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Whale of a time for Charman winner

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This year’s winner of the Charman Prize, one of the Island’s most prestigious art competitions, had to keep pinching himself the next day to make sure he hadn’t dreamt the whole thing up.

Andrew Stevenson won the $10,000 Charman Prize for his documentary film ‘Where the Whales Sing’. The film is narrated by his daughter, Elsa, who was six years old when the film was made. It was released last year.

The prize was awarded earlier this month at the Masterworks Gallery. This year’s competition had the theme ‘Bermuda Inspirations’. There were 105 entries, of which 80 are now on exhibit in a show at Masterworks.

“I was surprised when I won the Charman award,” said Mr Stevenson. “It hadn’t occurred to me to enter the competition, but I gave a screening of ‘Where the Whales Sing’ at Masterworks, and at the end of it Kate Waters, special events coordinator at Masterworks, urged me to enter it.”

He said he then forgot about entering, and had to be reminded to do so on the last day possible.

“I was surprised and honoured to win,” said Mr Stevenson.

The fact that a film won the Charman Prize raised eyebrows in some quarters Mr Stevenson was competing with art forms such as photography and painting. But one of the prize’s mandates is to welcome a variety of art forms. It was the first time a documentary film had won the Charman Prize.

“Really, a film is just a series of photographs run together,” said Mr Stevenson. “Apparently, the judges were unanimous in their decision. One of them told me if the competition was being held in England, there wouldn’t be anything controversial about winning the award, at all. I think what they are trying to do is broaden people’s understanding of what art is. ”

The prize money comes as a much-needed boost to Mr Stevenson’s ongoing research on humpback whales. The uncharitable economy has made raising funds a challenge.

“That was the nice thing about the prize,” said Mr Stevenson. “It is much needed cash for the research. It is very difficult fundraising just for research. Before, I could fundraise for a book or a film. When you are fundraising for research you don’t have a tangible deliverable, so it is much more difficult. The main expense is my time.”

One of the main supporters of the Humpback Whale Research Project has been local businessman Jim Butterfield. The Bank of Bermuda Foundation was also a big sponsor of the film.

Mr Stevenson has a book coming out next month that mirrors the subject of the film. It is called ‘Whale Song: Journeys into the Secret Lives of the North Atlantic Humpbacks’ and will be published in the United Kingdom and United States. It will be a large format book that includes more than 300 of Mr Stevenson’s photographs, many of them still frames taken from high definition video. It will be his tenth published book in the past 14 years. Other books include ‘Summer Light: A Walk Across Norway’, ‘Kiwi Tracks, A New Zealand Journey’ and ‘Annapurna Circuit: Himalayan Journey’.

“What happened was I spent 20 years going up and down mountains in the Himalayas,” he said. “Then I married my wife Annabel, and my daughter Elsa was born and I didn’t want to travel as much. We now have two children Elsa, eight, and Somers, three. I am a stay-at-home dad. So my biggest adventures have changed from climbing mountains. My knees are shot now anyway, so climbing mountains has become less and less attractive.”

The idea to research whales came one day when he was walking on the beach with Elsa. A whale breached off the breakers and she wanted to know why.

“She asked why [it happened] and I didn’t know,” said Mr Stevenson. “We started researching whales. Now, every summer we follow the whales up North. The children love it. In the winter, we follow them South to the Caribbean.”

Much of his work involves photographing whales in Bermuda and then trying to match them with whales that have already been catalogued here and elsewhere. This is done by looking at the whales’ flukes. Each whale fluke is unique, like human finger prints.

“It takes hundreds of hours to do this,” said Mr Stevenson. “You have to look through thousands of whales to find a match. It can take several hours per whale to try to find a match.”

In five years, he has identified and catalogued 455 individual whales. In the previous 40 years, from 1967 to 2007, the total inventory of whale flukes identified in Bermuda waters was 146.

“I have more than tripled the total array,” said Mr Stevenson. “This year we had 160 individual whales identified, 32 we had seen previously in Bermuda waters. So that would indicate that these whales are maintaining fidelity to their migratory route.”

Mr Stevenson said he probably spends about 90 percent of his time out of the water, just observing whales. He likened the work to being a fighter pilot.

“You spend much of your time on the ground and then you get an adrenalin rush as you are called to go in the water,” he said. “I get two good encounters with whales in the water a year. Most of the work is done in the boat, apart from analysing the data. That is a hugely time-consuming process. I have a few dedicated volunteers.”

But the research has paid off, because Mr Stevenson has learned quite a bit about whale behaviour in local waters, a topic that hadn’t really been explored before by scientists. Bermuda makes a unique research spot because it is in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Without Bermuda as a base, researchers would have to spend many hours, weeks and months living on a boat to achieve the same result.

“For example, we now think that when some young female humpback whales aren’t really ready to mate, and older females who are past breeding age, they stop off on the Atlantic seamount [in the middle of the ocean] during the migration south, and hang out with the other juvenile females,” said Mr Stevenson. “Before we thought they all went south during their annual migration in the winter. We are still discovering so much about these whales.”

Mr Stevenson said it was hard to say how long he would be working on the project. He found the work very compelling. He believed he was on the point of getting enough data together through photographs and video to make major breakthroughs in our understanding of humpback whales.

His film received high honours this year at the Princeton Environmental Film Festival in Princeton, New Jersey. Last year, it won a best emerging underwater filmmaker award from the Blue Ocean Film Festival in Monterey, California. Mr Stevenson has just returned from the Dominican Republic where ‘Where the Whales Sing’ was screened at their environment film festival to celebrate the 25th anniversary of its Marine Mammal Sanctuary. They paid to add Spanish subtitles to the film for the Spanish-speaking audience.

While there, Mr Stevenson met Dominican Republic President Leonel Fernandez, and dived with American oceanographer Sylvia Earle.

The Charman Prize was established in 2008 by local businessman and art collector John Charman. The 2011 judges were Betty Krulik, an appraiser and private dealer in 19th and early 20th century American art; Peter Higdon, collections curator at Ryerson Gallery and Research Center in Toronto; Laszlo Cser, professional conservator; and Lucy Harwood, who recently worked in London at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

For more information visit www.whalesbermuda.com or see Mr Stevenson’s page on Facebook. Some of his whale footage may be viewed at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eOS20plm7UM.

A humpback whale filmed and photographed by Andrew Stevenson on Silver Bank off Bermuda.
Andrew Stevenson filming underwater.
Andrew Stevenson filming a humpback whale approaching.
Whale tail flukes.

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Published September 19, 2011 at 2:00 am (Updated September 19, 2011 at 9:38 am)

Whale of a time for Charman winner

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