2011 12 10 - Bermuda Sun- A soul-baring account of whale research project Print E-mail
Written by Andrew Stevenson   

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Elsa signs copies of "Whale Song" with Camilla Stringer and Judie Clee as assistants to her right. I think that was my glass of wine, not Elsa's at the Bermuda Aquarium this evening

And Amanda Dale writes a review of "Whale Song" for the Bermuda Sun.

"Whale Song" is anchanting journey into the mysterious lives of Bermuda’s humpback whales.

But it is also a journey of self-discovery and a tale of how persistence can bring some remarkable rewards.

When author Andrew Stevenson started his film project four years ago, he admits he knew little about whale behaviour.

Now, his findings are being used in scientific research to inform the global community about the life of this elusive animal.

Bermuda is the only mid-ocean platform in the northern hemisphere capable of providing a window into humpback whales, as the Pacific humpbacks head straight from their Hawaiian breeding grounds to Canada, Alaska and Russia.

But it was a question from his three-year-old daughter Elsa which first inspired Mr Stevenson on his quest. In 2006 they watched a humpback breach off the South Shore, and Elsa asked: “Why does it do that?”

Stevenson admits he could not tell her why but that the sight of the whale off the beach was “an epiphany for me”.

 

The next year, spring of 2007, he began a three-year project to film the whales, hoping to cast some light on their behaviour and inspire Bermudian children to cherish these underwater marine tourists.

The resulting film Where the Whales Sing won the Best Emerging Underwater Filmmaker Award at the Blue Ocean Film Festival in Monterey, California, and last month’s Charman Prize in Bermuda.

This book is the story of Stevenson’s quest, and is both absorbing and inspiring. The engaging personal narrative is accompanied by fantastic photographs from the waters of Bermuda, as well as the Dominican Republic, Maine, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland.

Stevenson gives a forthright, soul-baring account of his journey, describing his first close encounter looking into the eye of a humpback as “looking into the eye of God”.

This encounter, with the animal who comes to be known as ‘Magical Whale’, haunts him afterwards.

“It was an intense, profound and eventually disturbing experience...Over and over again I kept asking myself, ‘What was he thinking?’.

“Side by side, eye to eye, staring intently into the window of the soul of a highly intelligent wild animal that dwarfed me in size was a both humbling and powerful experience.”

Stevenson admits his first season in 2007, trying to find and film the whales, was “disastrous”.

Despite 300 hours on the water, he failed to get “a single minute of usable footage”.

With no prior experience of taking underwater photos or video footage he writes: “I didn’t even know whether it was possible for an amateur to attempt a project like this.” But, inspired by his goal of creating a documentary for schoolchildren, his determination wins out.

Stevenson is assisted along the way by local funding (in particular from Jim and Debbie Butterfield) and the Atlantic Conservation Partnership. A dedicated team of volunteers also helps, as do the public, by phoning in their whale sightings.

By the end of the 2011 migratory season, working with Allied Whale’s ‘North Atlantic Humpback Whale Fluke Identification Catalogue’, at the College of the Atlantic, Maine, Stevenson has identified more than 500 humpbacks passing the Bermuda seamount, a fifth of whom are regular visitors. And after more than 1,000 hours on the water, his images and audio recordings capture new evidence into their migratory lives. His research casts new light on the role of whale song as the animals group together in convoys prior to travelling north.

He also observes whales taking “sand baths” in sandholes, scraping the dead skin and sea lice from their bodies.

Since his project began he has co-authored scientific papers for the Society of Marine Mammology and his contribution to whale research is praised in the reviews for Whale Song.

Dr Roger Payne, founder of the Ocean Alliance, who discovered in 1967 with Scott McVay that humpbacks sing, writes: “In four years Andrew has identified more than twice as many humpback whales around Bermuda as we scientists identified in those waters in the previous 40 years.”

Captain Paul Watson, founder of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, writes: “Meticulously researched and expertly documented by an engaging writer and gifted photographer, this book conveys the exhilarating experiences of Bermuda’s leading expert and defender of whales.

“Some books are more than books, they are treasures to be cherished, and this is one of them.”

 
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