The story of On Sonorous Seas begins with a whale carcass which came ashore in August 2018 at Traigh an t-Suidhe/Strand of the Seat, on the Isle of Iona, where I live.
Historically, news of a whale washing up in an island community would travel fast, with the carcass rapidly being processed for food, oil and bone material. The ‘north end whale’, as it became known, was no exception to this ancient relationship between human and whale, and the decomposing whale rapidly became less of itself; some of its body being claimed by scavenging birds, and some by scavenging islanders.
The appearance and gradual disappearance of the whale made me curious as to why it had died in the first place, and why we islanders so badly wanted parts of it to keep. Then news broke nationally that our whale was just one of 118 that had died at sea and come ashore around the Hebrides, Ireland, the Faroes and Iceland - all beaked whales, the deepest diving group of whales on the planet. One species type, one time period, over a focussed area of sea. More strandings in one month than in the past ten years, and the largest global stranding of beaked whales ever recorded. Scientists from the Scottish Marine Animal Stranding Scheme were called in by the UK and Scottish government to investigate what transpired to be an unfolding story of cryptic environments, the military, and the acoustic world of the Beaked whale.
So now I was really curious. I wanted to know more about the militarisation of our seas, more about the research being done into the impact of military sonar and anthropogenic sound pollution, and more about my fellow islanders across the Hebrides who collected whale bones, and who felt somehow connected to these distant beings. In 2019 I approached HWDT which has been running monitoring surveys since 2009 from their research vessel, Silurian, to coincide with the Joint Warrior exercises - Europe’s largest military, UK led NATO exercise which takes place around the Hebrides twice a year. The monitoring surveys are carried out to help understand the impact that these activities have on cetaceans.
In May 2021after a few COVID interruptions, I joined the HWDT crew onboard Silurian. Our 10 day voyage intentionally coinciding with Joint Warrior. I was aboard, and a transformative voyage lay ahead which would take us from Tobermory up to Cape Wrath, via Skye, Rassay, the Small Isles, the Summer Isles, and the Outer Hebrides - in gale force winds, rain, sea swell and sunshine. Having our GPS jammed, being circled by a Royal Navy helicopter, and being cut across by a Danish frigate, were some of the interactions we experienced with the exercise. In between watching frigates, I watched Orca and Minke, and I felt strong emotions as I recorded. I watched the emotions of my companions; joy, attentive focus, striving to reach a point where we could connect safely with, and observe. Watching the sea day after day, I had a surge of understanding of why we are so enthralled by whales; I realised that we share a distant past and future with them, and that they are in fact our kin.
Our focus was on sound data, collected via a hydrophone trailing along the side of the boat. Like a technological shaman, the hydrophone acted as a conduit to another world, allowing us to connect through the sense of hearing to the marine beings below, and to the active sonar and other anthropogenic sounds. It was deep listening on a level I had not experienced before, and I soon became able to distinguish between the sound of snapping shrimp and boat noise.
It is our embodied capacity to feel and understand as human beings, that allowed me a way to experience scientific research. The trip allowed me to participate in different relationships and processes because I lived it for 10 days, directly and imaginatively. This learning, along with my research, conversations with scientists, and fantastic collaborations with the project composer Fergus Hall, digital artist Tom DeMajo, and poet Miek Zwamborn, all led to the final body of work that is On Sonorous Seas - an immersive experience in sound, video, poetry, sculpture and a podcast, first shown at An Tobar, Tobermory in July last year.
The composition by Fergus Hall, is made almost entirely from the hydrophone recordings from the research trip. Fergus comments about the work, "the composition is not intended to accurately represent the sonic environments that are inhabited by cetaceans, rather I moulded these recordings into imagined sonic spaces for a listener to place themselves in, an imagined space experienced solely through sound and listening”. The video work, A Constellation of Strandings, was created with digital artist Tom DeMajo, and we worked with my images, film, drawings and 3D renders of beaked whale ear bones to create an immersive experience; a sense of place, of interconnectedness and mystery. The constellation title comes from the locations of the whale strandings nearest to Iona. In my mind the whales had formed a constellation, their remains as stars above us.
On Sonorous Seas also became a poem, Ossuary, by Mull based poet and artist Miek Zwamborn. Ossuary is a requiem to the whales, illustrated by calligrapher Susie Leiper. Working on this project reminded me of the power of shared thinking. How we listen matters, and how we tell the story matters in helping to dissolve the boundaries which intentionally limit understanding, perception, relationship, and ultimately change. The inevitable resurgence of the Cold War and surveillance of our seas from the oceans’ depths, makes a meaningful commitment of science and military to share knowledge and work collaboratively more pressing than ever. For all the relationships we value.
Please note that all cetacean species found in Scottish waters are classed as European protected species and a Nature Scot license is required to use/collect their remains. Mhairi Killin is covered by a Nature Scot license to carry out this project.
With thanks to Sarah Darling for the photos and to HWDT, SAMS, SMASS and NMS, and funding through Creative Scotland, AN, Charts Argyll and Isles, The Space CIC.
Listen to the podcast at https://www.onsonorousseas.com/
Visit the exhibition 2nd Sept till 28th Oct at Taigh Chearsabhagh, Isle of Uist.
The Ross of Mull is an extraordinary microcosm of all that draws visitors to the Hebridean Islands. The scenery, as you travel along the single-track road from the ferry at Craignure is breath-taking. You experience in the many walks in the area a true sense of wilderness; the secret bays with their beaches of silvery sand, the abundance of wildlife and the innumerable marks on the landscape of the lives of past generations and communities long gone. The Ross of Mull is a compelling place for anyone fascinated by history and the ancient way of life of the Gaelic people.
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