The impact of changing oceans on space-making practices
School of Social Science, University of Aberdeen &
University of Oslo, Norway
Originally from Finland, Sonja Åman is a doctoral researcher in environmental humanities at the University of Oslo, Norway. She submitted her PhD thesis, which focuses on the international politics of Indigenous whaling, for final evaluation at the end of 2022 and is currently completing an additional year of teaching at the Oslo School of Environmental Humanities.
During her EARTH Scholarship exchange, Sonja visited and worked in collaboration with the Department of Anthropology at the University of Aberdeen, where she conducted comparative research on place-making practices and marine governance in North-East Scotland and northern Norway. Using migratory marine mammals (whales and dolphins) and the tourism industry built around them as a starting point, she will examine how and by whom marine spaces are negotiated in these two regions. This research will provide insight into how cultural perceptions of the ocean impact its governance and how this can be expected to change with the rapid changes in marine ecosystems.
Late spring is the high season for whale- and dolphin watching in North-eastern Scotland. In these excerpts from my fieldnotes, I trace some of the encounters I shared with dolphins, porpoises and the people who live with them in Greyhope Bay, Aberdeen, and some other sites in Scotland. Earlier in my doctoral work, I was able to do some shorter fieldwork stints in northern Norway to observe how the local government manages the co-existence of the country’s largest fishery (herring) and a bustling marine mammal-based tourism in Arctic waters. During my six-week stay in Aberdeen, I was able to observe and draw parallels between human-cetacean relations and the impact of industrial development on human and more-than-human coastal communities in these two locations, which share a great number of historical and environmental similarities.
Port Buddies: Navigating Space and Multispecies Encounters at Greyhope Bay
As an EARTH visiting scholar, I was hosted by the University of Aberdeen in the Northeast of Scotland for six weeks. This visit had a sense of home-coming, as I had said goodbye to the city some eight years ago after finishing my undergraduate degree at the university. Having recently completed my PhD thesis on the international politics and management of Indigenous whaling practice, I decided to use the EARTH scholarship as an opportunity to think beyond previous research and develop some ideas for the future.
A while ago, I spent a few weeks in the Norwegian Arctic observing how multiple marine-based industries, including fisheries, whale watching and aqua culture producers, navigate shared waters in the North. For my stay in Scotland, I wanted to investigate if similar discussions around marine tourism, other marine based livelihoods and climate change and the changing oceans, were taking place further down South as they were in Norway. Comparisons between Norway and Scotland are quite pertinent, as the two locations have their fair share of similarities. Both places rely heavily on offshore energy, with the countries sharing some the same North Sea oil fields. Both also manage enormous and vital fisheries. Scottish aqua culture and fishing industries make up nearly 70% of the total industry in the UK and Norway ranks in the top 10 for both the largest capture fisheries and aquaculture producers in the world.
Sail boats and whale tour operators on the water in Skjervøy, Norway
More than just the statistics, both countries foster strong identities as coastal nations, as Northerners and as sites of unparalleled natural beauty – places in which one can find so-called “wilderness”1. Both also hopped on an international trend in the 1980s and 90s, setting up booming marine mammal-based industries. I use the word marine mammal-based tourism here because often the tourism relies on more than just the fickle chances of spotting whales. Tours attract people who want to see all kinds of marine life – seals, sea birds, dolphins and porpoises. “Marine mammal-based industries” does not, however, make for a very catchy term, so I refer to “whale watching” or “dolphin watching” when discussing the entire operations.
While in Norway one can spot a wide range of different species of whales, in Scottish waters the main stars of the show tend to be porpoises, common and bottle nose dolphins and minke whales, with some seasonal visits from orcas and humpback whales, particularly around Shetland and Orkney islands.
Life-sized replicas of Northern bottle nose dolphins found in Scottish waters hanging in the historic Tugnet Icehouse at the WDC Scottish Dolphin Centre in Spey Bay.
CHANGE OF PLANS
My initial plan included visits to a few key sites in Northeast of Scotland and participating in several dolphin tours, with an aim to get a sense of how the development of marine tourism has impacted local communities’ perceptions of their relationship with the dolphins and whether it has changed the way they navigate coastal waters. I conducted three separate site visits outside of Aberdeen, which included Inverness, Lossiemouth and the Scottish Dolphin Centre in Spey Bay, which is a visitor centre for the UK-based charity Whale and Dolphin Conservation. Although these sites and spending time out on the water and observing how the tour operators moved around and narrated the waters of Moray Firth was interesting, I was surprised to find my attention continuously being pulled towards Aberdeen.
Looking out to sea from Greyhope Bay in Aberdeen.
Since I last left Aberdeen, the city’s waterfront and harbour have gone through a notable transformation. Today, standing on the city’s long beach boulevard and looking out to sea, one can see several wind turbines jutting out from the water in the distance which were not there a decade ago. On daily walks I kept wondering if there were less ships than what I was used to before or if my memory was failing me. This suspicion turned out to be correct, as the city has built a brand-new port harbour slightly north of town centre, where the previous main harbour sits (marked orange on the map below). The old harbour is still in use, but it has been profiled the less commercial arm of the new Port of Aberdeen. Between these two sections of the port is the Girdle Ness Peninsula and, since 2022, the Greyhope Bay Centre. The centre (marked yellow on the map) was built and is ran by the Greyhope Bay charity, with an aim of providing a community-led centre for people to connect and engage with the marine world and the coastal wildlife (Greyhope Bay, 2023).
Map of Aberdeen harbour and Girdle Ness peninsula. Orange spots mark the old and new harbours and yellow spot marks Greyhope Bay centre.
Remains of lives past: Old Torry
Just a little further inland on the peninsula are the remnants of a historic fishing village of Old Torry. Torry has been inhabited since the 12th century and, as it was very conveniently located at the mouth of the river Dee before the river was rerouted, and it was one of the most important fishing villages in the region in the 18th and 19th century. Old Torry is also the reason why the old Aberdeen harbour is located where it is.
Plaque commemorating Old Torry, erected by the Torry Heritage Group in an industrial harbour site.
The plaque depicted here was erected by the Torry Heritage Group to commemorate what the peninsula used to look like before the current dominant industry in Aberdeen, offshore wind and gas, took over and demolished most of Old Torry. Looking into the heritage group and other community groups, I found that a real sense of fear that the rich history and memories of Old Torry were fast being forgotten without the physical reminders of the lives people led here. I paid particular attention to the symbolic placing of the plaque – it sits behind a wire fence, not easily accessible or readable to passers-by. The plaque states that it was “erected by the people for the people in 2017” but it remains very concretely separated from the walkway by the private property boundaries, giving the effect that the changes in Torry have been so drastic that even the memory of a different Torry is difficult to access.
I visited Greyhope Bay on multiple times during my stay and spotted the famous bottle nose dolphins every time but once. The dolphins at Grey Hope Bay are part of the resident pod of the world’s northern most bottle noses. As every tour operator and info package mentions, to survive the cold waters they are also unusually large, which makes them easy to spot and impressive to encounter on the water. Based on the observations of the Grey Hope Bay team and according to the team of biologists at the University of Aberdeen, who have been studying the population for decades, the dolphins often come to hunt and play right at the entrance of the old harbour. It’s believed this spot is popular, as its right at the mouth of the river and all the trout and salmon swimming up and down must pass here.
Dolphin spotting at Greyhope Bay Centre in May 2023.
It also means that the dolphins must, and have grown accustomed to, navigating some very busy traffic lanes. Prior to the new port being built, the water was much busier than it is today. Marine biologists and others have conducted research that shows the boat traffic does impact the behaviour of the dolphins, and that smaller vessels in particular seems to be more difficult for them to navigate as they move more erratically and tend to stay in the area for longer periods of time (Sini et al. 2005). However, since the spot has retained its popularity for well over 20 years now, it seems the traffic is a nuisance the dolphins are willing to deal with to gain access to the fish.
Cargo vessel passes a pod of dolphins at the mouth of the old harbour in Greyhope Bay.
During my visits, I kept thinking how oddly little information about the dolphins or other marine life I came across while living in Aberdeen during my undergraduate days. Talking to some of the other people visiting the centre – many of whom were local – I found that my experience was not unique. One visitor said they had never known about the dolphins before the pandemic, when they decided to try out kayaking to find new ways to spend time outside with their friends and family. A local couple mentioned they had never heard that you could spot dolphins from land nor even been to area because they thought it was all privately owned. They had seen some of the press Grey Hope Bay had gotten since its opening and decided to visit. These stories are anecdotal and naturally there are lots of locals who live near the coast, travel or work out at sea or just think of dolphins as everyday wildlife in Aberdeen. However, it seems clear that the development of organised activities or even businesses around the dolphins is a newer development.
View from Greyhope Bay Centre.
On one of my visits, I noticed a smaller, private vessel approaching the dolphins and coming to a halt. Binoculars in hand, I realised that this was a private charter boat that was normally used for transportation of staff on the offshore platforms. Today it also occasionally takes people out on the water for dolphin tours in the harbour. Observing the little boat chasing the dolphins, sometimes quite aggressively, made me think about how the sea outside of the city was almost like an extension of what existed on land. Busy, built and quite tightly controlled, and the dolphins seem more like the outliers in this scenario of a marine highway for transporting goods and services, rather than the original occupants of these waters.
QUESTIONS FOR THE FUTURE
And here we come to the crux of what really interests me. When out on the water, all these different actors share one stage, but they play by different rules. All the actors, including the dolphins, are governed by different policies and regulations. The cargo vessels follow their own regulations, the support infrastructure for the oil industry their own. The private dolphin tour operator should be following the marine mammal protection regulations. Having gone on several whale watching tours in places like Monterey Bay in California, which a strictly monitored marine protected area, the dolphins at Grey Hope Bay seem to operate under a completely different category. They are protected, but they are also just another part of the everyday operations at the harbour.
Greyhope Bay centre launched with a mission to encourage more community engagement with coastal wildlife and community activities in the historic site of old Torry. I am especially curious what, if anything, will change in the ways different actors interact and relate to the dolphins, now that they are quickly becoming a top attraction in the area. Setting up a dolphin viewing platform also brings thousands of new eyeballs to the daily “multispecies traffic jams” at Greyhope Bay. Hoping to conduct some longer-term research here, I would like to talk more with locals, the regular visitors to the Bay and the people who run the day-to-day activities in the harbour or operate the private dolphin tours. I am interested to find out what will emerge from Greyhope Bay – increased understanding or appreciation for the coastal ecosystems the locals live with? Conflicts between the different users of the harbour? Stricter protective policies for dolphins and other marine life? A sense of reclaiming space that was once lost to industry?
Cronon, William. (1996). “The Trouble with Wilderness: Or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature”, Environmental History, 1(1), 7-28.
Greyhope Bay (2023). “Why we exist”, available online at https://www.greyhopebay.com/about
Sini, M., Canning, S., Stockin, K., & Pierce, G. (2005). “Bottlenose dolphins around Aberdeen harbour, north-east Scotland: A short study of habitat utilization and the potential effects of boat traffic”, Journal of the Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom, 85(6), 1547-1554.