17. firmm-meeting on the 21st of February, 2015 in the „Kultur- und Kongresshaus“ in Aarau, Switzerland

by firmm Team

1. part of the evening, text: Andrea Stampfli, photos: Thomas Brückmann and Eduardo Montano

Once again Katharina opens this year’s firmm meeting in front of a huge audience. Like every year the meeting is popular and the hall is full. As in the year before also the boat crew (Diego, Eduardo, and Pedro) came to Switzerland to join the event. Furthermore, Jörn Selling, the foundations marine biologist is here for the first time!

At the beginning Samuel Notz informs about the programme of the evening and then Katharina starts with a review of the past season.

Samuel Notz Katharina Heyer 

First she explains what firmm means, where the different offices of the foundation are located and what special place Tarifa is.

The year 2014 was an absolute record year for firmm. Thanks to the good weather more than 25’000 tourists joined the boat trips. The 1’600 information talks made it possible to bring the whales and dolphins closer to a huge number of interested people. In return there were fewer course participants.

Enough captains and crewmembers were at firmms disposal throughout the whole season. Therefore both boats were ready at any time and so many tourists were able to meet these wonderful animals in their natural habitat.

The popularity of the adoptions of whales and dolphins also increased. It’s always nice to have a direct relation to one of the animals.

1600 information talks Both boats with crew 

Apart from numerous stands at various fairs in Switzerland, firmm was also present at the bird-watching “festival de los migraciones”, where ornithologists enjoyed Jörn Sellings speech about the whales and dolphins in the Strait of Gibraltar.

Also this year many journalists and television stations were interested in firmm and reported about the foundations work. Currently you can find a report of several pages in the German magazine “Unterwasser”. All the stories can be also read on our homepage in the press section.

On the Easter weekend the whale and dolphin museum of Tarifa was, after a delay of two years, finally officially opened by the Mayor. The running costs for the museum are paid by the four whale-watching companies of the city. So if you’re in Tarifa anyway, why not have a look?

A really special and adventurous event was the crossing of the Strait of Gibraltar by the two Swiss swimmers Roberta Bernet and Jürg Ammann. Katharina congratulates them on their extraordinary performance, which was really interesting to follow. The strong currents and the heavy ship traffic are not to be underestimated and forced the two athletes to a first-class performance.

Jürg Ammann and Roberta Bernet "Paralel" project in Morokko 

Then Katharina comments for a last time on the project in Morocco: In May last year she found out that on the land that was promised to firmm by the governor, the constructions of an academy of art and culture had already begun. It looks like firmm had been deceived and that the verbal agreement hadn’t been worth a cent!

2014 was definitely a sperm whale year. With 342 sightings firmm was able to count more sperm whales than ever before. The biggest sighted group counted 9 animals; this is really special as sperm whales usually swim on their own. After all these sightings the request for sperm whale adoptions grew. That’s why you can now also adopt two well-known sperm whales: Cicatriz and Observador!

Again and again these wonderful giant creatures are disturbed by a “research-team”. They mark the animals with radio transmitters to study their behaviour. Unfortunately, when attaching the transmitters, they sometimes leave ugly wounds and scars on the back of the animals.

A little bit later a fascinating film about the tuna fish that pass the Strait of Gibraltar in great depth is shown. Katharina herself wasn’t aware of all the traffic going on underwater during her boat trips – especially when a whole swarm of tuna searches its way to the Mediterranean Sea.

The orcas were sighted 32 times more than in the year before. Katharina has also been informed that a group of orcas was still spotted in the Strait of Gibraltar at the beginning of February. This could possibly mean that they did not migrate to the Atlantic Ocean this year, but stayed in the region. A reason for this might be “Baby Wilson”, an orca baby born at the end of September.

In August a not so pleasant incident occurred in Tarifa: During the strike of the Moroccan police, hundreds of refugees tried to reach the Spanish coastlines – tragic moments in the harbour of Tarifa.

But also more joyful events took place in and around town. A special highlight was a flock of flamingos that flew over Tarifa on the 21st of August. A supposedly surfacing sperm whale which turned out to be a Turkish submarine that emerged suddenly and unexpectedly, provided for laughs.

In September once again the students of the University of Basel came to Tarifa under the leadership of Prof. Dr. Patricia Holm. On their boat trips they collected lots of plankton and microscoped it immediately.

With a short film of a group of fin whales that crossed the Strait of Gibraltar, Katharina ends her review about the successful season 2014.

„From whaling to the protection of whales“, presentation of Prof. Dr. Patricia Holm

Whales are mammals and descend from the group of cloven-hoofed animals. Their closest relatives on land are the hippos. Whales are divided into toothed whales and baleen whales. The baleens consist of keratin – the same material as our fingernails. Furthermore, the blue whale with its 190 tons is still the biggest mammal that has ever lived on earth.

Prof. Dr. Patricia Holm  

Why were whales hunted?

Whales have always been used by humans. The whale oil was used intensively to lighten street lanterns in the 17th century. Back then the whales were saved by the discovery of petroleum, a quite controversial resource nowadays. After the first oil drilling success in 1859 the lanterns in the streets were operated with petroleum. But still the whales were used for a lot of things: for the production of soap, grease, cosmetics, ointments and even margarine.

The faster and more flexible the ships got, the more efficient became the whaling of the big whales and people also started to hunt for smaller and faster whales. As a consequence more and more whales were hunted. But whales only give birth to few calves – some species only every third year. So the reproduction of the whales could not keep up with the whaling and the population of the whales collapsed. Because of this the call for whaling regulations got louder and therefore the International Whaling Commission (IWC) was founded. The IWC established a hunting act. The idea behind this law is not to protect the whales but to make sure that whaling will still be possible in the future. But the reached agreement only includes the hunt for big whales and does not offer any solution for other threats to whales. Unfortunately the agreement did not have the expected effect on the populations and many nations had to give up their whaling practices because of economic reasons. Only Japan and the Soviet Union continued hunting whales. In 1986 a moratorium came into force that prohibited commercial whaling. After that the population of humpback whales demonstrably recovered.

Not regulated by the IWC is the scientific whaling. Every country determines the rules itself; the IWC just takes note of them. Today the scientific whaling is mainly carried out by Japan and Iceland. According to the IWC it is allowed and even desired that scientifically hunted whales are utilized. That means that the consumption is allowed and even encouraged.

Aboriginal Subsistence Whaling

Strict regulations and a list of conditions also exist for indigenous whaling. The utilisation of as many parts of the whale as possible is explicitly desired. That’s why it’s allowed to sell souvenirs made of whale products.


Protection of whales

Whale-watching turned out to be a huge industry and provides the operators already for a long time with more income than whaling. The turnover of whale-watching is worldwide more than 1 billion. 80 % of the tourists visit the regions famous for whales and dolphins mainly to see the animals and not primarily to see the country.

That’s a chance for the whales. But only if strict rules for whale-watching will be established and also respected (for example: No swimming with dolphins to avoid the transmission of diseases, etc.) So it’s important to choose a whale-watching company wisely – if not, meeting the whales in their natural environment can affect the well-being of the animals.

At the end a provocative question…

In the end Patricia Holm asks a provocative question: Who would reject to eat a traditional deer goulash? There are many of these animals in our countries and they are hunted actively – so where is the difference to whales and dolphins? Both species are mammals, live in the wild and are hunted where they are resident. She indicates that there is a difference, but the time during the firmm meeting will definitely not be sufficient to discuss the matter.

Aren’t we all responsible for the threat to whales? Many whales get killed by ships, rubbish, noise, constructions, etc. More than 300.000 whales die annually as by-catch. How many of us do eat fish? Others are close to extinction because of external influences or are considered already extinct (e.g. the Chinese river dolphin). Many dolphins get caught for dolphinariums and there they have to entertain people. Some people just don’t have another source of food and therefore hunt the dolphins out of hunger. So nobody is really innocent!

Now Katharina presents the whole foundation board, the staff, the volunteers and all the other people that supported firmm actively in 2014.

New memeber in the foundation board: Caroline Burger Heike and Mario: webmasters from Leipzig 

An interesting film of the course participant Uwe Haensse was the perfect end of the first part of the firmm meeting. During the break there were various stands that offered information and souvenirs:

firmm souvenir stand Animals to adopt Postcards from Lina and Laurin Stand with the DVD and the book of Hans Peter Roth: The cove 

2nd part of the evening, text: Jessica Baum, pictures: Eduardo Montano and Thomas Brückmann

Samuel Notz presents the two following speakers: Jörn Selling and Hans Peter Roth. Both join the firmm meeting for the first time and the expectation of the audience is high. Our marine biologist Jörn Selling starts.

As Katharina Heyer has mentioned in the first half of the meeting, the year 2014 was the year of the sperm whales. On one boat trip we saw nine different sperm whales in only two hours! That was a really impressive event that I got to experience as a volunteer and which will always stay in my memory and in the memories of our guests.

Jörn wanted to find out why there are years with many sightings of sperm whales in the Strait of Gibraltar and years with fewer. Sperm whales can be seen all year round by the local fishermen and the whale watchers. By the way – sperm whales can grow up to 18 meters long and belong to the best divers of the oceans. However, the animals are not resident in the Strait and it seems there are times we can see them more often. During the months of May and June there are more sperm whales sightings than in the hot months of July, August and September, probably because of the food supply. We still do not know exactly where the animals come from and where they are going when they leave the Strait of Gibraltar. Some of them definitely belong to the population of the Mediterranean Sea, because one of “our” whales has been also seen there. As already mentioned there are “good” and “not so good” years concerning the sightings. The years 2001, 2007, 2008, 2012 and specially 2014 were good sperm whale years. Sperm whales made 9-18 % of all the sightings, while they just reached 1-7 % in bad years. In the years 2010 and 2011 the sperm whales mainly avoided the Strait of Gibraltar. Wether there are more sperm whales coming into the Strait in some years than in others, or if there are always the same animals around that just move on in case they don’t find enough food cannot be figured out on the basis of the present data.

So Jörn took a closer look at the good and bad sperm whale years. In the bad years it is obvious that the animals leave the Strait of Gibraltar earlier and come back later. Moreover they are then sighted in a smaller area and closer together. They possibly have to spread out wider when their number is bigger in good years to divide the limited food resources better among them.

Jörn Selling and Samuel Notz Jörn with wind-trips statistic 

2014 was an especially wind-poor year, so the difference between the numbers of sightings throughout the years could be influenced either by the direction of the wind, or the wind intensity.

That’s why Jörn wanted to know at which wind intensity we have the most boat trips: Most of the tours take place at wind force 3, but there are also years with more trips at wind force 4 or more. In these years with more strong winds we indeed see fewer sperm whales and vice versa. The years 2007 and 2014 confirm this theory, the year 2001 on the contrary doesn’t: back then there had been strong winds and we could still see lots of sperm whales. So the direction of the wind could more likely have an influence on the presence of the sperm whales. In a second analysis we see that in years with a lot of “levante” wind we see fewer sperm whales – and that can be applied to all the years. In 2014 we hardly ever had “levante” (easterly wind) and therefore had the best sperm whale year so far.

Jörn with sperm whale-levante statistic Sperm whale 

The animals themselves are unlikely to be influenced by the easterly wind, because they spend 70 % of their lives under water. That the Sperm Whales avoid the Strait of Gibraltar in such times could indicate that the “levante” influences processes in the depth of the Strait that might disturb the squids and have a negative impact on their distribution. Since also pilot whales mainly feed on squids up to 4 meters in size, Jörn would also find it interesting to do a survey for this species and suggests therefore including from now on explicitly calm in the data sheets that are completed by firmm during every excursion.

So Jörns conclusion is that sperm whales just d’ont like „levante“. Katharina Heyer then comments that this could also be because firmm offers fewer boat trips during the levante and therefore is not able to observe sperm whales during these periods. But Jörn answers, that there are always enough calm days on which firmm is able to schedule boat trips, but nevertheless no sperm whales are seen – apparently because they simply are not in the Strait at all or do not want to come – for whatever reason… Furthermore the study is based on excursions that really took place and does not include days without excursions.

Jörn and Sam Samuel presents sweets 

The audience acknowledges Jörns first participation in a firmm meeting with a warm applause.

„Whales and dolphins – ambassadors of the oceans“, presentation of Hans Peter Roth

Next the Swiss journalist Hans Peter Roth reports about his time in the Japanese cove of Taiji, known to many dolphin-friends by the Oscar-winning film “the cove”. Roth who wrote together with Richard O’Barry the book of the film, was in Japan himself and experienced a lot of things that influenced him strongly. First of all Hans Peter told about his time in Taiji and how he got into the whole story. Richard O’Barry – also known as Ric –surely is well known to many people. He started his career in the 1960s as a dolphin trainer for various dolphins used for the television series “Flipper”. With this series a huge industry started, because due to it, people wanted to get in close contact with dolphins. Therefore more and more dolphinariums all around the world were built, where the animals have to live in undersized pools and are trained to entertain the spectators. However, as one of the five Bottlenose Dolphins of the series “Flipper” died, Ric changed his mind completely. He became an active dolphin protector and nowadays he advises people to boycott dolphin-shows- and hence these institutions. He himself admits that the training means considerable stress for the dolphins. Many of the dolphins that are chosen for shows in a cove like the one in Taiji do not survive either the cruel trapping methods or the long transports or the cruelty of captivity. Animals not suitable for training are brutally killed and later processed to food.

Hans Peter and dolphin slaughter in Japan Ric – O’Barry in Japan 

Hans Peter Roth had always been fascinated by whales and dolphins and first visited Japan in 2008 – together with Ric O’Barry. Together they documented the happenings in the cove of Taiji. Apart from the horrible events, Taiji is a wonderful place. Everywhere one stumbles upon the topic whales and dolphins, which gives the impression that these creatures are really admired here. There also exists a whale and dolphin museum. But the reality is unfortunately different: With the help of noise the dolphins are rounded up in the open sea and then chased into a small cove. While people can bath and swim with dolphins during the summer, the animals are killed between September and March and the water turns blood red. First, the best dolphins for the international trade are selected. As strange as it sounds, this trade is organised by the whale and dolphin museum. The remaining animals are slaughtered with the argument that this is pest-control – “they are eating our fish”! The meat of the killed mammals is also sold in public supermarkets although it’s badly polluted with mercury and should not be eaten at all. The idyllic village is completely sealed off during the whaling season – innumerable schools of dolphins are chased into the cove. According to Mr. Roth a confrontation with the dolphin hunters in Japan makes little sense. Not only because the whaling is legal, but also because the hunters do not think that they are doing something wrong by hunting marine mammals. For them it’s just normal fishing. So it doesn’t make any sense to insult them or to confront them aggressively. Roth suggests to deal with these people in a differentiated way and to behave accordingly. With insults one can only achieve the opposite. But Japanese society slowly starts to rethink. Roth reports on an encounter with the Japanese Iszumi Ishii, who first was a dolphin hunter, but then realised that it makes more sense to use the boat to show these creatures to tourists. Meanwhile also in Japan whale-watching is far more profitable than whaling.

In 2011 Roth visited the Faroe Islands for the first time. They are located between Scotland and Iceland – a very different region from Japan – but also here we are confronted with the same topic, because here people still hunt pilot whales. Pilot whales are also dolphins. Apart from pilot whales also Bottlenose dolphins are hunted on the islands; dolphins are not protected here and so they get caught by the hunters, as well as white-beaked and white-sided dolphins. Also here, during the hunting season, blood-red waters and dead pilot whales lying on the beach can be seen. The Faroese people always mention that the slaughter is carried out respectfully, which he cannot fully confirm. His pictures show particularly children jumping and playing on the dead bodies of the animals. Nevertheless the inhabitants should be treated with respect even if one is one hundred percent against whaling. To understand the traditions and the people Roth got in contact with local families.

The Faroe Islands offer great, harsh landscapes and the hospitality of the people is extraordinary. Hans Peter Roth got to know a young woman called Marna who fights actively against the tradition of killing pilot whales. A glimmer of hope that shows that also people here fight against the hunt and for the animals. Together with Marna, Hans Peter Roth came to Tarifa. Katharina Heyer and the firmm team enabled this journey under special conditions, for which he expresses his gratitude. If the Faroe Islands would replace the practise of hunting in favour of whale-watching trips, like the ones firmm in Tarifa offers, resident schools of dolphins surely would settle down, which would have a positive effect on the local economy. The trip to Tarifa was connected with a film project. The Faroese-British coproduction, moderated by the famous BBC documentary speaker David Attenborough, will be shown in the near future on television and also in schools.

At the end Hans Peter Roth answered questions from the audience. One question is why marine mammals sometimes strand, as it recently was the case in New Zealand where a huge group of 200 pilot whales stranded. The questioner suggested that this could be because of the noise – but then the animals that live in the Strait of Gibraltar would have to strand permanently. Roth thinks that it’s a combination of different factors: Toothed whales, which use their sonar system to orientate, can get problems close to shallow, sandy coastlines. When the water is getting shallower, the animals do not know where it is getting deep again or in which direction the coastline is. So it can easily happen that a whole school strands. Another reason could be a sick animal, for example the leading animal that swims ahead without orientation. Pilot whales always stay together which can be fatal. Even if people try to help the marine mammals to find their way back into the ocean they still remain on the site or try to swim back to the school or also to one single animal – even if they are already dead. Nevertheless, from time to time some animals or even whole schools of pilot whales can be rescued on the coasts of New Zealand. It’s mostly the same place where the animals get in trouble here – a mile long sandbank.

Hans Peter Roth  

Jörn also comments on this topic and adds that there are tectonic plates coming together in this specific place, which can provoke seaquakes. Probably, under certain circumstances, the shock waves hit a school of dolphins and cause acoustic disorientation. In the Strait of Gibraltar the animals might have adapted to the ongoing noise of the cargo ships. Furthermore there are hardly any seaquakes, the water gets deep quickly and there are no shallow sandbanks – so fortunately there aren’t many stranded animals here. Other sources of irritation for their sensitive hearing that can also lead to disorientation are military sonar, geological prospecting and drilling for oil or similar resources.

Samuel Notz thanks Hans Peter Roth for the provided insight into his journalistic work around the protection of dolphins and wishes him good luck for his future projects.

Special thanks and farewell

Now Ran Levys film “A fashion designer for dolphins and whales”, which documents the work of the foundation firmm, is shown. Many thanks for the extensive production which offers a perfect insight in the work of firmm. The film will also be shown on an upcoming film festival in Israel and in many other places.

Finally Katharina Heyer thanks all the supporters of firmm. For example the students, Lorena Richter and Luis Burger, who wrote research papers about the marine mammals in the Strait of Gibraltar. The shoe shop Oberscheid in Constance organised another donation campaign: For every sold pair of shoes one euro was donated to firmm. The two children Lina and Laurin, that also had a stand in the back of the hall, organised a Christmas stand, where they sold lots of articles concerning whales and dolphins. Felix Dörr from Bad Homburg advertised the whale and dolphin adoptions on his art-workshop stand. A big “thank you” also to all the moderators of all web-pages. The German Facebook page is moderated by Sebastian Kanzler, the Spanish by Brigitte Achatz, the English by Nina Bircher and the Dutch by Sonja Van Den Bossche. Xing is moderated by Thomas Brückmann.

We also want to thank all the media that reported about firmm in 2014! And last but not least we want to thank all the assistants that helped to organise this great evening which ends with lots of interesting discussions.

Thanks to all the people that came a long way to join the 17th firmm meeting. The next firmm meeting will take place on the 20th of February 2016 – again in the „Kongresshalle“in Aarau, Switzerland.

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