19th firmm-meeting on the 25th of February

by firmm Team

Text: Andrea Stampfli; Fotos: Thomas Brückmann and Eduardo Montano Peralta


This year the hall once again was filled. Every single seat was taken. Katharina Heyer opened the 19th firmm-meeting. She greeted the numerous attendees, especially the crew from Spain and Jörn Selling, the long term biologist of firmm.  They all travelled especially for the foundation meeting to Switzerland.

She explained the course of this evening and thanked Sebastian Kanzler from Tarifa, Albert Rietjen from Holland and Eduardo Montano Peralta from Tarifa for the slides, which give us beautiful impressions in between.



For everyone who attends the meeting for the first time Katharina explains where Tarifa is located and why this particular location makes Tarifa such a special place. A short movie from Sebastian Kanzler about the Strait of Gibraltar takes us all to Tarifa for a moment.


At the port entrance stands the statue of the patron saint El Sagrado Corazón de Jesús, who keeps watch over all the seamen. Very impressive are the pictures of the ferries Tarifa-Tangier in the port of Tarifa. They are immensely big, and have to be accompanied by the harbour pilots to get in and out of the harbour.


Katharina illustrates, with the help of sighting maps, where in the Strait of Gibraltar the animals are mainly located. Thanks to these data it was possible to sensitize the captains of other ships, in particular the captains of the Fast Ferry Tarifa-Tangier. Even the building of a newly planned ferry connection could be prevented, since the new line would have cut straight through the pilot whale habitat.

Meanwhile the foundation has an office in the harbour, where tourists can get information about the tours. It is also where the day-tourists are informed about the animals and the Strait of Gibraltar in the form of presentations (over 1’500 presentations in 4 languages for mostly very large groups of people). To inform and sensitize people is one of the main goals of the foundation.


Another office is located on the harbour street. That is where the presentations for the courses take place. Additionally there is an office in the old town. Last year was a very windy year.


That despite of the unfavourable conditions so many people were taking part in the tours was due to the fact that with the new boat many more persons could be taken on board per trip, and also the number of tourists has increased generally in Tarifa. (2015:27’500 tourists / 2016:26’800 tourists).

On the other hand there were less course participants than in the last years (2015: 246 students / 2016:160 students). Perhaps this had to do with the fear of possible refugee streams.

Firmm used in addition to the reliable boat firmm Spirit the new boat firmm Vision. The new boat has space for up to 100 people and has underwater windows, as well as two toilets. On both boats a comfortable access in the harbour is possible so that everyone can participate in a boat trip.


A new computer program was donated to firmm to register all sightings. With this program it is possible to create fantastic diagrams and maps and so it helps to find the animals even better and to detect the areas where they are mainly staying.


Very popular are the animal adoptions (2016=320). Baby Wilson is still the far most popular animal. Even though he is a year older and has grown quite a bit, he is still the smallest of the group. A new addition to the whales ready for adoption is the Pilot Whale baby Toni.

March – In 2016 unforgettable trips with unique sightings took place. Already one of the first trips on the 30th of March 2016 involved the sighting of 2 fin whales. In front of them bottlenose dolphins jumped and the fin whales tried to prod them. On another trip there were sperm whales, common dolphins and a group of pilot whales. During the whole season striped dolphins were seen in groups of 200-300 and more animals.

April - In April more sperm whales came, even 9 at a time. Unfortunately it happened twice that the captain of the competition, who is at the same time the owner, saw the sperm whales as well and drove ruthlessly and with high speed between the firmm-boat and the whale. His actions put the whales at risk, which upset Katharina.Since sperm whales are rather slow and normally only spend time at the surface to breath and so get as much air as possible for their next dive into their bodies, big ships also pose a big threat for them. But also birds are capable of annoying sperm whales so much, they rather dive again. Katharina shows a movie which shows how a bird tries, over and over again, to sit down on a sperm whale. The whale seems really to be bothered by the bird claws. He lifts his head and tries to see what is getting on his nerves and tickles him, he tries to shake the bird off and make it go away. As he isn’t successful, he dives. A very special sperm whale is Observador. He is the only one approaching the boat and looking closely at the people and diving down close to the boat (movie). There have been moments when bottlenose dolphins swam up to a sperm whale and looked at him intensely, and after a while dived down together with him. On one trip the boat came upon a sperm whale that was about to go to sleep. In situations as such, it goes without saying that we are leaving to not disturb the animal. With 280 viewings the sperm whales are the third most seen whales.

May – In May Stefan from Germany passed by and asked politely if it was possible to shoot a couple of videos with his drone. Together with Fernando and the rest of the crew he was able to take pictures from a different perspective. This was always done in a respectful manner and the resulting short movie was shown to everyone.


After that a movie was shown, that documented how a guest and his family experienced a trip. There was a spectacle when the first tunas (pregnant females who are swimming into the Mediterranean Sea) passed the Strait. They were hunting fish (probably sardines) and jumped out of the water to do so; while at the same time a swarm of birds was attacking the fish from the air, trying to get the fish that were jumping to escape the tuna.

Always spectacular are the bottlenose dolphins in front of the big cargo ships. They use the waves in front of the ships as a free way of transport, so they hardly need energy to move forward.

June - On the 26th of June the first trip with firmm Vision took place.In June big schools of pilot whales have been seen. Pilot whales are the most sighted animals (832).

July - In the beginning of July a big American military fleet of seven ships passed the strait. There as well, the competition showed no respect and dashed forward. But this time they definitely had to pay a fine. One shouldn’t mess with the military.

July is also the time when the orcas are hunting in the Strait of Gibraltar. Unfortunately there was a lot of wind and because of that only few boat trips took place. The old matriarch and the grandfather Camacho were no longer seen. Unfortunately we do not know what happened to them. Camorro, a young male, now has 4 females and 4 young. Lucia, the aunt of Baby Wilson, is often seen with Camorro. Camorro takes little Wilson with him and teaches him new things. One of the things he has to learn is how to eat big tuna, which is, as one can imagine, not very easy without arms and hands. Orcas do not show envy of another one’s food, they share the catch amongst them.

On her birthday, the 20th of July Katharina was surprised with a very special boat trip. A fin whale jumped 7 times out of the water! An extraordinary experience, since those giants normally pass the strait fast and purposefully to get from the Mediterranean Sea to the Atlantic Ocean.

August – On the 4th of August a young humpback whale got lost and ended up in the Strait of Gibraltar. So Katharina got to know the pilot whales from a new, unknown side. Even animals Katharina knew already for a long time, behaved very aggressively towards the humpback whale. They bit him and tried to push him underwater. Various times he tried to find shelter near the boat but they wouldn’t leave him alone.


Katharina struggled to understand how the beloved and usually very peaceful animals could show such aggression toward another whale. This behaviour is from our point of view hardly understandable.

During another trip the firmm boats got too far into Moroccan waters. While the firmm Vision, thanks to strong engines made it back to the harbour in time, the firmm Spirit got stopped and interrogated by the Moroccan coastguards. Thankfully, on the firmm Spirit was a mechanic, who is a double national and speaks both languages. Only after it has already gotten dark the firmm Spirit was able to go safely back to the harbour of Tarifa.

September - A fire in Morocco and the associated smoke that was carried into the strait, made it impossible to drive to the Moroccan side. Because of that no trips took place during this time. This shows how harmful the impact of such fires can be.

During the 25th of September 2016 a young vulture was spotted in the water. The animal was visibly exhausted and tried with all its remaining strength not to drown. Faster than Katharina was able to say something, the crew already fished the bird out of the water. How they managed to do so, with the way to small safety material, is still a mystery to Katharina. Vultures have a huge wingspan. Once on board, the bird was put in one of the toilets on board and the bird protection authority was informed. But since they couldn’t come right away, the bird had to go on another boat trip. The bird protection authority however was able, after nursing him for a week, to release him into the wild.

Prof. Dr. Patricia Holm – On expedition with the icebreaker Polarstern in the Antarctica


During this year’s firmm-meeting we all were able to enjoy a very interesting presentation from Prof. Dr. Patricia Holm. Last year she spent 10 weeks on an expedition in the Antarctica with the icebreaker Polarstern. Together with Prof. Dr. Helmut Segner and Anneli Strobel she built a research team with the main focus on “Fish in the Antarctica”. In total 50 researcher and 50 crewmembers were on the boat. Different tasks were being pursued. For example bringing supplies to the research station Neumayer, to pick up a team from Dresden doing research on seals, drop them off, help them to set up their camp, and picking them up after exactly four weeks. Also Logistic Rone-depot of the British Antarctic Survey, recovery of 3 long term anchoring and the BENDEX experiment.

In the Antarctica it looks as if everything flows seamlessly in one another. But the Antarctic convergence with the circumpolar current eastward builds a water barrier. This means a lot of wind and many currents. The Antarctic circumpolar current connects 3 oceans to a global system. This is very important for the whole ecosystem of all seas. For that reason many oceanographers were on board.

Prof. Dr. Holm shortly explains why icebergs consist of fresh water. In one picture it is visible how dents are developing on the ice surface. The ice crystals do not tolerate any salt and push it out. Therefore the older the ice, the sweeter it gets.

The scientists met in the hall twice a day. In the morning to find out about the weather and at night for scientific lectures which were obligatory for everyone.

A big trawl net was laid out to catch fish for scientific use. One time the net even got pulled back in at 3 o’clock in the morning. The scientists worked around the clock because time on the research ship is precious plus around this time of year it is bright outside for 24 hours anyway. There is no sunrise and no sunset.

Sometimes the trawl nets were filled with mud, which made it hard to pull them back in. After that all the fish had to be determined. Some of the fish, so called “Whitebloodfish”, do not have haemoglobin. These fish are able to get the oxygen out of the water through their skin, for the colder the water the more oxygen is dissolved in it. Since it is so cold the fish can do completely without haemoglobin.


Now it is necessary to find out whether the evolution of Antarctica fish also passed on other things, like e.g. functions that help to reduce harmful substances. Until now this was not needed because the deep sea of the Antarctica was one of the cleanest areas on our planet. However, as the Antarctic is increasingly contaminated with pollutants nowadays, these researches are getting more and more important.

There was always good food on board of the ship. Alcohol in the dining room was absolutely prohibited. Except for the holidays when a glass of wine could be enjoyed. Also a fitness room and a small swimming pool were at the researcher’s disposal.

Many water samples were taken and a lot of technical tools were put into the water, which provided pictures and data.

Before going on land, drillings had to be done to see if it the ice was strong enough to not only hold the crew but also the equipment. The underside of the ice is not white. It is yellow-, brownish which is really important because these brown discolorations are diatoms which form the basis of the food chain.

Many animals were sighted during the trip and after 49 days of continuous brightness the first sunset could finally be admired.

Introduction of the crew and general information

Monika Morgan, who organized and planned several fairs and lectures again this year also, prepared the youth camp taking place from July 24th till August 4th 2017.

An online booking system was installed, however Katharina asks everyone to call to also get information for tours apart from these scheduled, as it could be possible that there are more boat-trips available.

A lot has also been achieved in the "Education" area. Many school classes and universities visited firmm or made the foundation to one of their school/university topics. Furthermore Dr. Thomas Brückmann brought firmm education online. Our biologist Jörn sorted all essays and scientific studies which can now be read on www.firmm-education.org

Katharina introduces all the firmm employees and volunteers of the season 2016 and thanks all of them for their effort.

During the break there is the chance to buy diverse merchandising and get information about adopting and sponsoring animals and the youth camp 2017 from Monika Morgan.

Furthermore Katharina Heyers book “Herzenssache” can be purchased and she is available for signing.  


Food, drinks and catering is brought by the foundation “Gärtnerhaus” and “Caroline Burger”. At the end of the first part of the event Katharina wishes everyone present “en Guete”.

The firmm-research receives international response from the IWC (Whaling Commission)


Prof. Dr. Patricia Holm represents Switzerland at the Scientific Committee of the IWC. She wants to show everyone present how valuable and important the research firmm does is. Last year she was able to present the IWC (consisting of 89 member states) the results of firmm’s research summarized by Jörn Selling in his work with the title "Epidermal Conditions, Lesions and Malformations in Cetaceans of the Strait of Gibraltar".

Like the name says, this work is about the lesions and malformations, which can be seen and observed externally on the whales in the Strait of Gibraltar. It is really rare that a whale can be examined after his death; therefore this analysis is based on pictures.

Thanks to the sighting and shipping maps it can be determined what the reasons for these skin lesions are.These are for example the big density of shipping traffic and the pollution which lead to a weakened immune system.Already in another lecture at a previous firmm meeting Prof.Dr.Holm pointed out that the pilot whales are increasingly moving in smaller groups. The horrendous noise of the ship traffic makes it hard for them to communicate with each other.

Prof. Dr. Holm explains us that the IWC consists of twelve subcommittees and working teams. Every year the scientists come together for 14 days to work in teams on different subjects.

A newly introduced working group deals with the topic "Non-deliberate human-induced mortality of large whales".

In this group and also in the one with the topic "Environmental Concerns" the research results of firmm were presented. Every one of the 89 member states received the final report afterwards. The committee devoted considerable attention to the report. Therefore Prof. Dr. Holm asks the audience for a big applause for Katharina and Jörn for the extraordinary work they are doing. The report can be viewed under http://tinyurl.com/z8jaon9


Due to this report the IWC recommends future collaboration with further evaluations on the basis of new pictures, observations and a veterinary-medical recommended scheme.


Even though Prof. Dr. Holm thinks this is a somehow dry subject, it is also really important to her that everyone realizes and acknowledges the importance of firmm`s work. And how the collected data of firmm  is contributing to change and improve the animals’ situation.



Presentation by Jörn Selling


At first thing Jörn Selling (marine biologist firmm) apologizes that his lecture will be somehow unappetizing. He is going to talk about the progress of his scientific work about the lesions, injuries and other visible anomalies on whales and dolphins in the Strait of Gibraltar. He already talked about this problem last year and also gave a presentation. This year he shows us with the help of more photos animals that are afflicted with parasites, viruses or are struggling with other changes.

He shows us for example a photo of an orca with a bent fin. This is usually known from orcas in captivity, but why is this happening in the Strait of Gibraltar? One indication could be the black spots on the body of the orca (poxvirus). We see now and again animals covered with white or black dots, which could originate from pox. It has been found out that the poxvirus specialize on their host, which could be a whale species or even only one specific family.

One dolphin shows a big hump below the fin. Which raises the question if this is congenital or results from a trauma?

Another animal has a hump in the region of its stomach and it is not clear if it is just pregnant or if it’s a cyst.

Long parasites are attached to almost every whale and dolphin species. On almost every Fin whale there are for example these crustaceans (larva looks like the one of a shrimp), which are attached deep into the tissue.

On a second Fin whale you can see marks stretched out all over its body. These are probably caused by a lamprey which moved over the time further back on the whale’s body where it found new food. Not only the lamprey but also larvae, barnacles and goose barnacles use whales and dolphins as transportation and living space. These are no parasites; they are only “hanging” on the animal and are not deeply anchored. However, if they are too many they are affecting the whale by making it slower and restricting it.

Loly, a bottlenose dolphin firmm has known since 2002, has a white fin. This fungus has barely grown since we first saw her 15 years ago. Usually already weakened animals are the most infected

Some animals here in the Strait of Gibraltar are really skinny and you can see their ribs. Some whales and dolphins have prominent discolorations; some of them seem almost white. However, they are not albinos.

Injuries caused by prey or even animals of the same species often lead to bad inflammations. The scratches can be divided into two groups. On one side small grazes and on the other side bad injuries where whole pieces were torn out. In the second case, the question arises where these holes originate from. Who is doing this?

Are they from fighting with big squids? Cuts can also have various reasons. They can be caused by ship’s propellers or by the fishing lines of sports fishermen.

The fishing quota for the sports fishermen is regulated and limited. Therefore they come to the Strait of Gibraltar at the beginning of the fishing season, in June and July, to make a catch. Thus up to 180 sport fishermen boats are out daily, which means over 800 dangerous fishing lines for whales and dolphins. These lines often leave deep cuts in the body of the animal or even cut off fins. These painful injuries usually heal very slowly and lead to death in the long term. One of the Sperm whales only has half of its fluke. This means he only has half of the energy and therefore he has to work double as hard to dive down.

A new, worrying phenomenon happens in the bay of Gibraltar. When the time comes and the flying fish enter the bay, the dolphins chase them from below and the gannets from above. But recently also the fishermen drive into the shoals of fish and therefore injure the hunting dolphins.

That’s not the only danger fishing poses for dolphins: Some get caught in the nets or are mutilated on purpose by insane fishermen.

Orcas show injuries time and time again. For them, the fishing lines and related injuries are normal. This shows how dangerous their everyday lives are. In addition, their food has become even scarcer since the tuna fishing quotas have been restricted and the fishermen are only tuna fishing for a limited time.

Our marine biologist Jörn has the idea that the fishermen who catch the tuna with lines should get a higher quota. Only then the orcas could benefit from the available food for longer which is especially important for the calves’ survival. The orcas of Spain live in small families and therefore the survival of each individual calf is existential for the survival of the whole clan. But not only fishermen, their ropes and boats are responsible for the whales’ injuries. Some animals have wounds and infections caused by markings made by research teams.

All the plastic garbage in our ocean is also a reason that the life quality of the whales and dolphins drops. With their food they automatically take in many pollutants.

Research shows that even amphipoda in the deep sea are already unexpectedly highly polluted, although the deep see in the history of evolution had always been a place where everything was still good and pure. It takes 200 years for the water of the deep sea in the Mediterranean to reach the surface above the underwater mountain. It would be really interesting to take water samples here in the Strait of Gibraltar to see how contaminated the water is. After all it had a long time to absorb harmful substances.

In the end Katharina thanks all those people helping firmm.Only with the support of many volunteers, interested people and sponsors the foundation can be successful.


The presence in the media is also very important. SRF bi de Lüt "Familiensache Ferienzeit"is looking for a family they could accompany during their time with firmm.  If you are interested in taking this opportunity please contact Katharina.

Next year, on the 17th of February 2018, the 20th anniversary of the firmm-meeting will take place. Be sure to remember.

So the 19th firmm-meeting ends at 21:20. Katharina thanks everyone for attending this special event and wishes a great evening.


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