Katharina Heyer –My place in the world
It was a coincidence - or was it her fate that made the 55-year-old Katharina Heyer travel to the small town of Tarifa at the southern tip of Spain on New Year's Eve in 1997? She wanted to have a rest from her hard job as a successful sports bag designer and followed a friend's advice. She couldn’t get his casually spoken words: "There are supposed to be dolphins and even orcas" out of her mind. For quite some time she had felt like a wheel spinning at neutral. So she followed the hint without knowing why...
Whatever had led Katharina Heyer to Tarifa that day, the trip to the sea and the encounter with dolphins and Pilot whales turned her whole life upside down. All she wanted was to know more about the dolphins and whales in the Strait of Gibraltar and to protect their endangered habitat.
A time of change
Already in April 1998 Katharina Heyer founded in Zurich (Switzerland) a foundation for the protection and research of marine mammals called firmm - foundation for information and research on marine mammals. She sold her business and plunged into the adventure full of enthusiasm.
According to the slogan: "Only what people know and love, they are willing to protect," she wanted to sensitize the broad population through the encounter with dolphins in freedom. Respectful whale watching, information and education, accompanied by scientific research - this was her plan for her foundation for the benefit of whales and dolphins in the Strait of Gibraltar. Spain alone had six dolphinariums at that time, three more were planned. In the busy Strait of Gibraltar, whales were helplessly exposed to noise and heavy freight traffic. Katharina recognized the urgency and began her fight for the marine mammals.
Many supporters were quickly found who shared her ideology and wanted to support Katharina in realizing her vision. But occasionally Katharina also trusted the wrong people. Her plans were met with envy and resentment, and many people were openly hostile to the courageous Swiss woman. Others repeatedly put obstacles in her way in the hope that she would eventually suffer a setback and give up. But Katharina only seemed to grow with the obstacles, no new restrictions or harassments could force her to her knees.
She didn't know anything about boats or shipping, but over the years she was able to buy bigger and bigger boats to take the people out to the sea to see the dolphins. Scientific surveys were unfamiliar to her, but with the help of experts she quickly learned what to look out for when observing the animals and what to record.
For fifteen years she fought in vain for the construction of a dolphin sanctuary in Morocco, she was deceived and had to bury her dream. But Katharina got over it and focused from now on on the sustainability of the work of firmm.
Despite all adversities firmm grew over all the years into a stable organization, whose work found more and more attention and recognition internationally. Today annually about 30,000 people use the opportunity to watch whales in a respectful way and let themselves be moved by it.
A well-coordinated team around Katharina ensures the day-to-day business from April to October. A committed foundation board and many helpers further expand the firmm- offer.
Katharina herself is still standing on the roof of one of her boats as much as possible to get to “her" whales and dolphins. There she gains strength and feels happy. Eye to eye with the Pilot Whales, the playing Bottlenose Dolphins or resting Sperm Whales she is where she belongs, at her place in the world.
Honorary doctorate in recognition of a lifetime achievement
In 2017, the University of Basel awarded Katharina Heyer an honorary doctorate from the Faculty of Natural Sciences. A well-deserved recognition for the life's work of a woman, which continues to grow and which opposes the seemingly already lost struggle for the living beings in our oceans with a sign full of strength and hope.