural perspective that trips me up – my British perspective on salmon, sold to me on supermarket shelves, being markedly different from my British perspective on whales, which are never presented to me as food. The shared language and similar culture of Canada and the UK has made me forget that I am the other here; I am the tourist. The confrontation between the familiar (words, music, foods) and the unfamiliar (whaling, a reciprocal cultural relationship with the non-human) is a reminder of my own specific cultural identity, my tourist presence, and the othering of Indigenous peoples and their practices on their own lands by systems of colonization. In order to understand Indigenous whaling as part of the cultural and natural landscape of the area, I have to shift my own concept of whaling away from Moby Dick and British sea shanties. 

* * *

The boat trip is rough, loud, nausea-inducing; it is bright, fast, laughter-inducing. The sun silvers the sea, the islands hulk around us, the waves play with our boat. I see: seal, otter, orca, humpback, eagle, sea lion. 

When I return to land, I send my catch thousands of miles back to the UK via WhatsApp. Seal, otter, orca, humpback, eagle, sea lion. Even as the adrenaline of the experience courses through me, reminding me of my own animal nature, my desire is to abstract the experience, to remove myself and play top trumps with nature. Is this my Enlightenment heritage, this naming, sorting, and collecting? Seal, otter, orca, humpback, eagle, sea lion. 

At the same time, something else unfurls inside me. My instincts toward consumption are challenged by the sensory load of sunshine, movement, laughter, and delight. The rock of the water, the freezing wind on my face, the warmth of the sun: these stay with me. I am on the boat and the boat is holding me, and my hair is matted with salt. 

I see the whales


water, wind

people, red suited and small

And then I see the whale-and-water, moving for each other, seal-and-wave-and-spray, eagle-and-air-and-people-and-water-and-whale. The air and the land and the water, and all of us in it and on it, move together. The bite of the air in my lungs, the shift of the wing, the swell, the diving depths, the soaring sky, all of us gifts of the sun. Seal-otter-water-orca-humpback-wind-eagle-sun-sea lion-me. The water supports us, the sun warms us. We sit, joyful, waiting. The whale rises.

[1] Grace Lawrence-Hart, “Tourism and intercultural communication,” in Intercultural Communication and Public Policy in Nigeria, ed. Ngozi Iheanacho (Port Harcourt: M & J Grand Orbit Communications, 2016), 222.

[2] John Urry, “The ‘consuming’ of place,” in Discourse, Communication and Tourism, ed. Adam Jaworski and Annette Pritchard (Bristol, UK: Channel View Publications, 2005), 19-26.

[3] Maya Mazor-Tregerman, Yoel Mansfeld, and Ouzi Elyada, “Travel guidebooks and the construction of tourist identity,” Journal of Tourism and Cultural Change 15, no. 1 (December 2015): 81.

[4] Alison Gill and Erin Welk, “Natural heritage as place identity: Tofino, Canada, a coastal resort on the periphery,” in Managing Coastal Tourism Resorts: A Global Perspective, ed. Sheela Agarwal and Gareth Shaw (Bristol, UK: Channel View Publications, 1999), 182.

[5] Mark B. Orams, “Tourists getting close to whales, is it what whale-watching is all about?” Tourism Management 21, no. 6 (December 2000): 561-569.

[6] Charlotte Coté, Spirits of Our Whaling Ancestors: Revitalizing Makah and Nuu-chah-nulth Traditions (Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 2010), 5.

*Cover image: Picture by author

[*Cover image description: Green landscapes in the background frame calm ocean waters viewed from the visible front of a yellow boat with two fisherman beanies coloured grey (with a tuff of beige coloured fur) indicating two people sitting in the boat at the foreground of the image.]

Edited by Bava Dharani, reviewed by Alyssa Kreikemeier.

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