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Hull Maritime is supporting a project at the University of Leeds, bringing together partners to celebrate the Yorkshire coast’s whaling heritage and current natural heritage. The aspiration is to submit an application for Yorkshire's coast to become an internationally recognised Whale Heritage Site.

Here's an introduction to the project.

Charismatic Encounters (CHARISMA)

Charismatic Encounters is an 18-month research project led by the University of Leeds and the University Paris Nanterre, in collaboration with the UK-based NGO World Cetacean Alliance (WCA).

The project explores the role of whales and other cetaceans in the coastal and maritime heritage of England and France with a focus on two historically rich regions: the Yorkshire coast in England and the transnational Basque littoral, which joins southwest France to northern Spain.

Cetacean is the collective name given to the group of aquatic mammals commonly known as whales, dolphins and porpoises.

There are currently no Whale Heritage Sites in England or France, and this project will scope out possibilities for the creation of the first sites in these countries (of which Hull Maritime Museum will be a part of).

The English side of the project will focus on Yorkshire, looking at key locations like Hull and Whitby, which were once major whaling ports and where there are now museums that preserve this whaling past, and also coastal towns and villages which offer opportunities to see whales today.

Researchers Professor Graham Huggan and Dr Sophia Nicolov at the University of Leeds will draw together the interconnected histories and legacies of whaling, contemporary relationships with living cetaceans, and the tangible and intangible heritage surrounding these animals.

They hope to assess the significance and usefulness of Yorkshire’s whaling history to contemporary engagement with these whales and other cetaceans via whale-watching and museums.

James H. Wheldon, Whaler ‘Diana’, oil on canvas, Hull Maritime Museum

Both Hull and Whitby were whaling Hubs in England in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, with whalers venturing to Arctic Greenland to hunt bowhead whales (Balaena mysticetus), which were commonly referred to as the ‘Greenland right whale’. Whitby supplied nearly half of the whale oil sold on the British market by the mid-eighteenth century, while Hull became the biggest whaling port in England in the early nineteenth century.

For many people today Whitby’s Arctic whale hunting is associated with the Scoresbys, the famous father and son whaling captains. Whaling from the Yorkshire coast permanently ended in the mid-nineteenth century, even though national and global whaling industries expanded targets, catches and geographical scope.

Whitby whale bone arch via Wikimedia

In the twenty-first century, the Yorkshire coast has become a site where this past can be learnt about and engaged with at Hull Maritime Museum and at Whitby Museum. The North Sea around Yorkshire is inhabited by harbour porpoises, bottlenose dolphins and, in the late summer, minke whales. These animals are the focus of conservation efforts by major organisations in the region, including Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, as well as wildlife watching initiatives, with Yorkshire Coast Nature running dedicated whale and seabird boat trips from the fishing village of Staithes.

Minke whale ⓒ Richard Baines Yorkshire Coast Nature

The end of whaling in Britain in the 1960s, the global moratorium on commercial whaling in 1982 and the shift in attitudes towards whales and other cetaceans as sentient victims vulnerable to human activity are part of the very reason people seek encounters with these charismatic animals in their ocean habitats. And while whale watching offers this opportunity, there are potential problems to consider, including boats disturbing the animals, insufficient protections and regulations, over-crowded sites, and the impact of tourism on local environments and communities. While cetaceans are a key part of Yorkshire’s heritage, cetacean tourism must have a responsible future that considers both wellbeing of the animals and that of local communities.

This project seeks to bring together key regional stakeholders who are involved in the stewardship of the history, heritage and living animals along this stretch of the North Sea coast, including Hull Maritime Museum and Yorkshire Wildlife Trust. A key aim of the project is to explore the feasibility of and create the conditions of possibility for achieving the WCA’s official designation as a Whale Heritage Site on the Yorkshire coast. The accreditation scheme recognises best practices for responsible and sustainable whale and dolphin watching worldwide at sites with significant and diverse cultural links to cetaceans, and where the conservation of and education about these animals is supported.

Staithes, view of the river out to sea ⓒ Phil Hearing

It acknowledges communities that have a connection with and celebrate whales and dolphins in local culture, art, history and events, supporting engagement with this rich heritage and biodiversity.

The potential benefits of accreditation include greater awareness of and support for conservation initiatives, boosting income to this sector, and improving education and knowledge about cetaceans and the ocean.

The WCA explains how ‘these sites empower and defend the right of local communities to care for and protect whales, dolphins and porpoises through a collaborative management partnership’.

Sophia Nicolov will be contributing to the Hull Maritime blog on the themes of the project. For more information and project updates, visit the Charismatic Encounters website.

William Scoresby Junior, ‘Hydrological Chart of the Arctic Regions’, An Account of the Arctic Regions (1820)