An Interview with M. Negrijn: Author of the “Pure Red Sand” Trilogy

Ahoy-hoy, blog-readers! For this month’s blogpost, I thought I would try something a little bit different. I’ve recently become interested in supporting self-published authors, so I was very excited to find out that one of my new friends here in Newfoundland was self-publishing her first novel – a thrilling tale of survival against the odds on an extraterrestrial colony. I read her book and to my delight, I enjoyed it very much. So I decided to ask her to do an interview with me and use it for this month’s blogpost. Here is the result – I hope you enjoy hearing some of her thoughts and if you also decide to buy a copy of her book, I promise you won’t be disappointed!

So, welcome to my blog Meghan! I’ve known you for a while now of course, but my readers have never met you. Could you start off by telling us a little about yourself and how you became a writer?

Thanks so much for the lovely compliments on my book and for interviewing me. I’m a bit of a reluctant nomad with a love for the written word. I think we communicate our lives through story. Whether it’s a grand epic or what we did last weekend, it’s a powerful medium.

I started writing poetry when I was nine. I didn’t really take it seriously until I was 14 and a teacher encouraged me to enter a contest. About a year after that I met a good friend, Jonathan, who is also a writer. Our discussions about writing and plot were invaluable.

I wrote short stories in junior high and high school and then when I was 21, I accidentally wrote my first novel. While I still enjoy short stories and poetry as a medium, I focus on novels. I write in the genres I enjoy for the most part (except horror) and I’m most interested in people, so that’s really my current focus.

Your author profile on Facebook states that you write science fiction, historical fiction, romance and horror – quite a range! Since your writing covers several genres, I’m curious to know, which authors inspire you the most?

I think the authors that inspire me depend on the genre. My favourites are Charlotte Brontë and Jane Austen. I guess they would be my inspiration for romance, tension and character development. As for science fiction, definitely Lois McMaster Bujold and Elizabeth Moon. Historical fiction is a wide range. I have enjoyed some of Diana Gabaldon’s works, Sara Donati, Coleen McCullough, Bernard Cornwell. I could go on.

Okay, so now we know a bit more about you, let’s move on to talk about your novel. An Expensive Retreat (the first in the Pure Red Sand trilogy) is not the only book you’ve written. Why did you decide to publish this one first?

The first novel I wrote was a bit of an accident. It started out as a short story and kept growing. Since it grew so organically, it’s a little unwieldy at times. It’s a beautiful story and I’m currently working on a rewrite to tighten up the story arc. An Expensive Retreat was my second book and always intended to be a novel. While each book is a learning experience, it wasn’t the same. It was a more strongly written piece, easier to edit and rewrite when necessary. The other two books I have completed are the rest of the trilogy. There’s a romance nearing the finished stage as well.

An Expensive Retreat is unusual for a sci-fi novel in that it doesn’t feature any aliens or fancy futuristic technology, aside from spaceships. What made you decide to make this a sci-fi novel and why did you choose Mars as the main setting?

I’m not sure that I planned it to be set on Mars. The story just took place there. The trilogy is very loosely based on short stories I wrote as a teenager. As for technology, I think it becomes a part of life, something taken for granted. I wanted it to be that way for Nadine. Technology is the background, not the main character. Nadine doesn’t think about it because she’s grown up with it. The other side to this is that I write people. I’m more interested in relationships and development than I am the structure of spacecraft or the tools they use. Regardless of the ways we use technology, we’re still human. I think that’s the one connecting fact in all of the genres I write. It’s about the people and their stories.

The main character in An Expensive Retreat is Nadine Cloutier, a strong, resourceful, independent woman, who is also somewhat vulnerable and can find it hard to communicate with others. Is she based on anyone that you know? In fact, are any of your characters consciously drawn from life, or are they purely imaginary?

No one is ever directly based on another person. I borrow elements of people I know. Maybe it’s the way a smile made me feel or how someone reacted in a situation. I am inspired by those small gestures and they influence the creation of my characters. I think a big inspiration for Nadine’s strength was my friend Lucinda, although they’re definitely not the same person. Lucinda is a much better communicator. Nadine is her own person completely. She definitely doesn’t communicate well but that’s a product of her upbringing. It’s something that is hinted at throughout the books. She grows as a result of events of this book and that development continues throughout the trilogy. I’m excited about what people will think by the end.

The story is principally set on Mars (although some of the background events take place on Earth), where the only settlement on the planet is a relatively new colony that is very isolated and somewhat neglected by the government on Earth. Was this an intentional reference to your own province of Newfoundland and Labrador, which is also slightly cut off from the mainland and has to import a lot of resources, or is it mere coincidence?

Since I published the book, several people have asked me that or made the same comparison. It was never intended to be a reflection of Newfoundland and Labrador culture. That said; no one grows up in a bubble. It’s an interesting interpretation.

How do you know Laura Sou (the person who did the beautiful minimalist cover art for the front of the book)? Will she be collaborating with you in any of your self-published works in the future?

I met Laura when I lived in Alberta. She’s a brilliant artist and photographer. We spent a good bit of time together and when she found out I was a writer, she asked if she could create my cover art. I agreed, quite honoured. I’m amazed at the result. It feels as if she brought the images inside my head to visual life. I hope we can continue to collaborate for future works.

And finally, I know that the ending of the book was a shock for many readers (including myself!), who may have been expecting a slightly different conclusion to the story! When will the next instalment be published?

I find it so funny that people were surprised by the ending, as I thought it was quite expected. But then, I know where the story goes. The next instalment will be published sometime this fall, definitely before Christmas. The third and final book will come out in 2016.

Thank you very much for agreeing to be interviewed, Meghan! It was lovely to learn more about you as a writer – and I am now even more excited to read your future works!

Thanks so much for interviewing me. It was a real pleasure. You can keep up to date on my writing through my Facebook page!

You can download Meghan’s first novel from the following websites, as well as all amazon sites worldwide.

In Canada:

http://www.amazon.ca/Pure-Red-Sand-Expensive-Retreat-ebook/dp/B010IMLCV0/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1435490457&sr=8-1&keywords=m+negrijn

In the US:

http://www.amazon.com/Pure-Red-Sand-Expensive-Retreat-ebook/dp/B010IMLCV0/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1437067637&sr=8-1&keywords=pure+red+sand

In the UK:

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Pure-Red-Sand-Expensive-Retreat-ebook/dp/B010IMLCV0/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1437067743&sr=8-1&keywords=an+expensive+retreat

And you can find out more about An Expensive Retreat – and about Meghan herself – by visiting the websites below.

Facebook:

https://www.facebook.com/mnegrijn

Goodreads:

http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/25850350-pure-red-sand-an-expensive-retreat?fb_action_ids=10155797042615319&fb_action_types=og.likes

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World Refugee Week: 15-21 June

The organisation that I volunteer for (the Refugee & Immigrant Advisory Council) is marking World Refugee Week on 15-21 June with a range of activities and events designed to highlight the plight of refugees across the globe. In view of this, and the fact that there has been an upsurge in the number of refugee-related news stories recently, I felt that this would be a good opportunity to write a piece on refugees. I will first focus on how we define a ‘refugee’, then talk about why it is so important to listen to the stories of refugees and finish with a couple of links to TEDx Talks by and about refugees. These talks all featured as part of RIAC’s Monday event for World Refugee Week (we watched the videos and had a short discussion session after each one). They each illustrate a slightly different side of the refugee story. I’m giving the one by Carina Hoang a trigger warning for rape – however, for those who can, please do listen to it, because her story is a great example of what I talk about below regarding the importance of believing people’s stories even when they sound too horrific to be true. This post was originally going to be a lot longer and more in-depth, but in the end I thought that it would be more effective to focus on one theme, which is the importance of giving refugees a voice and recognising that even if we can’t understand what it’s like to go through such experiences, it is important for us to show compassion and respect by listening to their stories.

First of all, how do we define which people are classed as refugees? Here is the UNHCR’s official definition of a refugee, as per the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees:

…someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.”

There are two main types of refugees. The first group are refugees who have fled their home country and are applying for asylum in a different country. They are also known as asylum seekers. The second group are those who are displaced within their home country, or living in refugee camps in neighbouring countries. The basic idea is that refugees are people who are leaving their countries because they fear for their lives. This is where refugees differ from immigrants – the latter group have chosen to leave their home countries in order to make a better life for themselves. The key word here is ‘choice’. One could argue, of course, that refugees technically also have a choice, since they could choose to stay in their home countries and risk death, but clearly this is not the same as deciding whether to move abroad in order to gain a better lifestyle for you and your family.

It is interesting to note that our views on certain groups of refugees can depend on how their situation is portrayed by the media, as well as how it has been viewed historically. For example, during WWII, hundreds of thousands of Jewish people fled Nazi Germany to escape the Holocaust. Because this genocide is so well-documented, almost everyone acknowledges that the Jews were at serious risk of death if they remained in their home country, so their flight now seems completely natural and justified. However, attitudes at the time were very different. Many people in France, for instance, described the 25,000 Jews who fled to that country as “economic parasites and undesirables” (Lamey, 2011), a phrase that seems shocking now, considering what sort of treatment they were fleeing from. After another wave of Jews arrived in France following Hitler’s invasion of Austria, laws were introduced that made it increasingly difficult for refugees to enter the country. In addition, Jewish refugees were barred from certain jobs and some were even sent back to Germany. Once France was officially at war with Germany in 1939, men of ‘suspicious’ political backgrounds – even those who had just fled from Nazi persecution – were interned and the Vichy government later handed over many of these prisoners to the Nazis for execution.

It seems absolutely incredible now that Jewish refugees, a group of people who had suffered so much persecution and discrimination at the hands of one government, should flee to a neighbouring country for sanctuary and encounter a similar level of hostility and ill-treatment. But this did not just occur in France. In Newfoundland, which was then a British colony, there were ambitious plans to settle several thousand Jewish refugees, but for some reason (it has been suggested the motivating factor may have been anti-semitism), these plans never came to fruition. Between 1934 and 1941, thousands of refugees applied for asylum in Newfoundland and Labrador. Only 11 of these applications were accepted. In addition, Canada only took in 4,000 refugees by the end of 1939. This record has been described as “the worst of all possible refugee-receiving states”. Several smaller, poorer countries took in large numbers of refugees during the WWII period – the Dominican Republic alone offered asylum to 100,000 and the city of Shanghai accepted 20,000 people (due it being under the control of three different factions in 1938-9, visas and travel documents were not required to gain entry to Shanghai, making it an ideal sanctuary for refugees). The generosity of these countries only serves to highlight the appalling actions of Canada, Newfoundland and several other countries who made it extremely difficult for those fleeing Nazi persecution to find sanctuary.

I have used the example of Jewish refugees to highlight two different points. The first is the fact that so many countries apparently failed to recognise (or simply chose to ignore) the real danger that the Jewish people were facing during WWII. Refugees are often reluctant to talk about their stories, partly because it is so painful to re-live traumatic experiences, but also because their accounts are so often met with scepticism. When people describe instances of torture, rape, abuse and murder, it can sometimes seem so horrific as to be unbelievable. We simply cannot grasp that such horrendous things can happen to a person, let alone an entire group of people. Our imaginations often do not stretch far enough to encompass such wickedness.

The second point is that, as I pointed out earlier on, the history of the Holocaust is extremely well-known and therefore largely accepted as true. This therefore makes it considerably easier for us to believe Holocaust survivors when they describe their experiences of concentration camps. But of course, the Holocaust is not the only example of genocide and persecution – or indeed the worst. There are many such horrors being inflicted on people around the world at this very moment and it is therefore imperative that we believe people when they tell us their stories of persecution and trauma. The Holocaust is presumed by many people to be the worst example of man’s inhumanity to man in history, but this is not necessarily the case – and even if it has been the worst so far, there is no guarantee that it will remain so. Human rights abuses are being inflicted every single day, in numerous countries throughout the world – and people fleeing that abuse are in vital need of shelter and protection. It is of course not possible to simply let everyone in regardless of whether they have a convincing story of persecution or not, but I would argue that it is better to have a bit more credulity and risk appearing too lenient, then to be overly sceptical and thus responsible for returning vulnerable people to violent situations.

If you are not otherwise marking World Refugee Week and you have been affected by the issues raised in this blogpost, I would ask you to please watch at least one of the videos below and listen to a refugee’s story. When a person leaves their home country, they lose all of their rights as a citizen of that country and have no status in the world until they are accepted by another country. There are currently 51 million refugees across the world and for the most part, they are a silent and, in many cases, an invisible group. If you listen to even one of their stories, you are helping to make all of their voices heard.

TEDx Talks

Being a refugee is not a choice” by Carina Hoang: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JwkVk16xecw

Promise and opportunity” by Parweez Koehestanie: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gT8TQN-UHqc

Refugees starting over” by Kathryn Stam: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gn3WhquBDBI

Breaking the mould for refugees” by Menes LaPlume: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i-7nKdX3KtE

References

  • Lamey, A. (2011). Frontier Justice: The Global Refugee Crisis and What To Do About It. DoubleDay Canada.
  • UNHCR, (2015). Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. [online] Available at: http://www.unhcr.org/3b66c2aa10.html [Accessed 19 Jun. 2015].
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Recipe: Banana, Cranberry & Sultana Loaf

Last Christmas, a friend of mine gave me a blank recipe book, so I could write in my favourite recipes that I’ve collected from blogs, books, food packaging etc. It was a brilliant present and I am now slowly filling it with the recipes that I use on a regular basis, as well as ones that I have recently discovered. This year, I made a resolution to try and write at least one blogpost every month. So far I have kept more or less to this promise, but I knew from the start that there would probably be one or two months where I was simply too busy to read and research for my usual long and detailed posts. I decided that if and when I found myself at the end of the month with no major blogposts ready to publish, I would post one of the tried and tested recipes from my book – on the basis that food is great and most people enjoying reading, watching and doing food-related things.

Of all the recipes in my book, this is the one I use the most often, partly because it’s so tasty, also because it uses up old bananas (which would otherwise be chucked, because I hate eating over-ripe, squashy bananas) and finally because you can shove all sorts of extra bits in it to make it more or less exciting, depending on your preference. It’s based on this one that I found online a while ago, with a couple of minor changes.

Here is my version:

Ingredients

1/2 cup margarine

3/4 cup sugar

1 & 1/2 cups of flour

1 tsp baking soda (bicarbonate of soda)

1/4 tsp salt

3 over-ripe bananas (the browner and squashier they are, the better)

Miscellaneous bits added in for extra flavour – I usually use a handful of frozen cranberries and another handful of sultanas, but you can also add things like desiccated coconut or chocolate chips.

Method

Turn oven temperature to 180 degrees and grease a loaf tin (I think mine is a 2lb one).

Mix margarine and sugar in a bowl until texture is creamy.

Then add sifted flour, salt and baking soda and mix well.

Peel and mush the bananas (this could be done at the start if you’re more organised) and stir these in too.

Add the miscellaneous bits and mix until everything is thoroughly combined.

Bake in oven for approximately 1 hour.

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You may have noticed, if you looked at the ingredients closely, that this banana bread is actually vegan, if made with margarine. I am not vegan myself, but any recipes that don’t require butter – which is even more expensive here in NL than it is in the UK – and also happen to be suitable for my few vegan friends are always winners with me – provided, of course, that they taste as good as this one.

Let me know if you have a go at making it – and of course, if you have your own banana bread recipes, I’d love to hear those as well!

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Blackfish: A Considered Response

Ever since I first saw the film ‘Free Willy’ as a child, I have been fascinated by killer whales (also known as orcas). The idea of being friends with a whale, of getting so close to such a magnificent, wild creature was thrilling. But even then, I found the idea of being in the water with such a huge animal, however gentle, somewhat unnerving.

When I was a few years older, I began avidly watching BBC nature documentaries and unfortunately these programmes completely destroyed my mental image of killer whales being lovable, friendly animals. The programs showed that orcas are highly efficient predators, capable of taking on almost anything in the ocean – seals, penguins, other whales, dolphins and even sharks. One of the most horrifying scenes I have ever watched in a nature documentary featured a pod of killer whales hunting down a grey whale calf, separating it from its mother and drowning it. Almost the worst part of it was that, after all the effort they put in to catching it (around six hours in total), the orcas only ate its lower jaw and its tongue. There are also tales of a pod of killer whales off the coast of Australia in the early 20th century who helped whalers to kill other whales and were rewarded with the dead whale’s tongue and lips. I have no idea whether that story is in fact true, but if it is, it serves as a striking illustration of the two seemingly contradictory sides of the killer whales’ nature – they are fearsome predators, but can also be remarkably co-operative, particularly with humans.

Two years ago, I watched a documentary called Blackfish. And once again I was having to reconsider everything I thought I knew about these animals and our relationship with them. For those who haven’t seen it, I will outline the main points as briefly as I can, before discussing its impact and concluding with what I feel are the most important points highlighted by the film.

The history of killer whales in captivity starts in 1961, when the first orca was captured in California, only to die two days later. The second orca to be caught, (named Moby Doll), lasted 87 days, which was long enough to draw in huge crowds and establish that there was a market for putting the animals on display. Before this time, orcas had been viewed mainly with fear – people knew them only as deadly predators. But it soon became apparent that orcas were in fact sociable and friendly, not to mention smart. People began to recognise their potential value to the entertainment industry and started capturing them in large numbers. Pods of whales would be surrounded by boats and planes, bombs would be thrown into the water, nets dropped to separate young whales from the adults and these youngsters would be hauled out of the water and shipped off to various aquariums, chief among them SeaWorld, which became renowned for its pioneering work with orcas. It was not unheard of for whales to be accidentally killed during these hunts – and when several orca corpses washed up on a beach in 1970, their bodies having been deliberately weighed down by stones and dropped to the bottom of the ocean to prevent their discovery, the public began to realise something of the true cost involved in removing wild animals from their natural habitat.

But even this controversy was not enough to prevent the continued capture of baby orcas for the entertainment industry. After it became clear that this method of removal caused great distress not only to the young orcas being taken, but also to the adult ones left behind, catching orcas in Puget Sound (the main hunting-ground for collectors) was made illegal. Unfortunately, the collectors simply moved to Iceland (where there were no restrictions on orca removals) and began taking them from there. This is where a young orca, later known as Tilikum, was caught in 1983, along with two other whales. He was shipped to Sealand of the Pacific in Canada, where he lived in a tank with two female orcas. The Blackfish film features interviews with former employees of Sealand, who state that the attraction was badly run and the animals’ welfare not a top priority. From about 5pm in the evening till around 7am the next morning (14 hours) the orcas were kept locked in a tiny dark tank with virtually no stimulation. This was done to prevent any saboteurs cutting through the net walls of their larger main pool and releasing them. It is still not known exactly how this may have affected the psychological health and wellbeing of the whales, but it is certainly not unreasonable to assume that this treatment must have had at least some negative effects.

In 1991, a young marine biology student and part-time animal trainer named Keltie Byrne slipped and fell into the main tank at Sealand, just after a show had finished. Horrified onlookers watched helplessly as she was dragged underwater by the three killer whales. She managed to reach the surface again and screamed for help, but to no avail. Divers finally retrieved her lifeless body from the pool several hours later, but it was too late to save Sealand’s reputation and it closed down a year later, having sold its three orcas on to SeaWorld. This was the first instance ever recorded of orcas attacking a human. It is difficult to say for certain what motivated the attack – were the whales being aggressive or simply playful? Did they understand that they were harming someone, or did they not know their own strength? This question has still not been resolved decades later and is source of fierce debate among animal behaviourists, aquariums and animal rights activists. One preventative method that can be used to prevent such attacks is desensitisation training – in which the whales are trained not to react when someone falls into the water. This is highly controversial, however, as it is virtually impossible to guarantee the trainers’ safety during the desensitisation process. Because of the risks involved, many theme parks and aquariums, including Sealand of the Pacific, have decided not to use desensitisation training.

Following his move to SeaWorld Orlando, Tilikum spent the next few years performing in shows with other orcas. In 1999, a man named Daniel P. Dukes somehow managed to evade SeaWorld security, remained in the park after it had closed and then got into the killer whale tank. The next morning his body was discovered draped over Tilikum’s back. The autopsy report showed that the body had received numerous bruises and contusions, but the main cause of death was recorded as drowning. However, the report seems to suggest that several of Dukes’ injuries occurred before death, which means that Tilikum may have been responsible for his drowning. Although SeaWorld has several nightwatchmen and security cameras on its sites, no one seems to know for certain what really happened to Dukes and whether Tilikum did indeed play a significant role in his death. Despite the mystery surrounding this incident, trainers continued to do waterwork with Tilikum and he still regularly performed in the orca shows – until five years ago, when Dawn Brancheau was attacked.

Dawn was one of SeaWorld’s top trainers. She was passionate and enthusiastic, with many years of experience and she always had a keen regard for safety, carefully following procedures and protocols. One evening in February 2010, after finishing the last show of the day with Tilikum, she lay down on a flat ledge just under the surface of the water to do some quiet social bonding with him. Eyewitness accounts differ on exactly what happened next, but all of them state that Tilikum dragged Dawn into the water and refused to release her. Just like Keltie Byrne all those years ago, Dawn drowned while trying to escape from the tank. Her autopsy report makes even grimmer reading than that of Daniel Dukes. Some witnesses said that Dawn was pulled in by her hair (she had a long ponytail) and there is some evidence to support this, because a portion of her scalp was completely ripped from her head. Others said that Tilikum had grabbed her arm and there is evidence for this too – her left arm had been torn from her body, or “avulsed”, in the words of the autopsy report. SeaWorld’s official statement supported the hair-pulling scenario. Many sceptics pointed out that this allowed the company to blame Dawn’s own actions for her death – the official line was that she had been lying too close to Tilikum and the sight of her hair drifting in the water had been too tempting for him to resist. Following Dawn’s death, SeaWorld mandated that all trainers should keep long hair in buns, rather than ponytails. For those who claimed that Dawn had been pulled in by her arm, this change would make little difference to the safety of SeaWorld’s trainers. Yet again, the differing accounts of what happened make it difficult to come to any definite conclusions about why the incident occurred. Tilikum had missed a couple of cues during the show and had therefore not received as much positive reinforcement as he might have expected. Had he simply attacked Dawn out of anger and frustration? Or was the sight of her long hair drifting in the water simply a new form of stimulation that had to be investigated? I personally find it difficult to believe that he would never have seen a trainer’s hair in the water before, so the idea of it being a novelty doesn’t seem to ring true – having said that, I am definitely no animal behaviour expert, so it is difficult for me to speculate.

Although the Blackfish documentary focuses on Tilikum, there have been many other incidents between orcas and their trainers – not least the death of another trainer at Loro Parque, in the Canary Islands, which occurred only two months before Dawn lost her life at SeaWorld. Blackfish also shows footage of at least two other incidents that resulted in major injuries – in the first, an orca slams its whole body down on a trainer riding on the back of another orca. The trainer sustained numerous fractures that required extensive surgery. The second incident involved an orca pulling a trainer under the water for up to a minute at a time, bringing him back to the surface and then dragging him under again, before finally releasing him – and even then the whale came after the trainer as he escaped from the tank. Apart from the death of Alexis Martínez at Loro Parque, which was during a show rehearsal, all of the other incidents mentioned occurred during or after performances – hence the fact that they were caught on film. But many more injuries occur during training, rehearsals, or even everyday interactions, when there is no audience there to film them. Despite the fact that trainers are no longer allowed in the water with any of their whales and do not have any physical contact with Tilikum, he still takes part in performances – this video shows him performing in January 2015, just four months ago. He seems to move in a very lethargic manner in comparison to the other orcas, possibly as a result of his current isolation.

Having discussed the content of the documentary, I will now briefly mention its impact. Blackfish received critical acclaim when it was first released in 2013 and is reported to have been directly responsible for a subsequent drop in SeaWorld’s profits, with fewer people attending the theme parks. In addition, several major bands, including The Beach Boys and Barenaked Ladies, cancelled their concerts at SeaWorld venues during 2014. Two upcoming movies – Paper Towns and Finding Dory – have had their marine park scenes altered or completely cut as a direct result of Blackfish’s impact.

Unsurprisingly, SeaWorld denounced the film, saying it was “inaccurate and misleading”. Of course, to a certain extent this may be true. After all, while documentaries are supposed to be factual, each film-maker has a particular story they want to tell and it is possible to cut and edit interviews and footage to make things sound more sensational and dramatic than they actually are. Film-makers are also free to indulge in cherry-picking, choosing the most dramatic pieces of footage and the most affecting scenes from various interviews. It therefore becomes difficult to say with complete accuracy exactly what is going on. Ironically, SeaWorld has also used this ambiguity to its own advantage, in order to play down the nature of killer whale attacks and claim that they are simply rare and regrettable accidents.

However, it is impossible to deny that there have been orca-related deaths at SeaWorld, as well as long list of injuries, ranging from relatively minor to extremely serious. Furthermore, both Blackfish and other similar documentaries (see links below) have highlighted the fact that even with the best care that humans can provide and despite all the controversy – SeaWorld’s facilities are world-class – orcas just do not do well in captivity. Tilikum has sired 21 offspring during his time in captivity, but only 11 of them are still living. This poor survival rate is just one indication of how difficult it is to keep captive whales alive. Some of them, such as Lolita (now about 50 years old) and Tilikum (now 34), can live for decades, but this does not necessarily mean that their quality of life is particularly good, especially when compared to wild orcas.

Orcas are highly social animals and remain with their family for their entire lives. Male orcas, in particular, stay close to their mothers. The capture of baby orcas and subsequent separation from their family means that their social structure is completely disrupted. This, on top of the stress of living in a small, artificial space, is said to lead to unnatural behaviours that are almost never seen in the wild, such as attacks on humans, repetitive swimming patterns and prolonged inert floating. The famous flopped-over dorsal fin is also mainly associated with captive orcas. Studies of wild orcas have shown that the rate of fin collapse in British Columbia waters is 1%, in Norway it is less than 5% and in New Zealand it is around 23%. The reason for such a high rate of fin collapse in NZ waters is currently unknown. In captivity, almost all male orcas have collapsed fins, as well as some female orcas. These two pictures illustrate the marked difference between the collapsed dorsal fin of a captive orca and the tall, rigid dorsal fin usually seen on a wild orca.

Dorsal Fin Collapse

Dorsal Fin - Wild Orca

In an attempt to be as rational and clear-headed as possible, I have made a note of what I perceive to be the three main facts that Blackfish serves to highlight.

1) Captive killer whales can and do seriously injure or kill humans. It is unclear whether killer whales intentionally attack humans, or if they perhaps just don’t realise their own strength/misread signals/become over-stimulated. Blackfish asserts that the first assumption is true, while SeaWorld avers that it is one or all of the other possibilities. In either case, the point seems to be largely irrelevant. The fact that such incidents happen at all demonstrates the importance of the issue. After an incident in 2006 involving trainer Kenneth Peters and an orca named Kasatka, an OSHA report stated:

“The contributing factors to the accident, in the simplest of terms, is that swimming with captive orcas is inherently dangerous and if someone hasn’t been killed already it is only a matter of time before it does happen. The trainers recognize this risk and train not for if an attack will happen but when.”

2) The unpredictable nature of such incidents makes it dangerous to be in the water with orcas. Blackfish seems to suggest that attacks are due to the long-term build-up of physical and psychological distress caused by being in captivity. SeaWorld would have it that such incidents are either accidents or due to ‘trainer error’. Whatever the cause, it seems to be virtually impossible to determine when and how killer whale attacks will occur – although whales that have shown previous aggression are, unsurprisingly, more likely to attack humans. Marine veterinarian Jay Sweeney wrote in the CRC Handbook of Marine Mammal Medicine in 1990:

“Aggression expressed by killer whales toward their trainers is a matter of grave concern…In a few such cases, we can attribute this behaviour to disease or to the presence of frustrating or confusing situations, but in other cases, there have been no clear casual factors.”

3) Orcas, on the whole, do not do well in captivity. All the evidence (based on observations of both captive and wild orcas) suggests that they are highly intelligent and social animals, who form strong familial bonds. Blackfish shows some absolutely heart-rending footage of orcas being captured in the wild, with the distress of orca family members being highlighted as particularly traumatic. It is also on record that SeaWorld separates babies from their mothers in captivity, something which can only lead to distress for the orcas, based on the strength of their family ties and the fact that they are already isolated from the rest of their natural family. In addition, there are reports of orcas self-harming or engaging in other unnatural behaviours, such as long periods of inertia (they can swim up to 100 miles a day in the wild) and repetitive swimming patterns. SeaWorld, on the other hand, insists that it provides the highest level of care for its orcas and that the animals do well in captivity. Whilst there are some orcas who have survived many decades in captivity, a great deal more die at very young ages – this is clearly illustrated by this comprehensive list of orcas that have died in captivity. The fact that even SeaWorld (which has arguably the most advanced cetacean care facilities in the world) does not have a good orca survival rate shows how difficult it is to keep these animals healthy and happy in captivity.

In conclusion, the fact that orcas are such intelligent, social animals and are clearly aware of separation from their relatives, when it occurs, suggests that they are poor candidates for captivity and I strongly believe that the capture of wild orcas and the continued breeding of captive ones should be banned as soon as possible. Many protest groups have argued for the release of captive orcas such as Tilikum and Lolita, who have spent the vast majority of their lives in theme parks, performing in shows almost every day. However, even people protesting against captivity recognise that many captive orcas are not good candidates for release back into the wild. The early death of Keiko following his release – and his failure to integrate with a new pod of whales – demonstrates that captive whales may not always do well if they are put back in the wild. Having said that, Keiko was not reunited with his own pod – if he had been, he might have been able to re-integrate properly. In any case, the best option for many captive orcas is for them to be released into an open water sea-pen, allowing them to be back in their natural environment but still under human protection – a kind of retirement home for performing whales. This would obviously be an extremely expensive operation and would probably result in a significant loss of revenue for SeaWorld and all the other marine parks, so it is unlikely that they will be spending any of their billions of dollars on this proposal any time soon. However, the story of Keiko illustrates that it is definitely possible – and could be achieved with the right amount of financial support and backing from various organisations. A law that would ban keeping orcas and dolphins in captivity has been proposed and although it is unlikely to be passed in the near future, perhaps one day our only interactions with these magnificent creatures will be on their own terms, in the ocean where they belong.

N.B. Although Blackfish is not (legally) available to view for free online, there are other documentaries about killer whales available on Youtube, such as:

The Free Willy Story: Keiko’s Journey Home – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YYyU3USJ-8E
Lolita: Slave to Entertainment – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wGxMLiL1uZI

You can also watch a few clips from Blackfish, with director’s commentary, here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A_gk1sVAyhU

And lastly, here is a link to a video of SeaWorld’s older killer whale show, Believe, when trainers were still allowed in the water: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uh5Eigt_dhQ

REFERENCES

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A Request for Assistance #SaveRIAC

For the last six months or so, I have been volunteering at the Refugee and Immigrant Advisory Council in St John’s, Newfoundland. RIAC offers support for newcomers to the province and helps them to feel part of the community here. Newfoundland is pretty much 95% white, barely even has French as a second language and the climate is of the cold, damp variety. I can’t imagine how difficult it must be for refugees and immigrants with little to no English, particularly those who move here from warmer countries.

The main services that RIAC provides are :
1) Free advice and guidance for people who are struggling with the immigration system and/or any other bureaucratic difficulties involving work permits, medical exams etc.
2) Free English classes three times a week for anyone who feels they need extra help with their English.

There is another organisation here that provides free ESL classes for refugees – but they don’t offer services for other types of immigrants e.g. the spouses of international students or people who have not yet received full refugee status. In addition, the Association for New Canadians (ANC) is affiliated with the government and is thus restricted in the amount of support it can give regarding the immigration process. This is why RIAC’s services are needed – for all those people who don’t quite fit the criteria and fall through the gaps of official services.

RIAC recently lost its main source of private funding and they are now in desperate need of a couple of thousand dollars to last them until their next lot of government funding and major grants comes in. If they don’t get this funding, they may have to close their doors. RIAC serves about 900 people a year through its various projects and programs – there is currently nowhere else for these people to turn for support.

I know it is a very, very long shot, but if anyone reads this blogpost and happens to have a few dollars/pounds/whatever to spare, please consider making a donation to RIAC. I know that many people do not have the financial capacity to be donating money to random causes, but on the offchance there is someone out there who can, it would be really, really appreciated. Retweets of this blogpost with the #saveRIAC hashtag would also be amazing.

https://www.canadahelps.org/en/charities/refugee-and-immigrant-advisory-council-inc/saveriac/

Thank you.

P.S. The total amount donated so far is actually higher than that mentioned on the above website because some people made offline donations. The true total is now over $8,000, so we are not as far off as it seems!

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Farewell to Sir Terry Pratchett

I wasn’t going to write anything about Terry Pratchett at all – and then I saw this picture* (see below) and it was just so perfect that I couldn’t resist posting it, along with a few words.

And now I can’t think of anything to say…

I love his books so much. I have learnt so much from them – and from him – about kindness, goodness, wickedness, ignorance, fear, bravery….everything, really. His stories are warm, witty and wonderful and he always had such compassion for his characters, whether they were good, bad, or somewhere-in-the-middle – as so many of us are.

Thank you Terry. You will be deeply missed, but never forgotten.

“AT LAST, SIR TERRY, WE MUST WALK TOGETHER.”

TerryPratchett&Death

*Apparently the drawing was done by Paul Kidby, who has worked as an illustrator for the Discworld series since 2001.

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A Little Bit Of UK History

This post follows on from my last one, A Brief Introduction to the UK. Having talked about the four countries that make up the UK, I shall now mention some famous UK landmarks and their history. All of these places are in London – since it is the capital city, it naturally has a number of historically significant buildings, most of which are huge tourist attractions. There are, of course, plenty of other fascinating places to visit all around the UK and if you are planning a visit here, I strongly suggest that you try and fit in trips to other places outside of London as well.

The first landmark is Buckingham Palace, main residence of the current reigning monarch Queen Elizabeth II, pictured below with two of her corgis. The photo may possibly have been photoshopped, but I can neither confirm nor deny this!

Queen4

Buckingham Palace was not actually built by or for the royal family, but was originally the townhouse of the Duke of Buckingham. George III bought it in 1761 for his wife to use as a private residence and it only became the official royal palace after Queen Victoria’s coronation in 1837. You can actually go inside and visit various rooms of the Palace on guided tours – I’ve never done one myself but I imagine it would be fairly expensive.

Buckingham Palace

The guards outside Buckingham Palace are famous for their discipline. They are not allowed to move or even smile while they are on duty. The ceremony of the Changing of the Guard takes places at about 11am every day, or every other day, depending on the time of year and crowds of tourists gather to watch the New Guard marching in, accompanied by a military brand.
When I did my presentation on UK culture at the local school, I got a couple of the kids to come up and pretend to be guards and tourists – the tourists had to try and make the guards laugh and the guards had to keep a straight face for as long as possible – it was highly amusing!

Guard2

On a side note, I was astonished to find that the celebrity magazines here in Canada are obsessed with the royal family – there are pictures of Princess Kate on almost every front cover, all the time! I wouldn’t have thought that other countries would have been particularly interested in our royal family, unless there was a wedding or something, but clearly I was very much mistaken!

Will&Kate

The next famous London landmark on my list is the Tower of London. This dates back to the 11th century, with the original White Tower being constructed by William the Conqueror in 1078. It has a long and bloody history involving torture, treason and murder along with many other dark misdeeds. The Tower has been used for many different purposes over the last 1000 years, including royal residence, mint, treasury, menagerie and, perhaps most famously, as a prison.

Tower_of_London_viewed_from_the_River_Thames

The Tower is also the place where the Crown Jewels are kept. They were moved there from Westminster Abbey in the 14th century after a successful attempt to steal them – most of the jewels were recovered. After Charles II came to the throne in the 17th century, it was possible for members of the public to view the jewels by paying a fee to the guard who looked after them. However, after a notorious attempt to steal the jewels in 1761, this practice was – understandably – abolished. The Crown Jewels are still kept at the Tower of London today – although they are very heavily guarded, they can be viewed by the general public.

The Imperial State Crown: Cullinan II

The story of the 1761 plot to steal the Crown Jewels is an excellent one, being blessed with exciting subject-matter, a villainous anti-hero with a name so perfect that it’s almost too good to be true AND a surprise twist at the end, so of course I simply have to relate it to you, dear readers.

The man who guarded the Crown Jewels at the Tower of London was called Talbot Edwards and he lived in an apartment with his wife just above the locked basement room in which the jewels were kept. Our anti-hero, a cunning rogue by the name of Colonel Thomas Blood (told you it was good!) disguised himself as a clergyman and hired a female actress called Jenny Blaine to pretend to be his wife. They went to the Tower and asked Talbot if they could view the jewels. He escorted them downstairs, unlocked the door and let them in. While they were admiring the jewels, Blood’s ‘wife’ feigned a fainting fit. She was led upstairs to Talbot’s apartment to recover and Blood took the opportunity to ‘case the joint’, making a close inspection of the room. He and his companion thanked Edwards and his wife for their kindness and departed.

Thomas_Blood

Following this episode, Blood returned to the Tower, bringing some white gloves as a gift, to better express his gratitude. After this, he and his accomplice paid several more visits to the Tower and cultivated a friendship with the guard and his wife. The next time Blood visited, however, he brought a group of friends with him. He told Edwards that his friends also wanted to view the Crown Jewels and the guard agreed to escort them to the room. Upon unlocking the door and allowing the men to enter, Edwards was attacked by Blood and his gang, who bound and gagged him, before stabbing him in the stomach. The men attempted to break some of the pieces, such as the sceptre, into smaller parts and Blood flattened one of the crowns with a mallet, the better to hide the jewels inside their clothes. Reports differ as to how the alarm was raised, possibly the thieves were disturbed by other guards arriving on the scene, or Edwards may have managed to cry out and raise the alarm. Either way, Blood and his men realised the game was up and they would have to run for it. They were chased from the Tower by guards and had almost reached their horses, positioned ready to assist their escape, but the guards caught up with them and they were apprehended, although some of the precious stones were apparently lost in the struggle.

Blood and his fellow gang members were imprisoned at the Tower of London. Everyone took it for granted that they would be executed, as stealing the Crown Jewels counted as treason. However, when Blood was brought before the king and questioned, Charles seemed to have been amused by Blood’s audacity and his charming manner. He actually pardoned Blood and his fellow conspirators – and, even more incredibly, Blood was given an income of £500 a year and a position at the king’s court! Several people were, understandably, very upset by this and it was a matter of great debate as to why the thieves had been let off so lightly. Edwards himself didn’t do nearly so well – he survived the attack, but became infirm and the government refused to grant him a pension until just before he died. It must have been bitter for him to compare his own treatment with that of Colonel Blood, who not only escaped punishment, but was practically rewarded for his crime!

It has been suggested that the king himself may have been behind the plot – Charles was in desperate need of money, having run up a huge amount of debt. Had he hired a group of thugs to steal the Crown Jewels and sell them in order to make a bit of ready cash? His lenient attitude to Blood certainly raises suspicions about the king’s possible involvement in the plot, but we may never know for certain who was really behind it.

poppy2_3001030b

Last year marked 100 years since the start of WWI. To honour this anniversary, a special exhibition was put on at the Tower of London. Over several months, 888,246 ceramic poppies were planted in the grass moat surrounding the Tower – each commemorating a British soldier who died during the Great War. When the exhibition finished, the poppies were sold for £25 to anyone who wanted one and the proceeds, around £15 million, went to six different charities who support military personnel and their families.

The Tower of London is also home to the famous ravens, who are looked after by the Yeomen of the Guard. There is a legend that says that if any of the six ravens leave the Tower of London, the kingdom will fall. To prevent this calamity, the ravens are extremely well cared for and they have a spare seventh raven, just in case anything happens to one of the others! They are fed on a mixture of raw meat and blood-soaked biscuits. Mmmmm, scrummy!

Ravens_028

The next and final London landmark I will mention is the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben. I think they can count as one landmark because they are so close together and you can’t really see one without the other!

redbus

Anyone who has grown up in the UK will know the story of Guy Fawkes, but just in case there is anyone reading who doesn’t know it, I will now relate the tale. Back in the 17th century, there were two main religions in England, the Protestants and the Catholics. Generally, if there was a Protestant monarch on the throne, Catholic people were persecuted and if there was a Catholic king or queen in power, then the Protestants were the ones being persecuted. In 1605 James I was on the throne. He was Protestant and therefore disliked by many Catholics. One such Catholic was Guy Fawkes. He and some friends hatched a plot to assassinate the king and his government by blowing up the Houses of Parliament when the king came to open them in November. The conspirators bought several barrels of gunpowder and hid them in a room they had rented, which was right under the Houses of Parliament.

Guy-Fawkes

Unfortunately, someone sent an anonymous tip-off to Lord Monteagle, warning him to stay away from Parliament because “they shall recyve a terrible blowe”. His suspicions were aroused and he took the letter to the king. The rooms beneath the Houses of Parliament were searched and Guy Fawkes was found in the gunpowder room with a watch and a match, waiting to set off the explosion. He and his fellow plotters were taken to the Tower and tortured for many days in order to obtain a full confession. They were convicted of treason and sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered. There’s a lesson here kids – you might get away with stealing the Crown Jewels, but if you try and kill the king, you definitely won’t be rewarded!

To celebrate the king’s escape from death, people lit bonfires on November 5th, and the day was designated as an annual celebration, which is still marked today. It is also customary to set off fireworks and many events also involve an effigy made of old rags known as a ‘guy’ (symbolising Guy Fawkes), which is burnt on the bonfire.

Fireworks

So there is a little bit of UK history for you all. And now to end this post, I have a Mr Bean cartoon! It features several of the places I have mentioned – and also the Queen! See how many you can spot – and if you’ve been to London yourself, you may also notice several other classic London features, including red buses and black cabs.

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