5 min read

We’re gonna need a bigger ontology

Orca attacks prompt questions about being.
A boat holding a camera crew drifts next to a whale fin.
Filming Shetland's orcas.

In May 2023, British sailor Iain Hamilton was aboard his yacht in the Strait of Gibraltar when it was set upon by a pod of five orcas who succeeded in biting off both rudders, leaving him with no means of steering his boat back to shore. These enormous killer whales could have destroyed the small boat in its entirety, rounding off their escapades by making a quick lunch of Hamilton and his crew. But instead, they seemed content to merely play with the small vessel, pushing it around “like a ragdoll” for a while, before swimming away to find their next meal elsewhere.  

How do we explain such behaviour? Environmentalists have been quick to suggest that the orcas are demonstrating their frustration with the human race – carrying out revenge attacks on those callous two-legged beings who overfish their waters and pollute their habitat. Other commentators propose a less anthropocentric view. One leading zoologist, Mark Cowardine, attributes the whales’ behaviour simply to play, “Boisterous play, yes, by animals weighing up to six tonnes, but nothing more sinister than that.”  

The phenomenon of whales attacking boats is not new. Herman Melville’s magnum opus Moby Dick (published in 1851) is a fictional tale of one such encounter, inspired in part by the real-life sinking of a ship, The Essex, during a whale attack in 1820. However, there appears to have been a surge in such incidents in European waters over the past few years – more than 500 orca attacks were recorded between 2020 and 2023 alone. It is thought to be largely the same pod of whales who are responsible, but scientist fear that other pods are beginning to learn the behaviour.  

This raises the question: at what point should humanity intervene to prevent the spread of knowledge? Theoretically, it would be possible, to isolate the ring leaders and remove them from whale ‘society’ (send them to ‘whale jail’ if you like). And, let’s be honest, in previous generations, trophy hunters would have blithely exterminated the troublesome pod without a second thought. But we live in more enlightened times, wherein we respect nature’s right to be protected from human interference.  

The whale world has its own language, with distinct dialects, and is even thought to have culture, including celebration of life events and rituals for grieving the death of a family member.

On the other side of the globe, this right has even been enshrined in law. Pacific Indigenous leaders from the Cook Islands, French Polynesia, New Zealand and Tonga have agreed a treaty that officially recognises whales and dolphins as having legal personhood. The Whanganui River in New Zealand is also recognised as a “legal person” – a move intended both to enact reparations for the damage done to the river by European settlers, and to protect it from any future harm by the human race.  

A being that is recognised as having legal personhood is one which has “rights and duties itself and which can enforce these rights against other legal persons.”   So far so good for a river, which is vulnerable, not sentient, and certainly needs protecting from our shocking ability to exploit and pollute the natural world. But what can we say about whales and dolphins? Unlike the river, they are sentient. The whale world has its own language, with distinct dialects, and is even thought to have culture, including celebration of life events and rituals for grieving the death of a family member. With such obvious evidence of moral intelligence, should we be considering the ‘duties’ inherent to a whale’s legal personhood, as well as the rights? 

The whales still seem to be communicating the same message: our ocean is vast, and we can make you humans feel your tininess in it. 

In parts of the Hebrew Bible, animals are already described as having personhood. In the creation story both humans and animals are described as having nephesh – a Hebrew word that is sometimes translated as ‘soul’, and which indicates certain aspects of what it means to be sentient and have a moral conscience. Intriguingly, God seems to employ this sentience – at times employing animals to communicate with humans.  

One famous example even includes a whale. When the runaway prophet Jonah was thrown from a ship into the ocean, we are told that God directed a large fish to swallow him up, and after three days return Jonah to dry land to continue the work to which God has asked him to do. In another example, when the donkey of the prophet Balaam was being unfairly beaten, the Bible records that the donkey turned and said to his master, “What have I done to you, that you have struck me?”  

It is clear that some of the biblical writers believed that God could and would use animals to communicate with the human race, either through their behaviour or even through direct speech. Therefore, these orca “attacks” make me wonder if God may still be doing so today. Whilst both humans and animals are described as having nephesh in the creation story, the story does then go on to distinguish humans as having ‘dominion’ over the created order. The idea of what it means to have ‘dominion’ has been interpreted differently through the centuries of Christian thought. In the time of Moby Dick, when the fashion for trophy hunting and taxidermy was at its height in the western world, dominion had a feel of superiority and dominance to it. These days, it is more common to hear ‘dominion over creation’ described in terms of responsible stewardship and care.  

But whilst human culture has changed (arguably for the better) it is noticeable that between Moby Dick’s time and now, the whales still seem to be communicating the same message: our ocean is vast, and we can make you humans feel your tininess in it. The temptation is there for us to intervene, to prevent these boisterous orcas from perpetuating their violent behaviour. This would serve to silence the voice that reminds us, uncomfortably, of our fundamental human vulnerability on the ocean. But perhaps we should not be too hasty. We cannot know if, inherent to the personhood of whales, they have a ‘duty’ to keep us in our place. Perhaps it is even their God-given call to behave in a way that reminds us that creation is ultimately, untameably, wild. Listening carefully, we might yet discover that God is speaking to us in whale song.  

6 min read

The case for taking a holiday

The reasons we need to rest and re-boot.

Natalie produces and narrates The Seen & Unseen Aloud podcast. She's an Anglican minister and a trained actor.

On a beach lounger someone holds a book aloft to read.

Well, here we are, either literally or metaphorically breaking up for the summer. School’s out and the long evenings demand al-fresco dining – even in the UK where it’s far more likely than not to rain. And of course, it is time to Live Our Best Life as we chase the fantasy and book an eye-wateringly expensive holiday – to “get away from it all”.  

In my early adulthood, holidays were unquestionably lying on a sun-drenched beach with a very large pile of novels. It was escapism pure and simple. And sun worshipping. Then I went on a skiing holiday for the first time in my 30s and was amazed how refreshing it was. When you’re concentrating on not dying, hurtling at high speed down a slippery mountain, the regular patterns of thought are left behind; there is simply no headspace to worry about the things that normally occupy the mind. I came back from a week on the snow with my body feeling completely trashed but my mind fresher than ever before.  

But whatever our holiday preference, be it active, sedentary or a cocktail of both, it is short-lived. A fortnight is the average length of a holiday, maybe it’s just a cheeky long weekend. If you’re really pushing the boat out (literally if going on a cruise as many people do these days a) – a luxurious three or even four weeks. But however long it is, it is – by definition – not lifelong. We build up to it – “can’t wait to get away” and there can be huge expectation for all the things we’ve been struggling with to be magically less stressful “when I get back”. We think all the exhaustion we carry, all the frustration or disappointment, the overworking we live with on a daily basis, will disappear. We binge on relaxation and put huge pressure on ourselves to HAVE FUN and – that which has become the sly new marketing strategy – “making great memories”. Which can all turn out to be even harder work than what we’re trying to get away from. 

Last summer, we went to the Lake District. And it rained. A lot. I mean coming in under the doors/through the windows sort of a lot. So we played Monopoly. And watched the Mission Impossible films. We went for walks in the rain and ate picnics quickly between showers. It was rather like we were living through a low budget British 1980s adaptation of an Enid Blyton novel, instead of the big budget Caribbean fantasia of one’s dreams. By any official descriptor, it was a holiday – but I’m not sure it felt like one.  

There is a call for some time to be kept holy, time set apart when we’re not busy being busy, when we remember that we are human and limited and need rest.

So, as I’m keenly interested in the etymology of words, I looked up holiday* to find out whether I had achieved the objective. Holiday = a period of time when you are not at work or school – check; holiday = a period of time spent travelling or resting away from home – hmm, not sure about the resting but we were away; holiday = holy day – hang on, what? 

Most world religions or philosophies have some sort of rhythm or pattern for life which includes times of rest. These often (though not always) coincide with some sort of worship or festival. These are times set apart from the day-to-day occupation of “normal life”. Interestingly, in the Judeo-Christian tradition, rest is baked in right from the beginning. After a six “day” working week, so the beginning of the Creation story tells us, God rested. And just to underline the point, sometime later, that same God gave his people the 10 Commandments, one of which is – take a day off.  

The word “holy” means set apart, sacred and right at the heart of the Jewish and Christian lifestyle there is a call for some time to be kept holy, time set apart when we’re not busy being busy, when we remember that we are human and limited and need rest. When we can get some objectivity on our productivity; when we can see (as God did all those years ago) that what we have done is good and we can enjoy it. 

In our 24/7, I-achieve-therefore-I-am culture, we almost certainly don’t do nothing for a day a week. We are always doing something. Even on our day(s) off, we’re reading or scrolling or running or “making memories”. Where is the rest? Where is the holy?  

We don’t function properly – by which I mean we don’t flourish – if we never switch off. That’s how we were made. 

There is an ironically busy industry that has flourished in recent years around mindfulness and retreats; an industry which highlights the ultimately human need for rest. There are apps which help us breathe, there are gurus who massage us in body and mind. Cynically, some say capitalism has caught on to the ancient necessity of acknowledging and attending to our humanity, our need to stop doing and simply be. I think God would say, hooray! Or as Jesus put it, “Come with me to a quiet place and find some rest.” 

How can we put rest back on the agenda of our own lives? It’s different for each of us. One person’s rest is another person’s nightmare. Whatever it looks like, we need to learn how to have “a period of time not working” (whatever work may occupy us, paid or unpaid, seen or unseen). It’s a well-recognised fact that if your electronic device stops functioning properly, if you turn it off for a bit, it’ll restart happily and we are encouraged to restart our devices regularly. We all know that we’re a bit like that and yet... We don’t function properly – by which I mean we don’t flourish – if we never switch off. That’s how we were made.  

We need those moments when we put a spiritual umbrella in the glass of our life, kick back and look at what has been. We can give space for gratitude; for reconnection with ourselves, with our life and even with the omnipotent God who role models rest. 

So, this summer, we’re going to the South of France. I’m absolutely exhausted already. I’ve been organising a rota of (very kind) people to look after our dog; preparing work so I’m ready for the day after we get back; buying gallons of sun cream (just in case France runs out); booking trips and Googling where the nearest boulangerie is so we can have idyllic, spontaneous visits for life-changingly delicious croissants… Going on holiday is really hard work and I haven’t even gone yet. But this year, as I put on my sunglasses and factor 30, I am determined to make time to put the holy in my holiday. And holy days in my life. 

* (of course, if you’re not British, you might be interested in the etymology of the word vacation = "formal suspension of activity, time in which there is an intermission of usual employment"/state of being unoccupied. Which to my mind is summed up by the old adage, a change is as good as a rest, with which I have always taken issue….)