The return of whales, seals and dolphins to the British coast is a wonder to witness

iot’s an encouraging start to 2022. In an informal census – or perhaps a sort of watery award ceremony – the Wildlife Trusts’ marine review of 2021 has pointed to humpback whales off the north-east coast of Scotland and England, increasing numbers of seal pups being born, and seahorses in protected beds of eel grass off the Dorset coast.

It seems the work of the trusts and other marine conservation bodies is having a good effect. Blue whales appearing in the Irish Sea may be physical beneficiaries of the general agreement of the International Whaling Commission in 1982, effected three years later, to halt the cull of the species. It is as if the whales themselves remember, encouraged to return without fear of someone sticking a harpoon in them.

But in many ways these optimistic signs are also the markers of what we have lost. In the 19th century the waterways of the Solent were so full of salmon that local apprentices, according to one author writing in 1850, “stipulated in their indentures that it should not be served up to them oftener than three times a-week”. The same author reported shoals of porpoises in Southampton Water, “rolling and springing on the surface in their renewed gambols”. While in the 18th century, Oliver Goldsmith reported on an English Channel filled with whales, dolphins, cod fish, tuna and even great white sharks chasing columns of herrings. “The whole water seems alive,” Goldsmith wrote in one of the first popular science books, Animated Nature, nel 1776, “and is seen so black with them that the number seems inexhaustible.”

Humans, pure, were once more watery. In the north of England and Scotland, fisherwomen were known as herring quines, so covered were they in silvery scales they seemed to be becoming fish themselves. Charles Richard Weld of the Royal Society declared in 1859, riffing on Darwin: “If a man may become a monkey, or has been a whale, why should not a Caithness damsel become a herring?"

To these writers, the idea that one day there might not be plenty more fish in the sea would have been unthinkable. The depredations of the natural world that began to accelerate in the 19th century would remove much of that marine biomass from around our shores, with disastrous effects.

The physical absence of the great whales such as blue, fin, humpback and sperm whales may have actually accelerated the climate crisis – because it deprived the oceanic food chain of their fertilising faeces, and their rotting carcasses which, on the sea bed, helped sequester carbon from the ecosphere and sustain species, from polar bears and seals to bone-eating osedax worms. The life cycles of smaller organisms depended entirely on carcasses.

We look to science to point out what needs to be done, but often art inspires as much as academic reports. Nel 2012, Heather Ackroyd and Dan Harvey performed a kind of reincarnation on the skeleton of a minke whale stranded at Skegness by growing diamond-like chemical crystals on its bones. Un anno dopo, the artists Ellen Gallagher and Edgar Cleijne used the bone-eating worm to conjure up a similarly alchemical transformation in their film, Osedax: a dead whale slowly sways to the bottom to become, in the words of Shakespeare’s Ariel in The Tempest, “something rich and strange”.

With its shapeshifting sense of gender (slipper snails form stacks upon each other, changing sex from male at the bottom to female at the top) and of time (“shadow” parts of the ocean may be 1,000 Anni), the sea defies all our assumptions. It is a decidedly queer place; appena ask any dolphin. Nor does it recognise national boundaries, ovviamente.

The sea is where our laws and jurisdictions run out. That inevitably raises contrary questions of responsibility and freedom. Infatti, it is hard to divorce the threats to our native marine life from “alien species” without considering the human refugees arriving on those same shores. Or to note that the climate crisis is a driver for both.

It is easy to ignore the sea, or to think of it as a kind of highway with a fish shop attached. Some may consider it bizarre that commentators such as George Monbiot call for a rewilding of our seas as well as of the land. Others may worry there’s no chance of that while English and French politicians squabble over who has the “right” to take fish from the sea. But humpbacks off Whitby? Dancing sea slugs off Cumbria? White-beaked dolphins off Essex? These may be anomalies or signs of disruption, but merely bearing witness to such wonders has the power to restore our faith.

As I swim in the chilly winter sea, the sleek black head of a grey seal pops up beside me, and in the louring grey sky a skein of brent geese, charcoal-coloured visitors from Siberia, steer into view. It’s not quite Goldsmith’s vision of Eden, but I’m still hoping for miracles in 2022. Happy new year to the sea, all its species, and to all of you.

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