“Got a whale of a tale to tell you lads, a whale of a tale that’s true . . . I swear on my tattoo!”
While making out her “bucket list” of things to do before dying, Cedaredge resident Jan Johnson discovered three “must do” items on her list — ﬁrst and foremost, visit Ireland; second, to participate in an Earthwatch Institute Expedition; and third, to make a pilgrimage to the Isle of Iona with John Philip Newell.(Newell is a poet, scholar, teacher and former Warden of Iona Abbey in the Western Isles of Scotland. He is currently Companion Theologian for the American Spirituality Centre of Casa del Sol in the high desert of New Mexico, and is internationally acclaimed for his work in the ﬁeld of Celtic spirituality.)
The ﬁrst of Jan’s “must do” items, the trip to Ireland, was realized in September 2007. That trip narrowed Jan’s focus for the second item on her list. A “landlubber,” Jan was born and raised in Minnesota and is the pastor of All Saints Lutheran Church, located in Cory.
She said, “The trip to Ireland helped me fall in love with the ocean. The western coast of Ireland is beautiful and I loved to watch the waves and the gulls, and the sheep on the hillsides. It was so peaceful and healing.”
Still, Pastor Jan (as she is known by her friends and the congregation at All Saints) had never been out on the open sea in a small boat of any kind.
But that all changed when the second “must do” on Jan’s bucket list, participating in an Earthwatch expedition off the northwest coast of Scotland to observe whales and other marine life, was fulﬁlled during the last week in June and the ﬁrst week of July, this year, as one-half of a sabbatical. The area is recognized as home to the most diverse population of whales, dolphins and porpoises than anywhere else in Europe.
Earthwatch Institute is an international non-proﬁt organization that brings science to life for people concerned about the Earth’s future. Earthwatch recruits close to 4,000 volunteers every year to collect ﬁeld data in the areas of rainforest ecology, wildlife conservation, marine science, archaeology and more. Jan was one of those volunteers. Her participation was made possible by a grant from the Lilly Endowment Inc.’s National Clergy Renewal Program.
“Being in contact with the ocean for two weeks was important to me,” said Jan, “and to be able to do something concrete in helping scientists gather data for research and conservation was very rewarding.”
Setting out to sea for the ﬁrst time, on a 60-foot sailboat (formerly used for drug running) dubbed “The Silurian,” with six volunteers, two crew members and one scientist, Jan said, “We worked hard, ate and slept on board.”
Jan noted that even though being out on the ocean in a small sailboat that was being tossed about by waves “is like an all day roller coaster ride, I never got seasick!”
Jan said the volunteers were divided into teams of two. “Each team would rotate [for] an hour whale watching, followed by an hour of data entry on the computer,” she explained. Computer entries included cetacean sightings, seabirds and listening for sounds on a hydrophone.
Jan explained that while they were searching the open sea for marine life two team members would be tied to the mainsail mast, via a safety harness, to keep from being washed overboard, both watching their respective side of the ship for whales. The Hebridean waters were cold, and Jan said the captain warned them that “if you go into the water, you’re dead!” One member from one of the other teams would also climb up into the crow’s nest to help spot the whales.
One of the volunteers (Kirsty a college student from the University of Aberdeen) was accidently left out in the crow’s nest during a rainstorm. “She was shouting for help, but her voice was so soft no one could hear her,” said Jan.
“We spotted a number of Minke whales and harbor porpoises,” smiled Jan. “They would surface brieﬂy for air and then submerge again.
“The basking sharks were the most fun and exciting to spot. Basking sharks are huge ﬁsh 30 to 40 feet long, with a large triangular dorsal ﬁn that is usually spotted ﬁrst in the water, followed by a smaller tail ﬁn that curves slightly backwards,” she explained. “Their habit of cruising along the surface and coming right up to the boat allowed us to see their wide gaping mouth and gill slits.”
Jan noted, “I have wanted to do an Earthwatch trip for ages and every year I would check out all their trips and pick the one I would want to do. But ﬁnances hampered my being able to participate.” The Lilly grant made it possible for her to pursue that dream.
“I have always had a love of nature, animals, birds and plants,” said Jan, “so majoring in biology at the University of Minnesota was a natural choice for me. My sabbatical formed around the ecological crisis that we are facing and how we, as individuals and as church, can get involved more deeply. Faith isn’t just about how we feel or what we believe, but about acting out of that faith as well. The Earthwatch trip leads nicely into the middle part of doing some reading and reﬂection on care of God’s creation.
“The [Earthwatch] trip reinforced the interconnectedness of all of creation and the need to address the current environmental crisis,” said Jan. “It has helped me to commit to making some changes in my lifestyle to live a greener life and to address issues that Congress and international councils are debating, and make sure the environment and the future of God’s good creation is part of the debate.”
Regarding the second-half of her sabbatical, Jan said, “I have also wanted to visit the Isle of Iona since I started learning and enjoying Celtic spirituality and since the trip to Ireland three years ago.
“When I learned that John Philip Newell was taking this whole year as a sabbatical to reﬂect on care of God’s creation from a Celtic Christian viewpoint, and that he was writing a book and then leading a pilgrimage to Iona focused on those ideas, I knew that would be a part of [my] sabbatical as well, and that the time spent on Iona will also focus on that same theme.”
That second half of the sabbatical will take place later this year, in September, with Newell on the Isle of Iona, fulﬁlling the third “must do” item on Jan’s bucket list. Said Jan, “And that is how the pieces of the sabbatical came together.”
And even though the adventure was hampered somewhat by engine problems and stormy weather, it was the trip of a lifetime, said Pastor Jan. “When I think of all that I experienced, my mind gets overwhelmed. The animals, the birds, the people, the sites, the boat, the food. The whole experience was amazing.”
When asked if she learned anything practical or useful from the experience, Jan smiled, “To simply go with the ﬂow.” And, with more to share than can be written about here, Jan obviously had “a whale of time.”
“… I swear on my tattoo!”
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