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Wildlife tourism: The intangible, psychological benefits of human-wildlife encounters

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This article presents the results of an ethnographic study of wildlife tourists. The findings reveal the commonalities and complexities of the wildlife experience during wildlife encounters at home and while on holiday. Nature's design, performance and immense biodiversity initiate an emotional response of awe, wonder and privilege that unlocks ecocentric and anthropomorphic connections to wild animals and a feeling that is ‘beyond words’. There is time to stand and stare, and contemplate. Nature and wildlife are not only spatial events but also temporal ones. In this liminal, embodied space of a wildlife encounter, socially constructed modern fast time dissipates and is replaced by stillness and nature's time whereby participants are totally absorbed in the spectacle. All thought and action is concentrated on the moment. This provokes a deep sense of well-being that transcends the initial encounter leading to spiritual fulfilment and psychological health benefits. The implications of this research has relevance to environmental conservation particularly the recognition that conserving habitats and wildlife has an intrinsic connection to the future well-being of the human population who are part of the ecosystem and not separate from it.
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Current Issues in Tourism
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Wildlife tourism: the intangible, psychological benefits of human-wildlife
encounters
Susanna Curtin
a
a
School of Services Management, Bournemouth University, Poole, UK
Online Publication Date: 01 September 2009
To cite this Article Curtin, Susanna(2009)'Wildlife tourism: the intangible, psychological benefits of human-wildlife encounters',Current
Issues in Tourism,12:5,451 — 474
To link to this Article: DOI: 10.1080/13683500903042857
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Wildlife tourism: the intangible, psychological benefits
of humanwildlife encounters
Susanna Curtin
School of Services Management, Bournemouth University, Dorset House, Talbot Campus,
Poole BH12 5BB, UK
(Received 11 April 2008; final version received 14 May 2009)
This article presents the results of an ethnographic study of wildlife tourists. The findings
reveal the commonalities and complexities of the wildlife experience during wildlife
encounters at home and while on holiday. Nature’s design, performance and immense
biodiversity initiate an emotional response of awe, wonder and privilege that unlocks
ecocentric and anthropomorphic connections to wild animals and a feeling that is
‘beyond words’. There is time to stand and stare, and contemplate. Nature and
wildlife are not only spatial events but also temporal ones. In this liminal, embodied
space of a wildlife encounter, socially constructed modern fast time dissipates and is
replaced by stillness and nature’s time whereby participants are totally absorbed in the
spectacle. All thought and action is concentrated on the moment. This provokes a
deep sense of well-being that transcends the initial encounter leading to spiritual
fulfilment and psychological health benefits. The implications of this research has
relevance to environmental conservation particularly the recognition that conserving
habitats and wildlife has an intrinsic connection to the future well-being of the human
population who are part of the ecosystem and not separate from it.
Keywords: wildlife; tourism; psychological benefits
Introduction
Most people in the West live in relative isolation from nature and wild animals. Yet, the
travel press and the general media are frequently punctuated by photographic evidence
of a prolific human desire to be close to wild animals. Visitor interaction with wildlife
and wild places is now a prominent part of tourism marketing and the modern tourism
experience (Page & Dowling, 2002; Reynolds & Braithwaite, 2001; Shackley, 2001; Trem-
blay, 2002; UNEP, 2006). Destinations with abundant fauna and flora are keen to take part
in wildlife tourism believing it to be a niche and lucrative market. Meanwhile tour oper-
ators, both mass and specialist, pursue new wildlife itineraries and expeditions to tempt
their consumers. This combination of product development and marketing, coupled with
a growing interest in the natural environment and media representations of wildlife drive
the supply and demand for wildlife tourism experiences (Curtin & Wilkes, 2005).
This commodification of places and experiences is an explicit and common theme of
the tourism literature (Cloke & Perkins, 2005; Urry, 1990). Landscapes, nature, wildlife,
ISSN 1368-3500 print/ISSN 1747-7603 online
# 2009 Taylor & Francis
DOI: 10.1080/13683500903042857
http://www.informaworld.com
Email: scurtin@bournemouth.ac.uk
Current Issues in Tourism
Vol. 12, Nos. 56, September November 2009, 451474
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history and culture are consumed by tourists in the form of a short, superficial visit, a
collection of photographs, a number of tourist souvenirs and fond recollections. Franklin
(2003, p. 229) argues that this discourse of tourism renders an impression of ‘shallow,
symbolic consumerism’. While this may be true of some forms of tourism, he asks us to
consider whether perhaps there is more substance to it than this; whether, for example, it
leaves psychological residues other than mere souvenirs. Indeed, there has been much
already written about the psychological benefits of tourism and particularly tourist
experiences in nature. The psychological benefits of wildlife tourism and human/animal
encounters, however, are as yet still relatively uncharted.
Much of the wildlife tourism literature presents a tourist profile that is predominantly
Western, white, well educated with a high level of disposable income (Ballantine &
Eagles, 1994; Curtin & Wilkes, 2005; Diamantis, 1999; Page & Dowling, 2002; Wight,
2001). The purpose of this article is to shed some light on why these tourists from affluent
societies go in search of wildlife experiences. It presents the findings of an ethnographic
study of dedicated (serious) wildlife tourists and attempts to introduce the attraction and
the emotion that wildlife encounters provoke in a tourism context, the psychological
benefits of undertaking such trips and the human dimensions of wildlife experiences.
Modern human relationships with nature and the animal kingdom are highly complex.
Throughout history man has coexisted with animal populations and has exhibited a number
of different relationships with them. We have included animals in our social groups either as
domestic pets or a source of income and food, and in so doing, we have observed animal
characteristics and used these as a baseline from which to compare our own human attri-
butes (Ingold, 1988); therefore, ‘what it means to be human can never be determined
without the animal other (Emel, 1995, p. 708). While this human/animal dichotomy has
resonance, there is nonetheless a blurring of commonalities based on survival. As Mabey
(2006, p. 13) eloquently proposes:
the natural world is an arena of endurance, tragedy and sacrifice as much as joy and uplift. It is
about the struggle against the weather, the perils of migration, the ceaseless vigilance against
predators, the loss of whole families and the brevity of existence. The natural world is like a
theatre, a stage beyond our own, in which the dramas that are an irreducible part of being
alive are played out without hatred or envy or hypocrisy. Watching wildlife can tell us much
about ourselves and our own frailties.
It is therefore no wonder that there is a tendency to treat animals in an anthropomorphic
way as we share the basic principles of survival.
These shared instincts, behaviours and spaces of humans and animals position nature and
animality as an important part of human culture and development (Ingold, 1988). There is a
whole body of literature that investigates the psychology of the human need to commune with
animals, plants, landscapes and wilderness. The fields of ecopsychology, socio-biology,
environmental psychology and deep ecology have revealed interesting findings with regards
to the relationship between human health and the natural world, asserting as it does that
nature is an important component of human well-being (Frumkin, 2001; St Leger , 2003).
There are two main theories that may be pertinent to the study of wildlife tourism
experiences. First, there is the biophilia hypothesis (Wilson, 1984) that is an evolutionary
theory defined as the innately emotional affiliation of human beings to other living organ-
isms. It is proposed to be a genetic sequence that has been programmed over one million
years of evolution to respond positively to natural environments to help us survive and
thrive. The theory proposes that even now humans are attracted to natural environments
where we feel more content and function more effectively.
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In contrast, the attention restoration theory (Kaplan & Kaplan, 1989), while linked to
biophilia, is based on two areas of attention in our lives. ‘Direct attention’ is based on con-
centration, hard work and potentially uninteresting tasks that form our daily lives. Interest-
ing subjects have to be blocked out while we concentrate on the task in hand. This causes
frustration and tiredness. Conversely, ‘indirect attention’ or fascination holds our concen-
tration with little or no effort. This allows our brain to be restored so that we can return
to direct attention. Kaplan and Kaplan (1989) propose that the natural environment provides
the most effective restorative environment especially when participants are away from their
day-to-day routine, are fascinated by what is around them, are able to explore and where
the vista exhibits a compatibility with prior expectations: in fact, just looking at a natural
landscape can help our brains to recharge (see Bird (2007) and Frumkin (2001) for a
comprehensive review of the links between human health and the natural environment).
These theories come as no surprise as our relationship with nature is a prominent
feature of world philosophies, art and culture where wild animals are a dominant feature.
Indeed, animals are uniquely positioned relative to humans in that they are ‘both like us,
but not us’ (Franklin, 1999, p. 9). Unlike trees, plants and rocks, they have the capacity
to represent the differentiations, characters and dispositions of any given society.
However, some animal species are more charismatic and attractive than others in a
tourism context. Tremblay (2002) implies the importance of human likeness, ‘or ranking
on a phylogenetic scale placing humans at the top’ (p. 168) as a way of explaining
deeper attraction towards some types of animals. The human-like characteristics usually
refer to the extent to which tourists can empathise with animal behaviour or attributes.
These are based on le vels of intelligence, communication within and between species
and caring for young, attributes often given to cetaceans, particularly dolphins.
Tapper (1988) warns that in this investigation of ‘animal humanity’, there is a danger
of assuming either of the polar opinions of (a) restricting personhood to human beings or
(b) simply transplanting into animal minds the thoughts and feelings we recognise in our-
selves, laden as they are with cultural as well as species-specific bias. According to Ingold
(1988), cultural anthropologists point out that the idea of a man’s control over animality is
part and parcel of a more inclusive ideology of human mastery or appropriation of nature
whose roots lie deep in the traditions of Western thought. People of other cultures do not
share this anthropocentric view of human superiority. Ingold (1988) contends that the
Western cult of conservation suggests that it should be man who determines the conditions
of life for animals and that even those technically ‘wild’ shall be ‘managed’. This is indeed
exemplified by Africa’s game reserves. Moreover, it may determine which animals are
deemed worthy of our protection.
Understanding peoples’ attitudes towards wildlife is an essential component of the
management of wildlife-orientated recreation (Bright, Manfredo, & Fulton, 2000; Fulton,
Manfredo, & Lipscomb, 1996; Teel, Bright, & Manfredo, 2003). Here, it is asserted that
one of the most important distinctions is how humans perceive themselves in relation to
the natural environment. Many pre-industrialised societies believe(d) their fate was in the
hands of nature. The environment provides for society and society must reciprocate. Con-
versely, modern nature conservationists in post-industrial society believe the environment
to be fragile and in need of human protection (Manfredo & Dayer, 2004). The ideological
separation of humans and nature and the view of domination instead of subjugation are seen
by some to be marked by the industrial revolution, science and urbanisation (Berger, 1991;
Franklin, 1999; Ingold, 1994; Melson, 2001), which contributed to a psychological split
between humans and animals by physically removing humans from daily and routine
contact with animals. According to Vining (2003, p. 89) ‘this feeling of separateness,
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combined with a sense of the intrinsic value of animals, ultimately has led to a more senti-
mental and emotional attitude towards them’, which is represented by ‘increases in pet-
keeping and animal welfare movements’. In this industrialised world, experiences in
nature and with wildlife have become a sentimental luxury; keeping pets, visiting zoos
and watching wildlife offer connection with nature in a controlled setting (Vining, 2003).
Inglehart and Baker (2000) further propose a theory of culture change in modern
societies that reflect these shifting ‘need’ states. In pre-industrialised societies, the prevailing
motivational forces are directed towards satisfying basic human needs such as shelter, secur-
ity and food. Following economic growth and material wealth, satisfying these basic needs
no longer dominate motivations. Instead, there is an increasing emphasis on quality of life,
self-expression and post-materialist experiences, particularly the recognition that material
possessions (and the drive to attain them) do not always bring fulfilment (Steiner &
Reisinger, 2006). With regards to wild animals, Teel et al. (2003) took these value shifts
and found that materialists were more likely to emphasise the use of wildlife, whereas
those with post-materialist values were more likely to have wildlife protectionist views.
This hypothesis supports other studies (Bandara & Tisdell, 2003) that show how rural
attitudes towards wildlife differ from affluent urban attitudes that tend to be more protec-
tionist. Furthermore, Manfredo, Teel and Bright (2003) also show a positive correlation
in US citizens between ‘materialists’ (who hold dominant views over nature) and lower-
income groups, urbanisation, lower education levels and residential mobility. These find-
ings are particularly interesting when one considers the typical post-materialist market
for ‘serious’ wildlife tourism products, i.e. educated, urbanised and affluent, as it provides
a potential insight into their wildlife value orientations as well as their motivational search
for new authentic tourism experiences. However, what has yet to be revealed is the existen-
tial component of the wildlife tourism experience.
Methods
Mabey (2003) asserts that the overriding relationship we have with nature and wildlife is
through our emotions. It is through feelings and imagination that we experience kinship
and connectedness with animals, the pain of separation and extinction, the renewal of
spring and birth and the plight of raising the next generation, and through this we make
sense of our place in the wider world.
Given that language and imagination define us as human, it follows that exploration of
these emotions and connectedness be in a qualitative, subjective manner that is grounded in
language. In order to gain insight into the a priori questions of the research, the author
adopted an ethnographic approach to data generation. The participants she chose for her
study represent the ‘dedicated’ and ‘serious’ end of the wildlife tourist spectrum
whereby looking at and studying birds, mammals, butterflies and flowers is the primary
motivation for their travel. Stebbins (2007) defines several qualities that distinguish
‘serious leisure’ from ‘casual leisure’ pursuits. He suggests that to partake in serious
leisure there must be evidence of perseverance in the activity; ‘career or experience devel-
opment; evidence of knowledge, training and development of skills, durable benefits such
as a sense of accomplishment and the social identification of belonging to the social world
of the chosen pursuit.
Already a life-long wildlife enthusiast, the author joined two tour groups within this
(serious) wildlife tourism market: one bird-watching tour to Andalucia to watch the
Autumn migration in October 2006 and one whale- and bird-watching tour on the Sea of
Cortez, Baja California in February 2007. While on tour, field journals were kept to
454 S. Curtin
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record the days’ events, participants’ emotional responses to wildlife and her own
observations while on tour. These journals were coupled with in-depth interviews of tour
participants while on tour and later, in-depth interviews with people who regularly take
dedicated wildlife holidays which were sourced from a wildlife tour operators client
database. The second group of interviews were conducted during the summer of 2007.
Clients were carefully selected based on the criteria that they had taken at least two dedi-
cated wildlife holidays within the last 2 years and that they demonstrated an active, everyday,
interest in wildlife. This was evidenced by frequent leisure activities such as bird or butterfly
watching, interest in wild flowers and membership to wildlife conservation organisations
such as the W ildlife Trusts (Great Britain) or the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds
(RSPB). Other selection criteria included gender in order to have an even number of male
and female participants and also that they lived within a reasonable travelling distance for
the author to conduct the interviews. This is a standard, purposive sampling method
adopted by qualitative researchers who aim to select participants who have the knowledge
and experience to answer the research questions (Patton, 1990; Rubins & Rubins, 1995).
The participants’ profile is outlined in Table 1. Names have been changed to protect anonymity.
In all, 20 qualitative interviews were conducted, recorded and transcribed allowing a
systematic approach to data reduction based on the clustering of invariant meaning units
into themes (Moustakas, 1994). One of the hardest tasks is the re-ordering of data and par-
ticipant observations into a linear arrangement as the tourist experience does not unfold in
such a neat and organised way (Hammersley & Atkinson, 1983). Through the analysis of
participants’ transcripts, the authors travel diaries and the contextual literature, several
themes emerged that enabled the production of a major thematic framework that comprises
the major themes (or categories) as section headings of the results and discussion section
(Figure 1). These themes are derived from the a priori research questions and the in vivo
or emergent themes derived from the data, i.e. participants’ actual words or invariant
meaning as perceived by the author.
Table 1. Participant profiles.
Name Source Gender Age Occupation
Mark Tour 1: Andalucia Male Mid-30s Tour leader
Ian Tour 1: Andalucia Male Mid-50s Software engineer
Simon Tour 1: Andalucia Male Mid-30s Accountant
Peter Tour 1: Andalucia Male Early 70s Retired accountant
Rebecca Tour 1: Andalucia Female Late 50s Educational welfare officer
Dawn Tour 2: Baja, California Female Mid-40s NHS worker
Sophie Tour 2: Baja, California Female Early 60s Retired headmistress
Marie Tour 2: Baja, California Female Late 50s Retired
Tanya Tour 2: Baja, California Female Late 40s Nursing administrator
Michelle Tour 2: Baja, California Female Mid-60s Retired headmistress
Joe Tour 2: Baja, California Male Mid-60s Marine biologist
Linda Client database Female Late 50s Retired
Carol Client database Female Early 60s Retired
Michael Client database Male Early 60s Retired farmer
Penny Client database Female Late 60s Retired
Matthew Client database Male Early 60s Administrator
David Client database Male Early 50s Tour leader
James Client database Male Early 50s Vicar
Edward Client database Male Mid-60s Geologist
Diane Client database Female Early 50s Administrator
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Coffey and Atkinson (1996, p. 108) suggest that the analysis and writing up qualitative
research is not ‘simply a matter of classifying, categorising, coding and collating data into
forms of speech or regularities of action’. It is about the ‘the representation or reconstruction
of social phenomena’. In the writing up process, the ethnographer creates accounts of the
social world and the social actors that have been observed and interviewe d.
The final product is a reconstruction of a social phenomenon that is revealed by what
Geertz (1973, p. 20) refers to as ‘thick’ description that interprets and portrays the partici-
pants’ experiences, incorporates the context, the cultural meaning and the ethnographer’s
analysis. It aims to bring the research to life allowing the reader, through the writer, to con-
verse with and observe for themselves those who have been studied. Verbatim quotations
are an intrinsic part of ethnography as they are a permanent record of a person’s thoughts
and feelings as well as providing factual data. They are used extensively in the results and
discussion section to illustrate participants’ experiences, so too are the verba tim journal
extracts from the authors diaries.
The research has internal validity as it accurately portrays the multiple social realities of
those participating in it, but as with all qualitative studies, the results may not be transfer-
able or applicable to other wildlife tourist populations. However, the depth of qualitative
enquiry enables insight into some core experiences and themes; therefore, external validity
may be later explored by the testing of these key themes in a wider population. As is cus-
tomary with qualitative research, the results and discussion are presented simultaneously
using the major thematic headings as a framework; predominantly a sense of wonderment,
experiencing ‘flow’, the changing concept of time and contemplation and finally, the spiri-
tual, emotional and physical benefits of wildlife watching.
Figure 1. Thematic framework: the emotional and experiential benefits of watching wildlife.
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Results and discussion
Before discussing these major themes, it is important to note that the dialogue regarding wild-
life experiences did not necessarily revolve around the tours that participants had been on.
Despite the wild, exotic and remote nature of wildlife tourism destinations (e.g. polar
regions, rainforests, deserts, off-shore locations, etc.), one of the most surprising and
initial discoveries was the importance of seeing or watching wildlife ‘back home’. When dis-
cussing favourite species or the most memorable wildlife occasions, participants often spoke
of regular visitors to their garden with whom there is some sort of ‘relationship’, seeing wild-
life in urban settings and the unusual juxtaposition of humans and animals, particularly how
satisfying and reassuring it is to be able to ‘share’ environments. Therefore, seeing a King-
fisher in their local stream was just as wonderful as seeing a hummingbird in Mexico:
It’s very encouraging to see things at home. Just as much as when you are on tour. It’s important
that it is around you. To know that it is there. (Carol)
It is quite a different feeling feeding birds in the garden because you see them every day. The
pet robin that comes around when you are digging and takes some worms or takes food from
the bird table is quite different. It’s a relationship. And I don’t think that in this case familiarity
breeds contempt. (Peter, Andalucia)
Wonderment and awe
Given the immense biodiversity exhibited in nature’s design, it is not surprising that a sense
of wonderment and awe is the principal theme to arise from the transcri pts. Wonderment is
an aroused state of cognition whereby wildlife tourists marvel at the magnificence of the
objects of their gaze. This simple singular definition, however, does not adequately cover
the depth of expression. Instead, there are several perspectives of ‘wonderment’. First,
there is the emotional response of awe and wonder at the beauty of the spectacle, often
given as an analogy of art, theatre or ballet:
It’s like those Frigate Birds, they were so graceful and such beautiful movements and everything
and I know they kill things and all that but that’s not the point, you know, it’s just beautiful and
how graceful and elegant and all of that, you can admire. And I think in a way, it is like, you know,
seeing an artist or somebody that does something that you can’t do or can’t do very well. You look
at it and you think isn’t that clever, isn’t that wonderful what they do. (Dawn, Baja)
I loved watching the hundreds of seabirds which would follow the boat in the Antarctic, there
were albatross, skuas, gulls, petrels, hundreds of them and I used to stand at the back of the
boat, I could watch them for hours it was like a ballet. So beautiful. (Sophie, Baja)
Secondly, there is the cognitive wonder of nature’s design:
When I am looking out the window I can see birds on the bird table and just every day it’s a
thrill to contemplate the way they are made, the way their feathers are, the subtlety of their
colours. I feel a sense of amazement about them. Because the very fact that they can fly is
amazing, it is something that human beings can’t do. So you see a bird and you think well
what an exquisite piece of engineering and of dynamics and physics and its just fantastic the
way they fly so well. They have character you see. So all this, for me, builds up a pattern of
an infinitely varied world. (James)
The odder is it the more sort of amazement I feel. I don’t know, it is so difficult to explain, you
know I am quite happy ... I mean I have stayed in a rock pool and people think that you are
mad laying in there with your face in the water just sort of watching things. I just like the
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‘totality’. I mean anything is interesting even just watching a trail of ants building towers is
interesting ... why they avoid each other on the paths and all the sniffing ... they evoke a child-
ish sense of wonderment. (Joe, Baja)
It is the sheer diversity, the colours, the shapes and the fact that it is there at all. It also makes
you question things such as why are they here and where has it all come from, is it evolution or
is there a creator. It does make you stop and think about it and also our part in it. Where do we
belong? Because we are part of it too. (Anne Baja)
Finally, wonderment is expressed by the unlocking of immanent connections to nature.
Just the absolute wonder of it, the beauty of it, that’s about all you can say, you know, it’s just
there and it seems so fundamental to everything, you know, we are part of it and it’s wonderful
to see that these things exist and the wonder of it all stays with you. (Joe, Baja)
When asked to describe how it made them feel, participants had a tendency to become
rather ‘tongue-tied’. Their embodied experience and subsequent emotions appeared to
remain on the edge of speech. It appears that words can fall very short when talking
about wildlife experiences. This is potentially why so little work has been done in the
field of emotion and tourism. The ‘magic’ of the experience can be knowable but is
unable to be described in words, much less measured and quantified in a ‘scientific’ way.
This makes tourist psychologies difficult to explore as verbal output is a major means by
which social scientists explore human thoughts and feelings (Schroeder, 1996). When
asked to recall a special wildlife-watching moment, participants had a tendency to rely
on familiar words and phrases:
Its just, you know, there are moments when you just hit a vein of birding where you think
wow you know it is something which it explodes into your memory. It’s exciting, it’s
amazing. (Simon, Andalucia)
It’s thrilling (Matthew). I was going to say elated ... then sort of excited. (Penny)
Amazed. I’ve seen it at last! Excited actually, I think, yes. You sort of stand still, can’t believe
that you have seen it in the wild rather than in the zoo or somewhere else. (Linda)
I guess I enjoy it mainly because it’s beautiful, it’s fascinating. I mean it’s all the obvious things
really. I don’t know that I can tell you any more than that. (David, tour leader)
I find it exciting, it’s exciting, it’s thrilling, I find it exhilarating. I can’t say anymore than that,
I can’t find the words; it’s like communicating again; well it’s like communing rather than
communicating with nature isn’t it? It’s communing with nature really. (Dawn, Baja)
Thus, the complexities that comprise a wildlife experience can be difficult for partici-
pants to articulate and problematic for the researcher to capture. Schroeder (1996) sees
the hard-to-define aspects of such experiences in nature as part of their essence and their
strength. The scientific process, with its requirement for clear precise definitions and
logical analysis, ‘may run counter to the very qualities that enable these emotions to func-
tion as they do in human experience’ (Schroeder, 1996, p. 85). In attempting to explain or
voice the emotions of the encounter, there is a danger that the participants and the researcher
may diminish the very essence and importance of the feelings that are evoked. Words such
as ‘thrilling’, ‘exciting’ and ‘amazing’ are simply inadequate descriptions of the emotional
element of the encounter. It is one thing to collect the data but another to adequately articu-
late it as Cloke and Perkins (2005, p. 914) affirm ‘the evidence they present is somewhat
antithetical to the complexities involved in giving account of the emotional and visceral
responses to the pleasures of wildlife tourism’.
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With this in mind, the author took some comfort in other studies that had experienced
similar difficulties, particularly Bulbeck (2005) and Modelmog (1998) who claims that the
human relationship with nature is one of ‘intimate communication’: ‘there is an experience
of nature whereof I cannot speak, I do not have the words’ (Modelmog, 1998, p. 118).
Rather than seeing this as deficiency, Bulbeck (2005, p. xix) concludes that ‘some things
about contact with animals cannot be said: those things which are not about the ‘I reflected
in their “eyes”, but which are indeed about an indescribable, mysterious, deliriously plea-
surable other’. Perhaps it is no wonder that the human wildlife encounter is beyond words,
emotion and ‘hard-wired’ instinct and connectivity become the only language of the
moment and this language is hard to convey to others. Tanya’s response expresses this well:
It’s that precious moment and I know that people go ‘oh wow isn’t it fantastic’ and we all do
that and we did that yesterday (watching whales) but it doesn’t describe it, I mean words just ...
like when I get home and email my friends and my family about the trip there is no way that I
can explain so I just say that there are no words to describe what the whales were like. It is sort
of a feeling that you have ... a kind of real sense of wellbeing and positive rush of, you don’t
know it, but you maybe really really happy and they just do what comes naturally but for us
human beings, or some of us, it is a very intense experience. (Tanya, Baja)
Nevertheless, there has been some pioneering work in this field of humanistic, existen-
tial school of psychology. Chawla (2002) attempts to understand the magical form of con-
sciousness characterised by the ‘silent intuition’ of the union of self and other, individual
and world; this ‘at-one-ness’ with nature. Others have attempted to explain this silent
process based upon the work of Maslow (1968, p. 73) and his notion of ‘peak experience’
that he describes as ‘moments of highest happiness and fulfilment’ in which an individual
might feel: ‘disorientation in space and time, ego transcendence and self-forgetfulness and a
perception that the world is good, beautiful and desirable’. This passive feeling is ‘receptive
and humble and evokes a sense that polarities and dichotomies have been transcended or
resolved in their place, feelings of being lucky, fortunate or graced are exhibited’
(Keltner & Haidt, 2003, p. 302). The occurrence of these experiences is seen to both
reflect optimal cognitive and emotional functioning and to be important to the well-being
of the individual.
These feelings are explicitly represented in many of the in vivo responses gathered in
this research thereby giving further credence to the few studies that assert that ‘peak aes-
thetic experiences’ are often ‘achieved through the nature experience’ (Chenoweth &
Gobster, 1990; Mannell, 1996, p. 407) and more specifically with humananimal encoun-
ters (Curtin, 2006; Curtin & Wilkes, 2007; DeMares & Krycka, 1998; Laski, 1968; Wilson,
1984). Peak experiences can be linked to cathartic experiences that can make the partici-
pants’ everyday problems temporarily diminish. They are generally very brief and momen-
tary, some can be life-changing and others are merely inspirational and humbling:
Seeing a beautiful bird is a moment of beauty, a moment of insight, a moment of revelation and
inspiration, whatever and its gone sometimes in a flash, like a moment of music which makes
you shudder and then its over. (James)
I will remember the feeling of swimming with these sea lions for ever; not necessary as a high-
light of my life but a significant experience for which I feel very privileged (Dawn, Baja).
Similar feelings were provoked in the author by ‘the humpback whale who breached no less
than thirteen times right next to the boat, the grey whales in courtship, the close proximity
of the humming bird feeding from the cactus flower and seeing the tracks of the Iberian
lynx and her cubs in Andalucia’. (Travel diary, Baja)
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Inspirational feelings have been the subject of much art and literature throughout
history. For example, Wordsworth’s poetry is famous for describing a strong felt connection
between people and nature. Nature is a window opening into a deeper, universal experience
with spiritual significance. Beyond the material connections that exist between parts of nature
such as the wildlife and its habitat, Wordsworth points to a higher, less readily touched con-
nection that is felt at sudden unpredictable moments and cannot be conveyed in words.
The experience of ‘flow’
In the human experience of these unpredictable moments, there is a distinct kinship between
Maslow’s peak experience and the theory of ‘flow’ (Csikszentmihalyi, 1968). While sharing a
common heritage with Maslow, Csikszentmihalyi believed that Maslow had left too many
unanswered questions particularly as to whether any activity could generate a ‘peak experi-
ence and whether all peak experiences felt the same. What were the qualities of this highly
subjective experience? In essence, it is the complete involvement of the actor with his
activity. For Csikszentmihalyi (1968, p. 35), the concept of ‘flow’ was ‘very important for
understanding the strivings of the self and the quality of individual well-being’.
The theory of flow has been pivotal in research of wilderness experiences in North
America (Mannell, Zuzanek, & Larson, 1988; Priest & Bunting, 1993). It is a particularly
apt model with regards to wildlife tourism as clearly seeing wildlife in its natural setting has
the remarkable power to uplift the human spirit. Simply being in its presence can evoke
feelings of profound happiness in which is incorporated all the identified elements of the
human emotional peak: intention, reciprocity, connectedness, aliveness and harmony. In
this state of consciousness where the passage of time is distorted and participants are
totally absorbed in their activity and the moment, Csikszentmihalyi (1990) would
suggest that they have entered a state of ‘flow’ where the awareness of self, particularly
the ego, falls away and thoughts and skills can run freely and creatively. These are the
‘best moments of our lives’ (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990, p. 3) bestowing great satisfaction.
In this reprieve from everyday reality dwells a still, calm and focussed existence bound
in the present. Concentrating on the wildlife and using carefully developed skills to
track, spot and identify fit this theory of ‘flow’:
We were just focussed on the wildlife. Nothing else. (Carol)
I think that that is one of the advantages of bird-watching, you are concentrating on what you
are doing and if you are walking along, things can go through your head as you walk. Its one of
these activities like climbing, you can’t actually think about other things especially if you are
trying to identify them. (Linda)
Moreover, there was evidence of a much ‘deeper experience where the feelings of flow
allowed the participant to go into an altered state, to enter and to belong to the ‘orchestra of
nature’.
The sea, the colours I find, you know the thrashing of the waves and that, I can get involved in
that; it is like a sort of music and I think that the whales are part of that sort of music; part of the
theme of life really. The whole. Again I was sort of saying about ecology, it all works in like a
cycle; it all works together. It is not just one thing, it is everything and its almost like music.
(Dawn, Baja)
According to Mannell (1980), ‘flow’ differs from peak experience in several ways: it
recognises that the experience need not be an ‘all-or-none’ experience and that the
460 S. Curtin
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degree of flow can vary from modest involvement to intense peak-like involvement.
However, flow can only occur when the level of challenge inherent in the activity does
not greatly exceed a person’s competence. If their competence falls short of the challenge
then frustration can invade the sense of total fulfilment. The participants on both tours dis-
played variable degrees of competency with regards to using binoculars effectively, being
able to spot and being able to identify species. It was apparent that those who had the least
wildlife-watching experience could become anxious when they thought that they might
miss out on a sighting due to their own incompetence or similarly, when they realised
they had misidentified wildlife, they felt embarrassed by their lack of knowledge.
Figure 2 illustrates this fine line between frustration and flow in a wildlife tourism
context whereby the skills involved in scoping, using binoculars, photography and identi-
fication may at times interrupt the sense of ‘flow’. Wildlife watching can present several
personal challenges, not least being able to spot and scope fleeting glimpses of wildlife.
This can make wildlife tours a little frustrating for the novice as it demands a high
degree of concentration, focus, perception and alertness. When a participant can ‘let go’
from this self-awareness, the wonder of the landscape, the wildlife and the ‘at-one-ment’
with nature win over the moment and feelings of flow can prevail.
Sensual awakening
Such engagement with nature can be an epiphany of self-realisation. As noted by Bulbeck
(2005), people can have intense emotional and sensual responses to the natural environ-
ment. They feel very much in to uch with both themselves and with the world around
them, which provokes an intense feeling of delight. Writing of such feelings of well-
being, Diener (1992, p. 4) claims that they invoke a global assessment rather than
simply a ‘narrow assessment of a one-life domain’. This opening up is portrayed by
Marie (Baja) who reiterates at the airport on the way home that: ‘by the end of this week
I have seen and heard things in the natural world that I didn’t know even existed. It was
as if my senses were coming alive it was so exciting to discover so much’.
Clearly, it is the gaze that begins this journey of fusion and synthesis with the natural
world. Lefebvre (1991, p. 286) claims that ‘the hegemonic role of visuality overwhelms
Figure 2. Concept of ‘flow’: challenge versus competency.
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the whole body and usurps its role’, but while the visual ‘spectacle’ is at the centre of the
wildlife experience, it is by no means the only sense that is involved. Instead, there are
olfactory experiences such as the smell of the whales’ blow, the pungent smell of a bat
colony or the cloying smell of guano, all of which are experienced in a unique soundscape
of birdsong, ocean waves and animal calls; thus, the experience is a heightened, multi-
sensory one.
According to Bacon (1996, p. 311), experiencing all the various senses allows the indi-
vidual to enter an ‘aesthetic mode’. For the aesthetic mode to occur, a psychological distan-
cing from the routines of everyday life is necessary. Being immersed in watching wildlife
helps the facilitation of this distancing process: as this exert from the authors travel diary
from Magdalena Bay exemplifies:
How many times in a lifetime does one experience nature at work like this? There are blows
all in front of the bow, right out to mid-horizon. A rough estimate is 3035 Grey whales. We
could hear and smell their breaths. The synchronicity of the whales is beyond all comprehen-
sion. One minute we are looking at all the blows, the next flukes, and the next they are all
gone as they dive and surface in time with each other despite the fact that they are spread
over such a large area. I feel very relaxed and at awe with everything: one of those truly
happy moments when you are totally unconcerned with the trivia. Perhaps this is the existen-
tial authenticity espoused by Wang (1999), a feeling of being really alive, of being connected.
There is a palpable atmosphere of happiness and utter contentment amongst the tour group.
(Travel diary, Baja)
Similar feelings of euphoria are also represented in other wildlife tourism settings and in
nature itself. Seeing beautiful flora and fauna
makes me smile, it makes me jump up and down. It just gives you great pleasure really. When
you get close to something there are so many other senses that come in to play, then they have
the excitement and experience and you realise just how real it all is. (David, tour leader)
Well it’s really exciting I like well you get a rush of adrenalin. (Mark, tour leader,
Andalucia)
You can literally be jumping up and down with glee it doesn’t happen very often that sort of
thing, but you can get it, definitely things like rainbows and stuff like that. Certainly nature is all
round you; it makes you peaceful. (Linda)
Time to stand and stare
Price (1999 , p. 252) suggests that there is peace to be found in nature which is ‘a refuge
from modern life; a reprieve from irony and self-awareness’. It is akin to stepping
outside of everyday concerns and into a different world, a more real world where there
is a natural rhythm to events rather than a rhythm dictated by artificial time constraints
and socialisation. Therefore, human experience of nature and wildlife are not only spatial
events but also temporal ones too. In the liminoid, embodied space of the nature and wild-
life encounter, socially constructed modern fast time dissipates and is replaced by still life
and motionless time, bringing participants back in touch with nature’s slow, ‘glacial’
rhythms: real time as opposed to clock-time (Gell, 1992; Thrift, 2000). Bergson (1991)
observes time and body, and suggests that people do not so much think ‘real time’ but actu-
ally live it sensuously and qualitatively.
The philosophy of time is a complex and difficult subject to comprehend. Unlike
space, time is invisible to our senses and our understanding of it is always mediated.
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Durkheim (1968) argues that time is a social institution, a social construct that is different
from and opposed to the time(s) of nature. More modern thinking, however, sees this
assumption as outdated, in that the social sciences have failed to take account of develop-
ments in the natural sciences. Adam (1988, p. 205) argues that ‘a comprehensive under-
standing of time is not possible from a position where nature and society are treated as
separate; human society as nature is the basis from which to understand the multiplicity
of times’. Macnaghten and Urry (1998) suggest that humans and other animals are not
just affected by clock time but are affected by multiple rhythms. Nature is intrinsically
temporal and there are many different times in nature. Hawking (1988, p. 33) summarises
that ‘there is no “one” time, only “times” as there is no unique absolute time. Instead each
individual has his own personal measure of time that depends on where he is and how he is
moving in the universe’.
In Western societies, normal day-to-day time is conceptualised as linear where time is
taken to be an infinite succession of instants each identifiable before and after. McTaggart
(1927) refers to this as the B-theory of time. Events are seen as separate from each other:
y is after x and before z. This understanding of time can be distinguished from the A-
theory which is the sense of time as understood by the ‘past presentfuture’, where past
events are retained within the present and carried forward into the future (McTaggart,
1927). In this concept, there is only the present which comprises the memory and experience
of the past and the anticipation and expectation of the future. In the B-theory, the present is
merely a knife edge, whereas in the A-theory, the present is much longer and more signifi-
cant. Therefore, the A-theory of time is arguably more akin to a cyclical concept of time
similar to the cycles in nature (i.e. the seasons, night and day, biological life cycles),
whereas the B-theory is an imposed concept of time driven by society and economy.
Macy (1993, p. 206) refers to current time as being ‘like an ever-shrinking box, in which
we race on a treadmill at increasingly frenetic speeds which allows us only the briefest
experience of time’. This fragmented and temporality is ‘typical of a growing majority
of the population in rich countries where contemporary culture is dominated by high
speed information and technology’ (Eriksen, 2001, p. 148) and where time is seen as a
resource. This makes ‘slow time’, when we can reconnect with significant others and
enjoy the world around us, our most precious yet scarcest commodity.
It is interesting that despite the promise of a new leisure class, the spirit of capitalism
and the discipline of the Protestant work ethic are still engrained in modern societies:
‘where waste of time is thus the deadliest of sins. Loss of time through sociability, idle
talk and luxury, even more sleep than is necessary to health is worthy of absolute moral
condemnation’ (Weber, 1930, p. 158).
Macnaghten and Urry (1998) contend that time is rarely analysed in relation to pleasure
and even less so in our experience of nature. Lefebvre (1991) maintains that with modernity,
lived time, experienced in and through nature, gradually disappears. Perhaps it is no wonder
given the pressures of everyday life and the often overwhelming economic wheel that feeds
modern consumerism that the demand for wildlife and nature-based travel experiences has
escalated as it momentarily allows the human spirit to re-engage with nature and escape the
stresses of modern living. As Krippendorf (1987) asks us to consider: do holidays represent
the ‘time of your life’ or more significantly ‘time for your life’?
The above debate certainly has resonance with participants’ experiences:
I mean this is one of the tragedies of modern life, all the things that we’ve got that are supposed
to save us time like the computers and the dishwashers and all the rest of it actually don’t
because the time we save is then filled with something else and the world has lost, well the
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Western world has lost the ability to stand still and look. You know what is that ‘William Henry
Davies’ poem? ‘What is this world if full of care I have no time to stand and stare’ and that’s
right, people have lost the ability to stop and contemplate. (James)
Clearly, one of the joys of wildlife watching is that it provides this time to stand and
stare. While the elements portrayed in Figure 3 are neither sequential nor necessarily
related, they do illustrate the many references to time and the extraordinary and multiple
effects on time for participants. It was clear from their narratives that watching wildlife
distorted time and/or conveyed a relationship with time but this was described in very
individual ways. Each aspect of the ‘clock’ in Figure 3 portrays a different description of
how nature and wildlife watching relates to the passing of time with regards to both the
moment and the seasons. Their descriptions also hint towards the quiet, calm and
healing elements of stopping fast time and being absorbed in nature’s slow time. The
following excerpts also convey the feeling of being ‘of the moment’:
I think time stops. You are so absorbed in what you are doing. (Penny)
Time expands. Definitely. I’m amazed at how it goes so quickly and that ... I think it is because
you are totally absorbed in what you are looking at. Everything else is blocked out. It’s like
watching the birds here on the feeders in my garden, half-an hour goes in a trice. (Sophie, Baja)
You are just quiet for that minute you know. You just stand still don’t you, well I do anyway.
Time stops (Linda). You’re so busy in what you are doing, you’re not thinking about anything
and the time just disappears. (Marie, Baja)
Figure 3. Wildlife watching and the multiple dimensions of time.
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I think as a bird-watcher you have got to learn to be patient. Therefore time needs to cease to
have the pressure that it normally has. It is quite good for me to watch the birds because it’s a
time in the day when I don’t just dash on to the next thing. (James)
Time has several key dimensions to the wildlife experience. Nature can fill in time and make
it special as Rebecca (Andalucia) explains:
I don’t start work now until 9.30 am. 9.30 am is the earliest and that is a very precious time as
Tony goes off about 8.30 am. All your life this has been a very busy time. Get them to school,
do this and that. Now it feels like I’ve got lots of time; this lovely time. I fill up the bird
feeders, do the water in the bird bath, make another cup of tea and sit and watch the birds
before I go to work.
Wildlife and nature also mark the passing of time:
There’s a lovely part where I cycle over the bridge by the river. Its somewhere that I’ve always
remembered: a whole avenue of horse chestnut trees and I love watching them change, first sign
of autumn, first flowers, first conquers. It’s quite interesting how conscious I am of them and
how connected I feel to them. It’s like the first birds to sing in the morning and the first
swallows to arrive in spring. (Carol)
Watching wildlife allows an acceptable and welcome creation of time:
and my wildlife does that for me, it has got that element to it: contemplation and just stepping
out of the rat race and the spiral of time for a few moments and allowing you time to just float
free will. (Ian, Andalucia)
So much of our lives we are controlled by something, albeit a timetable, a job, a pay packet, a
deadline to meet, a family wanting something done for them. When you are there all those
things sort of disappear. I mean most of the time I am by the coast I am either off duty or
on holiday so for example I probably wouldn’t even have a watch on because you don’t
need to worry what the time is. So it just all adds to this feeling of not being trapped and
not being controlled because you are in a very open and free relaxing place: it just seems to
cut across all the ordered things that we have in daily existence. (Simon, Andalucia)
Finally, time is reflected in the length of the sighting.
Nature is very fleeting it can be just the flash of a wing, the ripple of the surface of the water when
a fish comes to the surface and instantly it has gone whatever it may be and so a lot of nature’s
encounters are very brief. That’s why if you can actually get the more lasting sighting you are
very lucky because you don’t get that very often. A fox running out in front of you or a stoat
in the undergrowth by their very nature they are very very quick sightings. (Peter, Andalucia)
Given the tiny slice of human experience which is situated in the cognitive domain,
Norretranders (1998, p. 128) argues that much cognitive thought and knowledge may,
indeed, be only a kind of post hoc rumination: ‘to be aware of a (fleeting wildlife) experi-
ence means that it has already passed’. This post hoc realisation sometimes leads the wild-
life tourist to want to suspend the moment due to the intense pleasure of watching
something special: ‘wildlife is always so fleeting. I want to suspend these moments in
time but I can’t! Stop the clocks!’ (Sophie, Baja).
Tourists themselves can appear suspended in time especially after a spectacular encoun-
ter. This was exemplified on the whale-watch boat when the tour participants watched a group
of humpback whales that had repeatedly breached themselves right in front of the bows:
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As the ship’s bell rung for lunch we obediently responded like Pavlov’s dogs. However, whilst
we were there in person, our spirits were still with the whales. It was like we were still sus-
pended in the action we had just witnessed. Our eyes naturally drifted towards the horizon
visible from the dining area; scanning, not wanting to miss out. (Travel diary, Baja)
Consequently, in this ‘go-faster, future-orientated’ world, wildlife can make us stop and
take a breath before moving on to the next pressing task. Thrift (2000) calls this ‘still life in
nearly present time’ and Gell (1992, p. 69) refers to it as the ‘motionless present’. Here is a
space in time that allows observation and contemplation.
Voyeurism and contemplation
While the preceding discussion asserts that seeing wildlife can provoke a feeling of con-
nectedness with the whole of nature, there is a fine theoretical distinction between being
a spectator and being a player, and the definition along this continuum varies according
to the participant. For most, wildlife watching is situated more towards observation and
spectacle: ‘you are of their world but not in it’ and of ‘seeing them in their world, not
our world’ (Montag, Patterson, & Freimund, 2005). This is principally apparent when
the wildlife is active as opposed to passive, i.e. when it is in pursuit of prey, when it is
in courtship or rearing young. Such observations provide a platform for contemplation of
the human ‘other and the human condition:
There is an element of creation which is brutal and when a Sparrow hawk flies through the
garden, its thrilling and exciting but you also know that probably at least one small bird has
copped it and so that there is that tragic side to it as well which is a mirror of our life as
well. I mean our life can be happy and tragic all at the same time and I don’t understand
why that can be. (James)
Whilst the emotional thrill of seeing a glimpse of wildlife doesn’t last, the memory does. I think
that moments of insight in our lives are part of the human condition but they don’t last long
either. (Ian, Andalucia)
I suppose one is first attracted by the colours and the calls but I am particularly interested in bird
behaviour; that intrigues me more. I think it’s because of their social lives and organisations.
(Matthew)
There is also a spatial element to the notion of spectatorship. An ‘encounter with a wild
animal suggests more of a meeting, of being in a shared space with both animal and human
being acutely aware of one another especially where there is one-to-one experience or
where there is eye contact. Rolston (1987) suggests that wildlife is a source of fascination
because they are spontaneous and a window of life that can be looked into, and from which
something looks out. This is more akin to participation. Conversely, watching wildlife
through binoculars or a telescope from afar is more analogous to being an observer or spec-
tator and has voyeuristic connotations.
Despite the differences in setting (i.e. whether watching wildlife on tour or at home),
this voyeurism has some common characteristics with the notion of the ‘urban fla
ˆ
neur’,
so immortalised by Baudelaire who was describing the movement of population from
country to town. The fla
ˆ
neur seeks to immerse himself in the crowd and wallow in its
rush of sensory information, but even so expe riences a sense of not quiet belonging, of
being an onlooker. Wildlife tourists have a similar voyeuristic experience in that they
themselves are out of their ‘normal’ environment and context. Whether they are on the
icecaps, on the savannah, in the rainforest or on the ocean, tourists do not belong to that
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environment; they can only be onlookers as they pass through the various habitats. There-
fore, they become a ‘fla
ˆ
neur au nature’, in the scene but not part of it. Rather than reduce the
experience, voyeurism can also provoke deep contemplation.
You know, you are there but you are like a fly on the wall, you are not spoiling the atmosphere,
and you can enjoy watching them be themselves and it makes you think ... (Dawn, Baja)
The more mature you get the bigger that sphere becomes until you appreciate that it is a great
world and everything is interdependent and everything is worth considering and trying to
understand. (Ian, Andalucia)
The feeling of being a ‘fla
ˆ
neur de la nature’ is exemplified when three whales engrossed
in a courtship dance made their presence felt right next to the skiff. The authors travel diary
describes the scene and the responses of the tour group, which encapsulates much of the
discussion explored in this article:
The boat engines cut and there is total silence. The sense of privilege at this is totally over-
whelming. You feel so close to nature, yet there is a profound sense of voyeurism. These
animals are courting and mating and I feel like I am imposing; walking in on a romance. Every-
one is completely silent and still, and totally mesmerized by the scene; their silence adding to
the intensity of the atmosphere and experience.
As the whales make long, loud exhalations, all your senses are alive and you feel totally
absorbed in this moment and place. Time has no perspective, no meaning or relevance; all
of the petty everyday concerns, such as being cold or wet, are once more washed away by
events. We watch in awe as one whale breaks free from this courtship; presumably satiated,
and breaches completely out of the water, once, then twice more. Their story is enacted in
front of our eyes, As Dawn exclaims: ‘the ocean becomes a theatre, the whales are the
actors and we are their audience’. (Travel diary, Baja)
Kaplan (1993) asserts that although snapshot experiences of beautiful landscapes can
temporarily lift one’s moods, extended dialogues with wildlife, like this, can restore one psy-
chologically and allow opportunities for inner contemplation and change. The deepest and
strongest attachments between people and natural occurrences give rise to spiritual experi-
ences in which people feel a sense of connection with a larger reality that helps gives
meaning to their own lives (Schroeder, 1996). Frankl (1962, 1997) suggests that meaning
of leisure lies in four dimensions: physical, mental, social and existential or spiritual.
Spiritual fulfilment
Existential moments like the one described above are common on an intensive wildlife tour
and clearly they do have a spiritual component or magical component (Vining, 2003). This
ability of natural settings to provide spiritual experien ces has long been recognised as a
leisure benefit (Mannell, 1996). While the term ‘spiritual’ has religious connotations, its
meaning in this context is how nature and particularly seeing wildlife affects the partici-
pants’ ‘spirit’, i.e. the vital principle or animating force and fundamental emotion within
them. Spiritual needs and experienc es have received little empirical attention in the
nature-based leisure and tourism literature (Mannell, 1996; McDonald & Schre yer,
1991). Bulbeck (2005, p. xxii) is critical of the lack of spiritualistic orientation in the bio-
philia schema (Kellert & Wilson, 1993), especially she says, ‘given the search for meaning
by many (mainly white and middle class) members of Western society’. However, the spiri-
tual components of wildlife watching are once again difficult to explore and articulate.
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When the subject was posited in conversations with participants, it inspired either extreme
brevity or the occasional lengthy introspection:
I’m not a terribly spiritual person but I live my life on the principle that happiness is lots of little
things and so it is the same on a wildlife tours; it’s all the little unexpected wonderful things that
can happen and yes it does make you feel privileged and happy and I suppose uplifted.
(Michelle, Baja)
It is spiritually uplifting as I say you always feel better for it somehow. I’m not particularly
religious but it does make you feel the wonderment of it all and all the colours and the
shapes are enriching. As I said I couldn’t live without it. After a busy day or stressful day at
work, it’s wonderful to work out in your garden and just unwind. Just touching the soil and
being actively involved in doing something outdoors in nature lifts you. (Sophie, Baja)
The best spiritual moments are the ones you are least expecting when you think you are being
quite calm and serene and you have a moment of revelation. Seeing wildlife is like that. It has
the ability to break into your day completely unannounced; that is completely important to me
and it’s just utterly thrilling when that happens. And it could be anything. In the middle of the
night for example, you are fast asleep and occasionally there is a Tawny Owl who sits outside
our window hooting and suddenly you are awake. Why am I awake? Oh that owl is there ...
and that has just burst into the middle of your night’s sleep and you don’t begrudge it because it
is lovely; it’s uplifting. (James)
This spiritual element arguably comes from ‘being able to connect with what is often a
spiritual sense of wonder at being part of a vast interconnected network of life’ (Vining,
2003, p. 88), or a connection with a larger reality that helps give meaning to their lives
(Schroeder, 1996). The natural world provides a point of reference and support in an affluent,
consumer-orientated society where wildlife and nature present a refuge and escape from the
pressures of urban environments and daily routines. The fields of environmental psychology
and ecopsychology aim to identify, measure and enhance the benefits that people obtain from
interacting with the natural world. However, research on nature and the human spirit is based
upon values that are very hard to define, poorly understood, elusive, ethereal, intangible and,
as this and other research has shown, extremely difficult for participants to articulate effec-
tively; therefore, existing research methodologies struggle to provide sufficient insight
into the spiritual experiences of nature-based and wildlife tourism.
Other health benefits
Nevertheless, given the evidence that wildlife watching allows time for contemplation, is
spiritually uplifting and emotionally and sensually absorbing, it follows that there are
possible psychological and other health benefits to having access to natural environme nts
and particularly wildlife. The above discussion with regards to connecting with nature and
uplifting the spirit has a degree of resonance with attention restoration theory (Kaplan &
Kaplan, 1989), in that there are healing and restorative qualities associated with watching
wildlife.
There are two different categories of wildlife encounter discussed by the participants:
the out of the ordinary ones experienced on tour and the day-to-day wildlife encounters
that are experienced much closer to home. In the former, it is difficult to proclaim psycho-
logical benefits as the ‘being on holiday’ environment itself can be regenerating. However,
there is an important message in the latter type of encounter as it is evidenc e that sharing our
world with abundant flora and fauna enhances our day-to-day well-being and happiness
which in turn has significant psychological and other health benefits. From the basic: ‘it
cheers me up’ (Peter, Andalucia) to the mere uplifting of spirit: ‘There are times when
468 S. Curtin
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I’m feeling grey and down and low. A chance encounter or a chance spotting can just bring
a momentary ray of sunlight’ (James), and finally, the more profound realisation that life is
good:
When you have not been sleeping and you wake up very early and you hear the dawn chorus
and you hear the birds, you can suddenly in seconds feel uplifted because all your life you are
depressed about something. From time to time, you suddenly go through a bad section and you
are not sleeping and you suddenly get this sort of dawn chorus or you hear an owl at night. And
you think, well, there’s nothing really to be depressed about because life’s quite good really. I
think nature can make you feel good in that sense so it can be uplifting for you. (Rebecca,
Andalucia)
I don’t know if you have times when you are really sad or whatever and you can sit and watch
an animal doing something and you can get a sense of emotion that takes you out of the situ-
ation that you are in. (Dawn, Baja)
Experiences in nature have long been seen to have health benefits. The idea you can be
mended by the healing currents of the great outdoors by engaging with rhythms and ways of
life different from your own goes back to classical times (Mabey, 2006). The Romans rec-
ommended rambling as a way of resolving emotional tangles (solvitur ambulando) and the
French philosopher Foucault (2001, p. 62) wrote that the countryside, ‘by the variety of its
landscapes wins melancholics from their single obsession by taking them away from the
cause and the memory of their sufferings’. Adler (1989, p. 1375) suggests that merely
walking in the countryside can be a ‘search for a vantage point from which to grasp and
understand life’. It restores the natural proportions of our perceptions, reconnecting us
with both the physical world and the moral order inherent within it (Wallace, 1993). Simi-
larly Hull (1992) has shown that even short visits to city parks contribute to improved mood
states, and Kaplan (1993) and Schroeder (1996) assert that stress reduction and relaxation
occur when watching nature. Penny’s excerpt below perfectly exemplifies these assertions:
Oh if you are feeling depressed, I go for a walk (laughing). As soon as I start walking even if it
is just slowly along, everything seems to change and fall into place more somehow and it is
relaxing and you think about other things apart from any problems that you might have. I
think seeing things happening in the wild, it might not be animals necessarily, but when you
see primroses beginning to come out and other things, it does uplift you, yes. (Penny)
For those who doubt the power of nature, Pretty (2004) has reviewed hundreds of
studies that appear to prove that the merest glimpse of nature does one good. Mabey
(2006), however, cautions the soft, romantic and cosy impressions of the natural world por-
trayed in popular media; a vision similarly portrayed in the eighteenth century when the
countryside began to be promoted as the fount of all virtue and true wisdom a notion,
he claims permanently damages our ideas about the quality and virtue of urban life. None-
theless, while these participants value the cultural aspects of urban life, the built environ-
ment does not entirely sustain them: going on wildlife tours and seeing wildlife in the
everyday satisfies an important need:
I mean I like the feel that a city or large town gives you; there’s lots going on and lots to do, but
I feel the need for the beauty of the countryside. I would go as far as to say that certainly as far
as bird life is concerned, there is definitely a spiritual dimension to that. I don’t just see them as
creatures, I see beauty in them and I mean I do find bird-watching and having the wildlife in the
countryside near me spiritually uplifting and important for my soul as well as just a hobby.
(James)
Current Issues in Tourism 469
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In these profound ways, wildlife experiences whether on tour or at home can sustain the
human spirit. The knowled ge that it is all there waiting to be discovered and the memory of
past sightings builds hope and expectations of the next occurrence.
When you have seen something beautiful you’re never the same again because you know it
happens. Even if you can’t actually capture that moment again which you can’t because it is
so special and unique, you know it happens and therefore you can just take the knowledge
that that happened and say maybe it will happen again. (Edward)
It is a moment of ecstasy for me seeing beauty in a bird and it doesn’t last very long but the
memory, the facts of it, the knowledge that it happened does sustain me because I know it hap-
pened and the memories do sustain you and enrich your life. (James)
Not in the sense that you become euphoric and kind of go round with a smile on your face
all the time but it gives you that sort of contentedness and also it is like sustaining you in a
sense ... I mean I like going away but also I like home but I think the reason I want to go
home is because you have been nourished. I know it sounds corny but watching wildlife is
like nourishment for me; something to sustain me for when I go home and until my next
trip. (Tanya, Baja)
Conclusion
In conclusion, this research reveals some pertinent findings with regards to wildlife tourism.
First, it is clear that for this market segment, love of nature and wildlife go far beyond the mere
holiday experience into their everyday world. Seeing wildlife in their ‘own backyards’ is as
important and significant as seeing the exotic, the rare and the unusual while on holiday. Simi-
larly, it is impossible to separate the wildlife experience from its natural setting. Even though
the species may be the focal point, the embodied experience of being ‘in nature’ makes it
difficult to separate wildlife experiences from nature experiences.
Moreover, the enhanced ‘state of being’ and the profound sense of wonderment is see-
mingly beyond normal expression as the multisensory experience exists on the edge of
verbal consciousness. The wildlife encounter involves more than the visual spectacle.
Instead, all the senses are heightened as the individual moves into a state of ‘flow’ where
all thought and action is concentrated on the moment in the task of spotting, watching, iden-
tifying, recording and enjoying. There is a momentary loss of self-awareness and an exis-
tential consciousness and connectedness with the living world. When wildlife enters the
experience, time changes. Linear (or B-theory) time slips away and has little relevance to
the present. In its place time expands. What appears to be only a minute in real time can
become much longer in nature’s time. This stepping out of the pressures of the everyday
brings a host of psychological benefits, particularl y the provision of still and motionless
time in which to marvel, contemplate and philosophise. Just glimpsing wildlife, taking a
walk in the countryside or hearing an owl at night can lift the spirit and help put everyday
concerns into a different perspective.
Many of the observations in the literature with regards to biophilia and attention
restoration theory are replicated in this study, particularly the restorative effects of nature
and wildlife on human well-being, and the intense joy and happiness when witnessing the
diversity and theatre of the animal kingdom. This in itself provides a degree of
external validity and is further evidence that experiences in nature and watching wildlife
are potentially fundamental to human mental health and happiness and that the very
existence of wildlife enhances our lives. As mammals, humans are an intrinsic part of the eco-
system. The survival of a healthy environment assures our own survival; therefore, we can no
longer sustain the dualism by which we construct the natural world of society and nature.
470 S. Curtin
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The fact that th e wildlif e seen on home soil has eq ual if not more importance than
exotic flora and fauna seen on holid ay highlights the importance of conservation
efforts in Britain including that undertaken in the green sp aces of t owns and cities. More-
over, wildlife does not need to be exotic or flagship to be worthy of our care and
conservation.
Above all, this study has shown that nature and watching wildlife has the potential to
temporarily distract us from our hectic time-driven schedules, daily existence and work/
family demands to a space where time is our own and a place where it is possible to recon-
nect and restore our mental well-being to a state of equilibrium. Nature and wildlife there-
fore has curative and sustaining properties beyond the mere aesthetic not only in our
countryside but also in our cities. There is arguably a need for urgent recognition that
urban green spaces are imperative to improve quality of life despite the modern requirement
for high-density building and the demand for more and more housing. However, the
strength of this recognition is dependent on research that explores and quantifies the tangi-
ble and intangible importance of trees, flowers, wildlife, parks and access to neighbouring
countryside to the health and mental well-being of residents.
While this investigation has provided some interesting results for the wildlife tourism
sector, the findings are not transferable beyond the scope of this article. Further research
is required to take the psychological benefits introduced in this small, exploratory study
and test them on a much wider population. Of particular importance is the potential differ-
ence between wildlife watchers based upon their tourist typology, i.e. whether they are
serious, casual or sporadic wildlife watchers, whether they live in rural or urban settings,
their gender, socio-demographic profile, life stage and ethnicity.
On a societal level, a survey that tests the views of the general public on the intrinsic
value of the presence and abundance of wildlife to their sense of well-being might
support the need for increased conservation of natural resources and protected landscapes.
In this unremitting wake of consume rism and the pursuit of material-orientated wealth, we
are in danger of losing sight of our inherent connection with the natural world. If species are
allowed to continue to diminish at the rate that has been witnessed since the 1950s, then our
world will be a much lesser place for future generations.
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... Interações turísticas com a fauna silvestre, uma das atividades desenvolvidas no ecoturismo, podem envolver observação, toque, oferta alimentar, mergulho e natação com as espécies foco, e têm um papel importante no turismo, principalmente quando realizadas com espécies icônicas e carismáticas (Reynolds & Braithwaite, 2001;Orams, 2002;Tremblay, 2002;Curtin, 2009;Nakamura & Nishida, 2009;Vidal et al., 2020). ...
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