Phantoms of Pegwell
Part Two: The Whale’s Graveyard
I left Pegwell and drove back into Ramsgate like a man in a fugue state. A dusk spent stalking a coastal plain sets the nerves on fire; it doesn’t matter if I’m searching for owls or casting for bass- when the hunt ends, I crash. The bay had consumed me to the point where passing road signs seemed alien and abrupt. I felt caught between two realms. In front of me was civilisation. Whereas the scene in my rear view mirror was like the world’s end; great purple and black streaks led all the way back to the Stour Estuary, which at twilight looks like a huge, dark hole punched into the horizon. As I drove, I imagined that’s where the owl went at night time, deep down below the earth’s surface into a world of feathers and fire.
It was pitch black when I got in and I raced to cook a steak before my eyes closed. Foregoing my nightly dose of Netflix, I ate in silence with only a candle and a glass of red wine for company. Afterwards, I lay mute on the couch and let the silence grow until I could hear the Channel winds shuffling over the cliff-tops at the end of the road. The candle began to smoulder and spat out an army of shadows onto the wall opposite me. I watched as from under a rock. The more the flame struggled, the larger and more menacing the shapes became until a sudden draught eclipsed all of them. The wick died instantly and I was left alone in a pitch black room. I awoke at just gone 4 ‘o’ clock when a huge sea breeze sent the back door flying open. I was so tired I’d forgotten to lock up. I thought about leaving the door open, in spite of the wind, but then I remembered that several cats and umpteen foxes visit our yard by night. I got up but don’t know how I got back to the couch. But between bolting the door and waking the next day, I do remember having a highly vivid dream about an event which took place almost a quarter of a century ago, down on the mudflats of Pegwell Bay.
I was a teenager when the whale came. It was a female orca- a huge beast of 18 feet- albeit an adolescent in her own world. My dream started with an aerial view of the hill I grew up on. My mother and I were walking down to the bay with our dog ‘Lucky’, an overweight but up-for-everything (including whales) ‘Borador’; that’s a half Border Collie, half Labrador cross. By the time we got down there, half the village was already on the mud; as we started to mingle, several people (including some whom I’d never seen out of their houses before) greeted Lucky by name and gave me a nod. Meanwhile, a team of emergency veterinarians had established a little exclusion zone around the whale. However, this didn’t protect them from us locals’ cheerful ignorance and before long we were all shouting over encouragement and advice.
‘Get her back in the sea!’ cried out one of the local landlords.
”Ere, how long has she been out for? Poor devil must be thirsty’- called over his wife.
Amidst the well meaning messages, the vets mumbled quietly to each other as they carried out their tests and stroked the whale’s huge flanks. It was difficult to hear much of what they said but certain phrases were repeated and therefore easier to catch:
‘… Beached… Terminal… Suicide…’
These words were soon passed from person to person in hushed tones. The collective mood became brittle and for the first time, I became very aware of our surroundings. Pegwell Bay is situated on the eastern-most point of Kent. I’d grown up near these mudflats, as had many present, and we loved them. But at some point, every person present had felt their desolation. The wider bay graduates into the Goodwin Sands, home to at least several thousand shipwrecks- everything from Roman Galleons to German U-Boats. It’s been recently proven that Caesar landed here, in what was the first Roman incursion into Britain. For a short while, the villagers lost their friendly associations with the bay- the pubs, the community, the salt winds that made every warm day feel like you were living on desert island- and instead we saw what the Romans saw, and what this poor whale must have seen: the ends of the earth. But when launching time came, it was as though a tidal wave went through the crowd. Voices pepped up; the quiet got loud. And the loud became boisterous.
‘Come on! Here she goes!’
‘Let’s see her off then- Go on, girl, back home you go!’
The whale was slowly coaxed and towed into the the tidal run with the help of a small boat; it took some time and I can’t remember exactly how they did it. My dream was vague at this point, but I do remember that the vets donned scuba masks and were swimming alongside the whale whilst stroking her and offering words of encouragement. I also remember a huge splash of the whale’s tail at one point. It caused a myriad of ‘ooh’s and ‘aah’s from the assembled crowd. And sent Lucky into a state of delirium; he broke free of his lead and leapt into the sea in an attempt to reach the source of his excitement. Perhaps he thought he’d found a potential mate; well, they were both black and white- and Lucky was capable of initiating a chase for much less. He didn’t get very far, though. He may have been part Labrador but he was 100% a spoiled house-dog. The water was freezing- and strong too; the first half-breaker he encountered sent him rolling back into the shallows and then into the crowd, who were vigorously mud-pawed for their attentions. Between trying to restrain him, I caught several more glimpses of the whale, including one of her face as she dipped in and out of the current. It was impossible to know what she felt; to this day I could only guess or else project my own human emotions into her eyes- but it was very easy to get lost in them. I dreamt that night, too. Not just of what I’d seen but of what that whale must have seen through those dark eyes. It was the first time I really considered that the bay was part of a wider, wilder ocean that extended anywhere beyond the Isle of Thanet.
My night’s dreaming ended with the whale heading back out to sea and I awoke on the morning of Thursday 25th April 2019 with a perfect memory of the whole event. I could even taste damp salt in my mouth. When I got to work, I told some of my pupils about the whale and they were fascinated. In my lunch hour, I googled the incident to get some more details for the children. Whilst doing so, I discovered something quite startling. The whale had washed up on Pegwell Bay in the early hours of 25th April, 1995. I had an idea it’d been around this time of the year- but my dream, coming as it did in the early hours of the 25th, mirrored the exact anniversary (24 years later) of the whale’s arrival in the bay. She’d been spotted by a dog walker early on the morning of the 25th, attempting to beach herself down near the Western Undercliffs.
Perhaps it took this long for my subconscious to want to think about the whale again, or to bring her back to the shallows of my mind. Certainly, she’s little spoken of in Pegwell. The day after we cheered her off, she beached herself again; a few miles west, over at Sandwich Bay. Apparently, she didn’t have the strength to breathe, let alone swim. This time the vets did the right thing and sent her on a different kind of journey- one that we all have to make some day. I’m glad I didn’t see this. And pathetically, I’m glad that my dream ended only with what I actually saw- the whale swimming off, supposedly back to her family.
So the bay is a hard place. It’s fun to walk in and to photograph. And I sometimes fish there. But I’m an outsider these days; the last time I felt like part of the wildlife was when I was a boy, playing manhunt at the old port or over at the Chine cliffs. Children are more instinctive; less tainted with the stink of civilisation. Back then, the ‘Bay’ was a place of life and death.
But it will always be that way to the animal kingdom. The whale came here to die. But the owls come here to live; the one I’d seen the previous dusk had come to hunt vole; to fatten up for its great journey north. She (I’m assuming it was a ‘she’, judging by her size and colour) would have spent the winter ‘down south’- maybe as far as Spain. Pegwell is an ideal refuelling spot for a hungry migratory bird. Short-eared owls can be spotted here as late as mid-May, as they make their way up from their southern wintering spots. The bay is teeming with voles and mice, and a travelling owl may spend several days feasting here before moving on.
Knowing that this particular owl had already been here for at least two days, I was anxious to get out earlier for this second afternoon; I’d packed everything needed into the boot of my car so I could drive straight onto the flats after school. This time I parked up in the lay-by opposite the now derelict ‘Sportsman’ pub. I then walked up east and over to the old hoverport.
It was still early by the time I got there, at just gone half past four. A ‘shorty’ is often described as being diurnal- a daytime hunter. But I think this means that they can hunt during the day, more than they will. Certainly at nearby Sandwich Bay, they often have 5/6 resident winter birds that are seen during the day. But these are during the months of low light when midday can feel like twilight. I felt confident that, like yesterday, the bird would show near dusk if she showed at all. And she did, but not until I’d walked all the way around the old hoverport and almost as far back as my car. I spotted her quartering the long grass in front of the old port, just a few hundred yards west from where I encountered the whale all those years ago.
I watched her for a few minutes before she flew further west, all the way over to the spoonbill’s pond, and out of my camera range. I walked in her direction and by the time I’d got to the lay-by, she’d come back east a little and was actively hunting the scrub directly in front of me, not far from the foreshore. I got one particularly nice shot of her flying face first into the dipping sun.
As the landscape began to blue, I also captured another image of her, this time flying westwards towards Sandwich Bay.
She stayed west for some time, half an hour or so, before coming back and flying eastwards over the old hoverport again. Beyond her, I could see Ramsgate’s Western Undercliffs and the ferry terminal.
Just as dusk was giving way to twilight, the owl swept over to the nearside long grass by the lay-by. She hunted there for half an hour or so, ducking down at least three times, apparently to eat what she’d caught.
At times she flew very close, more so as dusk drew on. I got some ‘fly-by’ shots but they were very dark.
When it was too dark to take any more photographs I walked parallel to her hunting route and watched her weave and quarter around the bay until it was pitch black. I lost her again over near the spoonbill’s pond, where a trio of flittering bats kept me company on my walk back to the car.
On this second night, I slept soundly and again deeply. I felt happy that she’d come so much closer to me than on the previous dusk. It may have been at high speed, and strictly only when it was almost dark. But in those small, half-second moments, when she was flying just a few yards away from me, I saw not the weary gypsy’s eyes I’d anticipated- but rather the fiery eyes of a determined survivor. And for a short while as I watched her, I didn’t feel like an outsider anymore- but a part of the wildlife, just as I’d been as a boy.
The life I saw in those eyes went a long way to balancing out my recent recollections of the whale. A certain portion of the bay will be forever marked out in my mind as her graveyard. It was refreshing to see such a vital presence making itself known over so dark a spot.
Little did I know that the next dusk would be my last with the owl. Or that she would come closer to me that I could ever dream.