It’s a warm evening in July and I’m standing with Mark Clayden on the western shore of San Juan Island watching the sun slip behind Vancouver Island to the west of us. Framing the horizon the island’s mountains have become a darkened outline separating the sky from the sea as sunset rolls out its magnificent carpet, and it’s quiet except for the sound of the water lapping up against the shore. In the growing darkness we see an elderly woman walking towards us. When she reaches us she stops and simply says, “Can you hear them? They’re coming,” before walking away.
I’ll never forget, at one point during the trip we came across a police roadblock stopping cars and trucks to allow the butterflies to cross the road safely.
For a full minute Mark and I stare at each other dumbfounded, trying to make sense of her statement and wondering if we’ve somehow found ourselves in a David Lynch movie. Then a noise in the far distance catches our attention. “Did you hear that? It sounded like a huge sigh.” Silence, and then we hear it again. Another enormous sigh, and then another, and another. It’s then that we see the outlines of a pod of orcas slowly swimming their way south down Haro Straight, their jet black silhouettes passing by us alone or in small groups. As they breach the water to exhale and redraw fresh air it sounds like one huge sigh of exasperation. Which I guess is what it is, really. Silent but for the sound of their breathing it’s an immensely moving moment; powerful yet intimate, and one that will stay tucked close to the heart until, as Mark likes to say, the parachute doesn’t open and you need something to pull out and hold close as you hurtle your way towards an imminent death.
While Mark is best known as the founder and bassist for British noiseniks Pitchshifter, and now finds himself running the Bristol Institute of Modern Music, what many people don’t know is that he has a deep passion for some of the smallest and largest creatures that grace our planet. Mark’s also one of the nicest and most down to earth people you could meet, and I love hearing him retell his latest nature adventures about Mexican hillsides jammed with millions upon millions of butterflies, or being able to see his own humanity in eye of a blue whale only meters away from the boat he’s on in the Indian Ocean. I count myself lucky to have him as a friend, and feel even luckier to have joined him on a few of his whaling adventures over the years, so it’s a great pleasure to profile him here and share a few of his stories with you.
Can you hear them? They’re coming.
Share with our readers a little about yourself.
Mark Clayden: I’m 43 years old. I was born in London. I’m the founding member and bass player for UK rock bands Pitchshifter and This Is Menace. During my time in bands I have toured the world over, made lots of records, had a lot of fun, and met a lot of great people. I studied for a teaching degree and a Master of Arts and I now run a music college in Bristol.
Why whales? What’s your first memory of them and why have they made such a lasting impression on you that you’ve found the need to travel the globe and seek them out?
Mark: When I was very young my mum took me to the Natural History Museum in London. I remember walking into one of the exhibition rooms and being dwarfed by a replica model of a blue whale suspended from the ceiling. I was dumbstruck by it and went back to see it many more times. I am now fascinated by whales; in particular blues, because it almost feels like they shouldn’t exist. It’s the largest creature on earth, it’s one hundred feet long, it eats krill, and it has a heart the size of a small car. It even sounds like I just made that up!
What are you feeling when you’re in such close proximity to these gentle giants? Do you ever wonder what they’re thinking about you?
Mark: I feel in complete awe of them and I also feel very small. It helps me to put things into perspective. I appreciate them for their beauty and grace, and also for their survival against intensive whaling over the past hundred years. I always take a mental picture of the moments I see whales and commit the sight, smells, sounds and tastes to memory.
Do you find similarities to what you’re feeling or experiencing when you’re onstage playing in front of a crowd and when you’re in the moment absorbing these wildlife experiences? Are there parallels between the two?
Mark: In some aspects the way I feel and experience these incredible phenomena relate to playing across the world. Each is an experience that never duplicates but always leaves a feeling of having achieved something compelling and exciting.
Could you share some of your favorite moments with whales?
Mark: I recently went on a trip to Marissa in Sri Lanka to finally see blue whales in the ocean, and not as models in museums. It was incredible! I encountered over thirty whales in three days. One of the whales swam directly underneath my boat and gracefully turned on its side so that it could look up at the boat.
What was it like watching the whale glide underneath the boat? What were you feeling?
Mark: My first reaction was fear. What if the whale capsized the boat? (The boat being much smaller than the whale.) My next emotion was similar to how I have felt overcoming my fear of heights, with my head and stomach telling me completely different things. I didn’t look away or move back; I stood and looked into the water. It was a moment I will never forget.
You’ve also traveled to Mexico to witness the annual monarch butterfly migration. Can you explain for our readers what this migration is exactly, and what the experience was like?
Mark: Monarch butterflies migrate from as far as Canada to Mexico and live longer than most butterflies to make this trip – which, at approximately 4,000 miles roundtrip, is similar to a bird’s migration pattern. Millions of these butterflies migrate to an eighteen mile radius on the peaks of the Sierra Madre mountains in Mexico. Reaching the summit on horseback to see the sky and the trees completely orange, with millions of wings making the noise of a quiet waterfall, was stunning.
We made trips to three separate summits across the mountain range, and each time it was magical. Slowly ascending on horseback to first see less than a dozen butterflies, then hundreds, then thousands, and finally millions. It was incredible! I’ll never forget, at one point during the trip we came across a police roadblock stopping cars and trucks to allow the butterflies to cross the road safely.
Whales to butterflies is about as opposite as one can get in terms of size and mass. Why these two extremes?
Mark: Yes, the largest and the smallest. The key is “adventurous and magical!” Both experiences gave me a different feeling of being very small and then gigantic. I want to make sure that I have lots of enriching moments that I can reflect upon when it’s raining in winter.
How have these experiences changed both your worldview and the way you view yourself?
Mark: This will probably sound like a cliché, but it’s so easy to forget that nature is stunning, and both brutal and beautiful, and every day we sit at our desks at work nature carries on. It’s out there waiting to be experienced.
You have a young daughter and I’m sure it’s an absolute joy to share some of these experiences with her. Have these adventures helped shape who you are as a father and the life lessons, if any, you’d like to impart to her? And how has your daughter helped shape the adventures you take?
Mark: I’m lucky to have a five year old daughter, and she continually makes me realize that I take far too much for granted and overlook beauty in all walks of life. She may ask if we can stop to watch a leaf floating away in the rain, or spend time looking at a bird sitting on a fence. It makes me remember what it feels like to see something for the first time and to value it for what it is: unique and amazing.
What expectations do you have for these experiences going into them? And did they match, exceed, or disappoint?
Mark: I’ve learned from traveling the world to not think about what things will look like, feel like, or be like until I arrive. Managing expectations this way helps to enjoy the journey. The trips I have taken part in have all far exceeded my expectations and make me realize I’ve still only seen a small part of the earth and the animals that live here.
What compels you to seek out these types of adventures?
Mark: It’s not a bucket list, but more like collecting deathbed memories. The last thing I want at the end of my life is regret. I find natural beauty very compelling.
How do you go about researching the trips you take and vetting those who run them? Do you ever worry that you’re inadvertently doing more harm than good to the animals and the places you’re experiencing?
Mark: Sometimes it’s word of mouth, sometimes internet research. And, you guessed it, once on the trip the people you meet have some incredible recommendations. I ensure that the travel companies I use are supporting and protecting the nature that I want to see for future generations, are not damaging or harming the animals in any way, and are also working with and supporting the local community. There are some great companies out there, with Naturetrek and Exodus, both based in the UK, being the main companies I use.
What’s next on your travel list?
Mark: Something a little closer to home! There are over fifty species of butterfly in the UK and I’ve seen less than a quarter of them. I will be making a trip to see the stunning purple emperor butterfly in July. The male butterfly is reported to be one of the most beautiful found in the UK. The males fly down to the ground to feed on moisture from damp earth and get so engrossed in their feeding that they can spend over an hour feeding in the same place.
What are the most important things to have with you on a trip – physical and/or metaphysical?
Mark: I spend a lot of time alone so pen, paper, books, an iPod, camera, and an open mind are always essential.
Anything else you’d care to discuss or share?
Mark: Yes, if you’re reading this and would like to recommend amazing things you have seen please add a comment below!