How to Communicate with Whales: Pacific Rim Whale Festival & Earth-democracy with Surfrider Pacific Rim in Tla-o-qui-aht/ Tofino

Also published in the Tofino Times, March 2017, as a contribution from Surfrider Pacific Rim Chapter.


Waves crashing at twilight.

There are so many exciting and inspiring ways to communicate with our earth and all the beings that are a part of it, and a part of us. The current ecological crisis can be overwhelming, but, by consciously communicating and intra-acting with the earth, we rebuild sustainable, reciprocal, and affective relationships with our environments and spirit. In the middle of this month, all Toficians and visitors, have an amazing opportunity to celebrate our relationship and connection to the earth and to gain the tools to celebrate and honour this connection, as communities and as individuals. This is an opportunity for us to look at how we are communicating with nature, and how we might be able to find some freedom and space for compassion within that relationship.

Through our “Rise Above Plastics” Program, Surfrider Pacific Rim has uncovered some of these overwhelming ecological facts about plastics. For example, with at least 5.25 trillion plastic particles currently floating at sea, effecting over 660 marine wildlife species, it is predicted that by 2025, for every three tons of finfish swimming in the oceans, there could be one ton of plastic as well. The fish species that we harvest are eating micro-plastic particles and the toxins absorbed from those plastics transfer to the fish tissue. What messages are we sending to the earth beings in the ocean?


Personal Photography, “Grounding at Chaha-ees” in Tla-o-qui-aht Territory (Cox Bay, Tofino).

In January, a whale was found in Norway that was extremely malnourished due to having more than 30 plastic bags in its stomach. In an article published in the Telegraph, they quoted scientists saying that this was “not surprising.” The scientists also noted that the labels were in English and Danish, still legible on the plastic.

In a film called ‘Sonic Seas’ we learn how ships are acting as our voice in the oceans. Many ocean mammals rely on sound to hunt for food, mate, detect predators, objects, and much more. With sixty thousand commercial ships traveling around the world at any given time, it is unimaginable that there are many spaces in the ocean devoid of the noise of propellers and engines. Further, seismic noises produced from giant air cannons, used to detect oil and gas deposits, can produce repeated blasts continuously sounding for days or weeks! There is strong evidence that these blasts have a hugely negative impact on whales and fish populations. Lastly, sonar used by warships basically act as a giant predator, causing some whales be silent, stop foraging, and abandon their habitat. Repeated exposure can harm entire populations of animals, and has led to mass whale strandings. From this perspective, humans are using technology that mimics the communication forms used by these creatures, and we are essentially yelling at them as loud as we can, telling them to leave.

Essentially, we need to rethink how we are communicating with nature, especially whales, and we need to think in an abstract form, beyond body language, voice, and human to human communication. Frederique, who runs the Sachamama Center for Biocultural Regeneration in Lamas, in the high Amazon of Peru, taught me that through the rise of scientific knowledge in the late 18th century, we have diminished our perception of the world we live in. The western scientific world that we live in, and under, sees the world in terms of rationality and dualisms. The main dualism that I want to touch on here is that of the divide between ‘culture’ and ‘nature,’ as two separate entities. An example of this is the common language of ‘managing resources’ which subtly refers us to a one-way, non-reciprocal dynamic, where resources are there to be used, rather than an integral part of our lives and habitat. The inverse of this view would be recognizing co-constitution between organisms and their environment, and our dependence on one another.


VANCOUVER AQUARIUM/NOAA FISHERIES. An aerial image of a pod of orcas swimming off the coast of B.C. taken by a drone. (Metro News)

Going back to the example of the whale that died from plastic in its stomach, or to the jaw-dropping facts of the amount of plastic in the environment, co-constitution vs resource management becomes a little bit more clear. On one hand, in terms of international waters and pollution, ‘management’ denotes a burden of responsibility that obviously falls between jurisdictions. On the other hand, co-constitution helps remind us that we are all responsible for our collective environments and that our virtue is interconnected. In this view, resources such as whales, become ‘earth-others’ full of agency, capable of intra-action.

Frederique gave me some useful tips to help us practice and honour our co-constitution with earth-others. Turns out, Whale Fest fits that picture perfectly! Her advice was that we need to embed ecology in society to bridge the gap between nature and culture.

Another expert on communication, Mark Carrington, defines the difference between interaction and intra-action. Interaction, he notes, focuses on the results of two interacting forces whereas intra-action focuses on how that interaction shapes or, in Frederique’s words, co-constitute each actor.

When we embed ecology in society, we are reciprocally affecting each other, allowing us to move beyond, and celebrate, a world that exists outside of rationality. Affect is understood in terms of the capacity to be incited, inspired, engaged, provoked or in being induced to produce – or even in terms of the power to give another being the power to affect you (agency).


Personal Photography, From Tla-o-qui-aht Territory

In a paper about constructed rationalities and dualities surrounding the environment, Paul Robbins points out that concepts such as wilderness in B.C. are constructed. ‘Wilderness,’ Robbins says, was born through the subjugation of indigenous knowledge in B.C. as well as their historical ties to land management practices, that literally led to the creation of the ecosystems as they were when European colonizers arrived.

Terry Dorward, the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nations Tribal Parks Coordinator shares a part of his personal history that speaks to Robbins. His Tla-o-qui-aht name is Seit-cha which translates as “one who swims around in the water.” It is through the bathing prayer ritual known as Oosmiich that the Nuu-chah-nulth peoples obtained spiritual interconnections with the natural world. Each family unit had their own secretive bathing pools and practices in the pursuance of wisdom, guidance, and protection. His lineage, the Seitcher family, was known to be great Whalers that were known to be “lucky” and caught many whales because of their success in being disciplined through the practice of Oosmiich. He continues, “today, we as Nuu-chah-nulth, have the ability to heal and strengthen ourselves by having a strong belief in our own spirituality, teachings and practices that are deeply interconnected within the environment.”

An aerial image of an adult female southern resident orca (J16) as she’s about to surface with her youngest calf, born earlier this year.

VANCOUVER AQUARIUM/NOAA FISHERIES. An aerial image of an adult female southern resident orca (J16) as she’s about to surface with her youngest calf.

In a book called Tsawalk, written by Umeek (Richard Atleo), we learn that “Oosumich is a secret and personal Nuu-chah-nulth spiritual activity that can involve very degrees of fasting, cleansing, celibacy, prayer, and isolation for varying lengths of time depending on the purpose.” Oosumich provides a link between the two types of reality (both being equally real), the spiritual, and the physical. The principle behind Oosumich is “that effective accesses to the spiritual dimension from the physical dimension is absolutely necessary… such is the nature of creation, of existence.” Their belief is that the physical world is a manifestation of the spiritual world, “the physical dimension is like a mirror or shadow of the spiritual realm… [which] implies the special relationship.” It was through this process of Oosumich, Atleo explains, that allowed his grandfather Keesta to communicate and reach understanding with the whale that he was pursuing.

Oosumich is not a process that simply makes economic use of perceived correlations or resources – Oosumich is how the Nuu-chah-nulth people gain knowledge about reality, to intra-act in nature, premised on family and societal protocols and rights, in order to continue to live and develop truth that is connected with the whole, and honours an earth co-constituted by humans and countless earth others. One of the most famous Nuu-chah-nulth phrases is ‘heshook-ish tsawalk.’ Everything is one, everything is interconnected.


Personal Photography, Earth-other, Sitka Spruce

There are also contemporary forms of communicating with whales, and intra-acting with Nature. Dr. John K.B. Ford, for example, has been studying whales on the B.C. coast since the 1970’s and has paid particular attention to Orcas. In an interview with Oceanonline, he states that Orcas make very different sounds for different purposes and not only have their own languages but their own dialects as well. Scientists use stereotype calls, individual sounds repeated by individuals in the pod, to track the movements of Orcas, and are now able to identify the different groups and individuals. Through this experience, the scientists are building an awareness of the Orca’s ways of life, and relationships with Orcas, down to the level of personal individual relationships. At that level of intimacy, he recognizes these species as earth-others, full of agency, and as actors that co-cocreate our oceans and environments.

Whale fest is an opportunity for us, as individuals and communities, to form new bridges between nature and culture by developing our own affective tools for intra-action. In jargon terms, it is a local act of participatory co-creation of an ‘earth-democracy’ that is inclusive of earth-others. Whale Fest is an example of a practice of creating new forms of communicating with whales, and nature, and thus having tools to connect with nature on a reciprocal and communicative level as individuals and communities.

Lastly, go to your favourite spot near the ocean, clear your mind of all your thoughts, breathe deeply, feel the air surrounding your skin, and listen with complete energetic awareness of how the whales are speaking with you, through all the earth-others that we dance with to co-constitute this beautiful place we call the Esowista Peninsula.


Personal Photography, One of my favourite places to intra-act through surfing, at Nanaqua, Tla-o-qui-aht Territory (in Tofino, BC).

Following the parade, come join Surfrider at our Beach Cleanup at Kwisitis (Wickaninnish Beach) at 1 p.m., on March 11th 2017, to connect with the earth, and communicate with the whales by co-constituting our ecosystems, respectfully.

Another awesome opportunity that Surfrider is hosting is ‘Stitch n Beach’ on March 24th at the Legion. We are continuing our pursuit to Rise Above Plastics by meeting a challenge to make 1000 reusable bags. We will be Stitch’n’Beach’n from 10am – 4pm with materials, equipment, support and snacks provided! From 5pm – 7pm we will be screening ‘A Plastic Ocean’ which is a film highlighting the plastic pollution, and microplastics in our ocean.


-Connor Paone

Also published in the Tofino Times, March 2017, as a contribution from Surfrider Pacific Rim Chapter.

Pictures from personal photography and Metro News article “Scientists use drone to study health of endangered orcas off B.C. coast” (Oct 21, 2015).



2 Comments Add yours

  1. Marisa Clark says:

    Connor! I’m laughing so hard at the domain.

    But this is actually an incredible article. You need to start selling your photography – it’s amazing!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. connorpaone says:

      Haha! Thanks M. I hope you’re feeling a little slaked by it all 😉


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