Current information

The coronavirus is raging everywhere and so unfortunately we also cannot start into the new whale watching season on April 3rd as planned. We will inform you on our website and on Facebook, as soon as an end to the crisis is in sight and we know when we can sail out again.

Stay optimistic and healthy!

All the best, Katharina Heyer and the firmm-team

18th firmm meeting on February 20th 2016 in the congress centre in Aarau

by firmm Team

Text: Andrea Stampfli-Loser, photos:firmm

Katharina begins this year’s firmm-meeting a quarter of an hour later than planned, because of an accident in the Gubrist-tunnel as well as on the A1 from Bern in direction Zurich. Her intention is to give people stuck in the traffic jam more time for their arrival. However, it seems that many people, after spending too much time in the jam, decided to head back home. That’s why the room is well filled, but compared to the last meetings, not to the last row. As in previous years a part of the boat crew (Diego and Eduardo) of course was there. Also Jörn, firmm’s biologist of already many years was present.

Samuel Notz informs briefly about the course of the evening. Especially about the fact, that there will be no report about the expedition of Prof.Dr. Patricia Holm. She is currently on an expedition on the German research ship Polar Stern. Unfortunately the internet connection is so bad, that she will not be able to inform us about the course of the expedition. So we are looking forward to her personal report on the 19th firmm-meeting!

Katharina Heyer Samuel Notz 

Now Katharina begins with the retrospective of the season 2015.

For everybody participating for the first time, she explains once more what firmm stands for, where the different offices of the foundation are located, and what a special place Tarifa is in general. Thanks to the unique geographical constellation, the resulting currents and the high occurrence of food, many different species of whales and dolphins are living in the Strait of Gibraltar, despite the high ship traffic (over 300 big cargo-ships per day).Therefore it is important to create charts to be aware of the occurrence of the populations in the Strait of Gibraltar. These can then be compared with maps of the ship traffic.

In that way e.g. a small success has been achieved by preventing that a fast ferry from Tarifa to Tanger MED would cross the Strait in direct line and so would cut through the pilot whale population.

The port of Tarifa was elaborately rebuilt. Unfortunately the firmm boats still don’t have a regular mooring site. 

The year 2015 was once again an absolute record year. Due to the good weather more than 27.500 tourists participated in the boat tours. This made it possible to reach with more than 1.700 charlas many people, giving them valuable information about the whales and dolphins in the Strait of Gibraltar.
Although the competitor “Aventura Marina” put their customers on the boat of another competitor, because their own boat was damaged, firmm was once again able to win more people in comparison. This shows that firmm’s work is appreciated and makes Katharina proud. Also the courses were well booked with 246 participants. The website www.firmm.org was already in 2014 able to grow by 25% and once again in 2015 by 20%. The facebook followers also increase steadily; in 2015 there are already more than 4500 in German. In the remaining three languages English, Dutch and Spanish there are 1300 followers more.In the last year due to the good weather it wasn’t necessary to schedule boat trips in Algeciras.

The adoptions remain popular. Meanwhile there are more than 300. Everybody’s favourite is the Orca offspring “Baby Wilson”, who was introduced last year.

The whale- and dolphin-museum meanwhile is financed only through firmm and the main competitor. The other whale watching companies do not participate anymore. firmm is, as well as the competitor, obliged to support the museum. More or less 8000 people have been visiting the museum. A visit is only recommendable if one is in town anyway.Katharina presents the boat-crew of the firmm-Spirit and also of the fly-blue during the summer-months.

Annoying once again were the sport-fishermen, who criss-cross through the groups of animals and as a result injure them sometimes badly. Also the bush fires, which one can see from the boats, are always scary.A rather funny episode, that Katharina tells, is the one of a sparrow that joined us on one boat-trip. The little bird missed the departure, but fortunately after we returned to land he successfully was brought back ashore.  

There will be a new online-booking system for the boat-tours. This certainly will be a relief regarding the ever increasing passenger numbers.  

Also new is firmm-travel. An idea launched by Samuel Notz. Monika Morgan was especially hired therefore. firmm-travel will be above all responsible for the organisation of group-travels (e.g. ornithologists, sportsman, etc.). Especially for these target groups new 3 or 4-day courses will be available. Moreover in 2017 once again a youth-camp will be organized from July 24th to August 3rd or 4th 2017. A suitable accommodation was already found in a nearby nature reserve with a Swiss family.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In autumn a book about Katharina, written by Michèle Sauvain, is going to be published, most probably with the title "Die Walfrau von Gibraltar".


In 2015 about the same number of populations could be sighted as in the years before. It is of course clear that with more completed trips also more sightings could be recorded.While it was not a Sperm Whale record-year like 2014, with 110 sightings still many Sperm Whales could be counted. A short film shows several Sperm Whales preparing for their dive and their descending. Not only ships disturb them, but also annoying sea-gulls. The Sperm Whales don’t like at all, when they try to land with their sharp claws on their backs and dive down irritated.

54 times the second biggest animal in the world could be observed crossing the Strait.
In one case a fin whale has been even seen on the Moroccan side (swimming in the wrong direction – normally they swim on the Spanish side out of the Mediterranean).
In a short film Katharina shows fin whales travelling through the Strait. Afterwards a size comparison, between the boat Fly Blue (16 meters) and a fin whale (22meters) shows how gigantic these animals are.

Between the 1st of July and the 27th of August the Orcas were once again here. To the delight of all Camacho, the old male (over 30 years), were amongst them.
Katharina points out, how the Matriarch looks after the young ones of the Orca-group, so that the mothers can go fishing. Camorro is an Orca that Katharina got to know when he was really little, when she was new in Tarifa. Now Camorro has grown up and has its own group with 4 females and 4 young Orcas. We can see a short film about his group and a mating scene in which he was rather hindered by his own group. 

An attempt has been made to film the Pilot Whales with a drone. However, they did not like the noise at all and disappeared. So the attempt can be considered unsuccessful. Therefore it is still best to observe them from the boat.Common Dolphins we saw a little less, also because there weren’t any tours in Algeciras. On the other hand we saw bigger groups a couple of times (in one sighting more than 1.100 animals). At first in a short film by Sebastian Kanzler the striped dolphins are introduced. Followed by a beautiful film sequence about Bottlenose Dolphins, jumping in the bow wave of a big freighter.

At the end Katharina presents proudly the newly ordered boat “firmm Vision”, especially made for firmm. The boat will have many advantages, such as an ecological painting (also the firmm Spirit will receive it), a better protected propeller, quieter engines and some glass windows in the area below, which will make it possible to observe the animals even when they are  swimming underneath the boat.    

firmm Education

Foundation board member Samuel Notz explains what is meant by firmm Education. Although it is nothing new, in the future it will be intensified and better structured.

Goal is to learn from the animals in their natural environment. Trying to understand what they want to tell us and to pass on that knowledge.

Over the many years firmm got established as a stable and highly valued education platform for biologists, but also for schools and universities.

Michael Casanova who was working as a biologist for firmm in the years 2005 and 2006, has written his master thesis about the plankton in the Strait of Gibraltar under the guidance of Prof.Senn and later also wrote a scientific work about the Pilot Whales.

Jörn Selling, firmm’s marine biologist presented his studies on the Congress of Marine Biologists in the years 2007 and 2011.

Schools and universities from different countries have visited firmm locally. These students have then passed on their acquired knowledge by means of lectures at their schools and also to their families and friends. firmm meets an important educational task with all the work.

Especially mentioned is the work of Larissa Puma, who as part of her high-school diploma at the Seelandgymnasium in Biel in the subject artistic design, dealt with the problem of the pollution of our oceans due to plastic-bottles and therefore created a 4, 5 meter big whale out of plastic bottles.

Also Kevin Keller has written his math thesis “How much plankton fits into the stomach of a Blue Whale? “and later also his work “The woman and the Sea”.

All these works and many more will be available for all people interested on the firmm-webpage in the near future.   

Repeatedly we get requests for data and information, which are needed for the preparation of thesis. With pleasure firmm passes on the information and provides the best possible support. 

Dr.ThomasBrückmann, communication designer and graduate biologist

Thomas Brückmann has made his dream come true this summer and has spent four weeks with firmm. He shows us pictures of his time in Tarifa. He was allowed to join the class of Prof. Dr. Patricia Holm and got to know amongst other things the rocky coast. He presents some animals found there and shows more beautiful pictures from animals, which can be observed in Tarifa.

Thomas Brückmann draws attention to the threat to the Common Dolphin. Then he shows pictures of the acrobatic Bottlenose Dolphins. 

He explains, that the name Pilot Whale originates from the fact that the group is piloted (leaded) by one whale. This often is there undoing, as they follow solidary the leading whale (e.g. mass strandings, whale hunt etc.). Also the Pilot Whale belongs to the dolphin species.     

On a tour one can also see, with some luck, the second biggest animal on earth, the fin whale (up to 22 meters and weighing up to 80 tons). He is a really quick swimmer and belongs to the family of baleen whales.

On their tours the students took plankton samples. Therefore they lowered a plankton-net and dragged it for a few minutes through the sea, then pulled it in. On land the samples were microscoped and analysed and the species were classified. After that the animals were released back into the ocean.      

The highlight was definitely the three-hour tour into the region where the underwater mountain is located and where the orcas are staying. There the Orcas benefit from the work of the fishermen and “steal” the tuna directly from the fishing rods. Standing out was a female Orca, jumping now and then and thereby presenting its mutilated pectoral fin.

Thomas Brückmann Stand Up participant

On the 23rd of July 250 Pilot Whales on the Faroe Islands were chased into a cove and all of them were killed. Sea Shepherd, an international organisation, defending the oceans, was with several volunteers and a campaign on site to inform the world press about the happenings. On this special day the situation escalated and the Danish Marine hindered the activists to intervene, arrested them and confiscated the boats and materials. Therefore the Danish State, as a member of the EU, aided the unlawful procedure of the local hunt. As sympathy action of firmm, Sebastian Kanzler made thereupon the film “Stand up”, in which the faces of 250 persons stand for the 250 killed Pilot Whales. Thomas Brückmann shows us this impressive film.

At the end of part one of the evening Katharina presents all the members of the foundation board, all employees, all volunteers, as well as all persons supporting firmm actively throughout the year.After that, during the one-hour break, Rosa Schifferle and the foundation “Gärtnerhaus” provide once again meals and Caroline Burger and her team cater plates of cold cuts.  

Diseases, injuries and other types of external abnormalities (from the collection of photos of firmm for a report to the IWC)

After the break Jörn, meanwhile already 13 years firmm’s marine biologist, continues with his lecture. Jörn illustrates his discourse with impressive pictures. He starts by presenting some animals with peculiarities, like bended dorsal fins or cuts (e.g. one Orca from Barbate).

Jörn Selling

After that he shows how parasites settle on the backs of fin whales. They are parasitic copepods (crablike animals), elongated specimens up to 32cm long, that cling to the whales and suck blood. Also Sperm Whales are affected by these parasites. 

Then there exist also animals that live in a kind of symbiosis with the whale. That means they don’t feed on the whale, instead they use him as a mean of transport. They cling to the animal and feed on plankton. On one picture one can see well how sessile barnacles attached themselves to the fluke of a Pilot Whale. Most of the time that presents no problem for the animal, but if there are too many them, it can turn into one. If the animal is hindered while swimming, it becomes slow and inactive. 

Furthermore various forms of ulcers, tumours and fungal diseases can be observed. The reason for these diseases is mostly unknown. If the ulcers and tumours are located on unfavourable spots (blowhole, mouth, etc.) they can lead to the death of the animal on a long term.

Once and again also severely malnourished animals are sighted. Often also distinctive skin discolorations can be discovered. In most cases these don’t have any consequences for the animal. One example is the Bottlenose Dolphin “Loli”. She has prominent alterations on her fin and also on the fluke. Loli is already known for a long time and so we know that she is fine. Some animals also show yellow spots, that don’t seem to disturb them. Probably these discolorations are inherited. 

Some animals also show orange spots, that don’t seem to disturb them. Probably these are diatoms (phytoplankton) that settle on the skin. 

Also injuries mark the animals. Sperm Whales show prominent bite marks and imprints of the suction cups of giant squids. Within all species also injuries caused by animals of the same species occur (bites etc.). Caused by the collision with ships whales often show deep lacerations, holes torn into the flesh and fractures.  In 2002 for example a Sperm Whale was hit by a fast ferry. The fractured rips stuck in his lungs. While he was bleeding to death, Pilot Whales protected him until his last breath. In case of other animals, cuts that reach from head to tail show that a ship passed over them. A really big danger the lines of sport fishermen are posing, which pass inconsiderately with high speed through the whale families. They cause above all the horrible cuts in their flukes or cut them off entirely. 

Jörn explains the evolution theory of the toothed whales and why they sometimes die epidemic-like. Why they do not have fully operative, protein-producing Mx-genes, with which the immune system of mammals defends itself against viruses.   This also could be the reason, why animals die sometimes suddenly on externally apparently well healed injuries.

Among all these obstacles and dangers, fishing poses the biggest problem for the animals. The sea is overfished and food is lacking. If the animals come too close to the nets they are deliberately mutilated and killed by the fishermen. They feel disturbed by the animals, when they dare to steal the fish from the nets. In the Strait of Gibraltar also animals with cut-off flukes were observed. A dolphin was weighted down with a stone and obviously grounded. Another’s eyes were poked out. A female orca has on one side a mutilated pectoral fin, which she shows remarkably often. Also on her dorsal fin she shows cuts and her young one is not accompanying her anymore.   

What must not be concealed is that also Whale Watching produces noise and therefore disturbs the animals.

In summary it can be said that parasites, ship traffic and Whale Watching altogether with environmental pollution weaken the populations and fishing does the rest. According to studies of other organizations the Pilot Whales could be on the brink of extinction by the year 2030, due to all mentioned reasons.

Hans-Peter Roth – his adventures on the Faroe Islands

Some time ago Hans-Peter Roth had accompanied the American former dolphin-trainer and today dolphin-protector Rick O'Barry. So he stumbled into the project  “The Cove” – an award winning documentary. Already last year Hans Peter Roth reported about the cove in Taiji and the Faroe Islands and so he doesn’t go into much detail.

He wants to point out the positive aspects of the Faroe Islands and how dolphins connect people and also help them sometimes to find each other again.

There are different ways to oppose the hunt on whales and dolphins. One way for example is the confrontation as pursued by the organisation Sea-Shepherd, pointing with the finger on grievances and the people behind them. In this way the local people avoid constructive communication. There are other ways as well. It is important to remember that only people living there can have a lasting influence.
Hans-Peters approach therefore is to make contact with the local people, to try to understand them in order to change something.

He shows us a picture of a Grindadráp, in which a school of about 125 animals crowd really close together; they always stay together no matter what. The Faroese stress that the hunt is carried out as respectful as possible. A rapid slaughter of the animals is ensured, they say. However, this is preceded by a long hunt (until the animals strand). Also it is hardly respectful, when children jump on the dead whales. As far as the food law is concerned there are also a few reasons against the whale hunt, as the whale meat is poisonous.

On the other hand stranded animals are rescued under the risk of life. Amongst the rescuers there are always whale hunters, participating in the Grindadráp. 

Pilot Whales 

Hans-Peter Roth’s girlfriend, originally from the Faroe Islands, has seen living Pilot Whales for the first time in Tarifa in 2014. She tells everybody how she experienced it and how this moment moved her. 

After that, both participated in a film to sensitize the population of the Faroe Islands for the life and being of the Pilot Whales. They were joined be three locals (amongst them also one whale hunter) and a German biologist as advisor with profound knowledge about the whales. 

Amongst other things the film shows the threat to Pilot Whales and points out the health risk when consuming whale meat. Whale watching is mentioned as an important, sustainable and alternative source of income. Only with financial arguments the hunters will be convinced. Whales should be appreciated alive.

The film enjoyed big media presence, what made the people involved very happy. At the conference in the capital about 300 persons were present.

Through the film a good basis for discussions arose. There is an attempt to create more dialogue between the parties. Despite the very heated discussion this seems to be successful.
https://vimeo.com/133678899

 

Hans-Peter Roth shows pictures of long finned Pilot Whales in Norway, which also can be seen there, although not as easy as in Tarifa.

He advises everybody not to boycott countries that are criticised for hunting whales. He requests everybody to go there and show people the alternative to the whale hunt. They should show us the animals in liberty and take advantage of this resource. Whale Watching brings money and this is the only language understood.

At the end Hans-Peter Roth shows a film of swimming Pilot Whales.

firmm gets a short film about Tarifa from the town hall, that is shown now.After that a presentation from volunteer Albert follows. He shows us in form of pictures, how he has seen and experienced Tarifa. https://vimeo.com/150010918

At the end Katharina’s expressions of gratitude follow. Only thanks to the great commitment of many volunteers, interested people, patrons and sponsors the foundation can be successful.

The 18the firmm-meeting ends at 09.36 pm and we all look forward to the 19th firmm-meeting on February 25th 2017!     

 

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