The thinking person’s television comes in two forms, summer and winter. It’s elemental; in winter the wise person stares at fire and thinks deep thoughts or, better still, goes beyond thought altogether and just sits. In summer it’s water. It’s a fact that you can stare at water without boredom for longer than you can stare at anything else on the planet.
We are now moving fast into August, the sea-staring month for many of us. The sea commands us to keep an eye on it; don’t let it out of your sight, not for a moment, because it’s got a lot more moving about to do.
Sea-staring is a profound experience; there’s so much of it and you can’t often see what lives in it. It’s impossible to take a long look at the sea – superficially the least human- affected place on Earth – without wondering about the planet we live on.
Binoculars help. Shift your gaze to a good mile out and with luck you’ll pick out a gannet or two; startlingly white, cruciform, black tips to their wings. In some places you’ll be rewarded with the head of a seal, an air-breather like ourselves, but quite unafraid of the forbidding sea. And there are other, still greater prizes.
If you tell someone that your plan is to sit and stare at the sea, he may well ask: “With what porpoise?” It is the question of the Mock Turtle in Alice, invariably asked when he hears that fish are going on a journey. Any session of sea-staring is richer if you have a porpoise, so let me tell you that today is the start of the twelfth annual National Whale and Dolphin Watch, organised by Sea Watch Foundation, old friends of this column.
There are two good reasons for this annual watch. The first is that it’s jolly good fun. People who had no idea that such wonderful creatures could be seen with their feet still firmly on our island have a chance to enrich their lives. They will see the world (especially the wet bits) for ever in a slightly different way. I remember the delight of finding harbour porpoises off the coast of Cornwall. They are creatures of great modesty and charm, not showy-offy like dolphins and lacking the self-conscious grandeur of the big whales. Porpoises are one of the sea’s more subtle pleasures.
The second reason for the watch is that the information helps to build up a picture of the habits and numbers of the whales and dolphins that use our coastal waters. Once armed with that information we can do something about protecting them. Or we could if the Government would listen.
The European Commission’s Habitats Directive places the harbour porpoise on a special annex requiring special areas of conservation. Most countries have been surveying and designating appropriate sites. Almost uniquely the UK is not among them. Our own nation says: “Let the porpoises go hang.” Our Government is determinedly anti-porpoise.
It’s about wind farms. The Government is mad on them. Offshore wind farms are the answer to everything and nothing must get in their way. And wind farming can affect porpoises; the din of the pile-driving during construction is horribly disturbing and affects their sophisticated echolocation talents.
The Government response is a knee-jerk opposition to anything to do with marine conservation. This polarises the debate on traditional lines, developers versus conservationists. It’s an old story and we all know the way it turns out.
Peter Evans, the director of Sea Watch, has another view: “The idea that a marine protected area precludes any human activity is a misconception,” he says. “If only developers, environmentalists and politicians all realised that one doesn’t preclude the other, we would have much less resistance to the establishment of large areas recognised as important for marine life.”
Our relationship with the sea has never been wholly exploitative. There is always fascination and love to go with the “what’s in it for me?” attitude. We need to approach marine conservation with larger minds – if we don’t, our seas will die. Stick to entrenched positions and we lose our porpoises. And I’m not sure that I really want to live in a country that lacks a porpoise in life.
My view is that Britain should be more like Iraq. Faithful readers of this column will remember Azzam Alwash, who recently received the immensely prestigious Goldman Prize for his work on the conservation of the Mesopotamian Marshes. This week the Iraqi Cabinet at last approved the national park status of the wetlands.
Dr Alwash says: “We’ve worked for more than ten years to make this happen – and we still have a lot of work ahead to make sure the wetlands continue to thrive – but today we celebrate an important milestone in the history of Iraq with our first national park.”
Dr Alwash is a remarkable man whose work has revealed one of the deep truths of the 21st century – that conservation is one of the arts of peace and perhaps the greatest of them. There are lessons here for us all, not least governments with pet schemes to promote.