Urban Animal Field Research: Whale Watching in Vancouver

One of the most exciting things about environmental history research is the opportunity to do field research. It’s fun to get away from the desk and get outdoors. I did just that this afternoon when I heard that a grey whale had wandered into False Creek. After running down to the seawall we were fortunate enough to catch this video of the whale spouting beneath the Cambie Street bridge on its way back out to English Bay:

You really don’t see something like this every day in Vancouver, but as Lani Russwurm’s recent post on Past Tense Vancouver reminds us, False Creek does have a history of peculiar aquatic visitors.


Beached grey whale at Sooke in April.

As it turns out, the grey whale that visited Vancouver this afternoon may be one of many distressed whales migrating northward. Several grey whales have beached and died along the coasts of Washington and Vancouver Island in the past month. As the grey whales migrate north, many struggle to find enough food to survive the journey and occasionally wander along the shores and inlets of the Northwest Coast in search of something to eat. Most of the beached grey whales discovered this past month died of starvation. One beached whale in West Seattle was found to have been feeding on human-made garbage.

This is troubling news given the presence of the grey whale in False Creek today. Late this evening there were reports that the whale had returned. Let’s hope the whale finds a food source soon so it can complete its northern migration.

Read more about the beached grey whales here:




Bottled Water and the Environmental Historian

Last winter, I had a couple of students in my North American environmental history course come to me with ideas for research essays on the environmental history of bottled water. The topic is far too big for a relatively short undergraduate paper, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized how the history of the bottled water industry brings together many themes common in environmental history.

In particular, the contemporary global bottled water industry shares characteristics with other extractive natural resource industries and demonstrates the interconnections between environmental exploitation, state power, and social conflict. Like many other histories of finite natural resources, the power to control and command the exploitation of those resources is embedded in the relationship between capital and government. Such a precious and finite resource as water is obviously not exempt from these conditions.

Many readers with a background in environmental history will already be familiar with the adverse environmental consequences of the global bottled water industry. Corporations, such as Fiji Water, have recently attempted to re-brand bottled water as a “green” industry. But the current issue of Mother Jones explores the history of Fiji Water (now the largest imported brand of bottled water in the United States) and exposes the actual environmental and social consequences of this industry. The article looks at a wide range of issues, including the environmental impact of water extraction on the Fijian poor, the troubling relationship between Fiji Water and the military dictatorship in Fiji, and the corporation’s deceptive efforts to market their product as environmentally benign or even beneficial.

I think this article very clearly lays bare the fallacy that drinking water can ever be privatized, bottled, and sold in a manner that is either environmentally responsible or consistent with any principle of social justice.

Read the full article here. You can also read about the activities of some other bottled water companies here.