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Surfers for Cetaceans, Women for Whales and Be As One Foundation were once again together for the International Whale Celebration…. uniting in Panama last week at the same time the 64th annual meeting International Whaling Commission (IWC) was discussing the fate of our whales and oceans.

After months of planning, we managed to bring together a core crew for the whales in Panama. Surfers for Cetaceans provided the boys – pro surfers Chris Del Moro and Chadd Konig plus IWC demo veteran and S4C cofounder Howie Cooke. Women for Whales brought the laaaaadies – Nori Neuman (artist, activist and cofounder of Be As One Foundation), Rae Marie Trenoworth (incredible photographer on a travel mission of cetacean destiny) and myself (aka Roxy ambassador and universal gypsy). This union marked the end of my 8 month stint in Central America that had revolved around the Pacific Ocean, learning about conservation and sustainability, whilst fuelling my wanderlust and thirst for wave flavoured adventure. We also had Maria Christina Cely representing Sea Shepherd joining us, which is always pleasure to be expecting passionate crew from Paul Watson’s band of blackshirts.

We spent our first day all together in the Multi Plaza Pacifica – a huge mall, the epitome of the modern world – with 13x Panamanian champion Gary Saavezdra and Venezuelan surf legend Magnum Martinez. Local surfers and shoppers dropped into the Billabong store for a special screening of Minds in the Water, afterwards adding handprints to a brand new banner for the South Atlantic Whale Sanctuary campaign, created by artists Chris, Nori and Howie.

Navigating around the Panama City metropolis is a mission in its self and gathering all we needed for the coming week – food, art supplies, musical instruments, bamboo – would not have been possible had it not been for the amazing local support we somehow gained. Thanks to our wonderful guides Magnum and Laya we feasted on a fabulous vegan lunch at the Loving Heart, which happened to be just 2 blocks away from the El Panama hotel (where the IWC meeting was taking place).

The next day, we made the most of the final free day before the IWC meeting due to commence tomorrow and headed North from Panama City to Punta Palmar beach. Even though the waves were small, it was so refreshing, helping to reenergise and prepare for our presence back in the City.

After the beach we visited Cholos Comida Panama Mexicana for delicious veggie burritos and a screening of Minds in the Water. We did our final banner for the South Atlantic Whale Sanctuary and Howie created some magic on the wall – starring a dolphin and hammerhead.

South Atlantic Whale Sanctuary mural

In the evening we joined the largest group of Non Governmental Organisations (NGOs) to ever attend an IWC meeting, in a gathering expertly hosted by DJ Shubert of AWI online. We cannot disclose anything about that meeting other than that we were there, and during the day many groups had rallied together to coordinate a human whale for an aerial photograph. It was wonderful to once again connect with the dedicated women from South American NGOs who we are working with to support the South Atlantic Whale Sanctuary. Even though scruffy, salty and slightly sunburnt, we felt entirely welcomed and proud to be there representing the global surf community, huge thanks go to DJ Shubert for his continuous support and inclusion.

Monday 2nd July and the International Whaling Commission meeting commences. Within 2 hours tears are already shed from outside the El Panama hotel, as the first outcome from the meeting is that the South Atlantic Sanctuary had not been granted.

As we were holding a sacred circle surrounded by banners, filled with handprints of support from all over the world, the news came through that the results for the sanctuary were 38 votes Yes, 2 abstains and 21 voting against. Without a 3 quarter majority the sanctuary, and all the hard work and combined efforts of The Buenos Aires Group and global NGOs, is once again blocked by nations insisting on exploiting our oceans and whales.

South Atlantic Sanctuary was not granted

However, we CAN shift the focus to the positive, and look at the fact that only one country is needed to side with the Sanctuary for it to be granted. Antigua & Barbuda, Benin, Cambodia, China, Republic of Ghana, Grenada, Iceland, Japan, Kiribati, Korea, Laos, Mongolia, Nauru, Norway, Palau, Russian Federation, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, Tanzania, Togo, Tuvalu. Any single country from this list has the power to tip the vote in favour of the whales and the South Atlantic Whale Sanctuary, who will it be?

As the shock of the blocked South Atlantic Whale Sanctuary began to subside, we were then greeted by revelations regarding the Aboriginal Subsistence Whaling (ASW) quotas.

Who would have thought nations who voted to protect them with a creation of a SA Sanctuary were now responsible for signing these majestic leviathans to their death under the guise of aboriginal whaling. The “bundle” blunder is an attempt to lump together 3 different nations who hunt whales despite their clear environmental, social, cultural, geographical and political differences in one package. The Alaskan Eskimo Whaling Commission, represent perhaps the only authentic indigenous whaling group and took to the stand to defend their rights to take endangered Bowhead whales to feed their families in some of the most remote places on the planet. Where exactly does this fit into St. Vincent and Grenadines’ bid to hunt 24 Humpbacks within the next 6 years? Well, it is all one and the same apparently. Despite evidence showing no aboriginal whaling has been part of these Caribbean islands’ culture, instead being introduced by a settler family in 1875.

Shockingly the vote to keep the Aboriginal quotas for Russia, US and St Vincent and Grenadines “bundled” together ended with 48 votes in favour to 10 against. Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Gabon, Peru and Uruguay were the only countries with the backbone to vote against this bundle. United Kingdom, the US, Australia and New Zealand were among those to indulge in some serious underhand behaviour that revolves around blurred agendas, relations between Japan and the US and a blatant disregard for the discussion of the intricacies of these issues.
The speed and efficiency at which the 64th IWC meeting was running was to be celebrated, and largely due to the Swiss chair. There were no walk outs and with security presence high (despite an absence of activists) unfortunately no outside interruptions. As the only activists outside we were thankful for the immediate and excellent updates from Cheryl McCormick (American Cetacean Society) which, on day 2, coincided with Mother Nature unleashing her power with a fantastic lightning show and rain storm. It helped to wash away SOME of our disappointment and helped fire us up for media interviews. Once the rain had stopped we took to the street. Thankfully the streets of Panama City are busy and armed with our horns, blow up whale (on loan form Greenpeace) and signs saying ‘PITA POR LAS BALLENAS’ (honk for whales) we found that the locals definitely aren’t afraid to honk. We made some noise for the whales and released our frustrations through a collaborative din on Via Espania!
I reflected on the villagers of the 11 settlements in Northern Alaska, who believe they are spiritually connected to the whales, depending on the food and life that these creatures unwittingly provide for them. Do they know that in the IWC zoo they are simply pawns in a chessboard that is based on politics, power and economic gain. A basis that undermines any connection Aboriginal whaling might have had to the spiritual, and thanks to the “bundle”, for me, has been lost forever.

A moment of consolation

During our time in Panama City we HAD to focus on the small victories, whilst remembering the bigger picture. The International Whaling Commission was originally set up by a group of whaling nations, yet now there are countries included in this governing body that at least do have the best interests of the whales and the future of our planet in mind. Thankfully now there are committed NGOs that are actually allowed 25 minutes (compared to previously no time at all) to share their views on the issues of whaling, and highlight complete incompetence’s that are allowed to exist – for instance St Vincent and Grenadines quota for aboriginal whaling.

Midweek we focused our efforts on making some noise for the whales, to get the word out to the general public about what was going down. Greenpeace were kind enough to lend us blow up whale suits and a 20foot inflatable humpback. This definitely attracted some attention around the El Panama hotel with photos and video spreading to international news networks. We gathered around the tipi – an IWC veteran herself, holding sacred space and listening to words of compassion from Howie, cetacean activist for over 30 years. We were joined by dolphin saving students, street performers from Argentina, a couple from California, an oil industry worker, local animal activists – Angels for animals and even the waiter from our coveted vegan restaurant around the corner. A diverse global get together with one common thread: whales and dolphins deserving the right to life and liberty!

Greenpeace 20 ft inflatable Humpback

The people of Panama passing by in their cars showed camaraderie with their horns and our racket reached inside the meeting, with our NGO allies coming outside to join us, take footage and feel energised by our support. We can only hope that next time the crowd turns from 10’s to hundreds and we see the surfing, sailing and diving community really stepping up to shout out and stand up for our ocean kin. Wherever the IWC goes, we will too…. So just keep your eyes peeled for the tipi!

News from inside the meeting continued to filter outside, with agenda topics such as Japan’s proposal to commence Small Type Coastal Whaling, South Korea’s prewarning of their plans to submit a proposal to the Scientific Committee to begin lethal scientific research whaling and Denmark’s proposal on behalf of Greenland over 1300 whales under a separate Aboriginal quota proposal. Do not be fooled by the jargon of any of these proposals – they are simply words and strategies used by these pro-whaling nations to try and reinstate commercial whaling, harvesting whales for monetary gain. They continue to oppose Mother Nature and the collective peoples on this planet who respect and fight for the rights of the people of sea.

After 3 days in the City demonstrating and with our time running out here, we felt it was important to take advantage of the fact that Panama is actually visited by migrating whales, and it just happened to be humpback season!

Thanks to Anne Gordon of Whale Watching Panama, we had a special Women for Whales trip planned to the Pearl Islands just off the coast of Panama City. This time of year the humpbacks are returning from Antarctica, full with krill and many females are pregnant. So in these shallower, warmer waters they mate, give birth and teach their calves all about “whale life”.
We exited the Bay right out of the entrance to the Panama canal – a breathtaking site and proof of what humans can achieve in the name of commerce! Despite the chaos of the canal, whales are often spotted close in, even though many Panamanians are unaware of these visiting cetaceans. Soon enough we came across a humpback and sure enough we all went crazy – in a quiet, respectful and controlled way!

Once he had moved on we were able to get into the water and hold a sacred circle, it was an intense feeling and heightened by the beautiful whale song we could hear in the distance when underwater.
On the way back in two more whales were spotted and as we kept our distance, they started getting closer to us! They began to get more boisterous in the water, and responding to our squeals of delights. The next moment they rose up right out of the water and quite clearly checked us all out before submerging into the blue.

We had full view of their incredible heads, an image I will never forget. As we continued on they regained our full attention a final time by slapping the water with their fins, one could even believe they were waving us goodbye.

This opportunity had given us the confirmation we needed that these animals are indeed sentient beings, quite able to communicate with humans if only if we can open our hearts enough to interpret the messages.

That night we collaborated with local Panamanian events team The Hungry Heart to provide an evening of delicious food, live music and art, film and community at Los Del Patios in heart of Casco Viejo – the old town and cultural centre of Panama City. Huge thanks go to everyone involved, especially all the speakers who worded up for whales. Their inspiring commentary pre and post screening of Minds in the Water ignited a spark in everyone present that night, reinforcing the notion that now is the time to take action for what we believe must change.

In the words of Howie Cooke:
Not enough time to do everything, plenty of time to do anything, just enough time to do something.”

And then before we knew it, the crew began disbanding and our whale week came to an end. We heard that the IWC is now moving to biennial meetings, so we have 2 years to gather the all the people power we can for the next International Whale Celebration.

A resounding thumbs down for the IWC

The boys headed off to score perfect barrels in Bocas Del Toro (which they did!), Howie got to work on a humpback mural in the Panamanian hostel, the girls (Nori, Cris and Rae) went their separate way after bonding for life and I, well I’m back in Europe, about to embark on another journey, as always.

Until next time, WHALE FREEDOM!

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