20th firmm gathering on February 17th 2018 in Aarau

by Thomas Brückmann

Text: Andrea Stampfli; Photos: Christine Schmid und Thomas Brückmann

The annual firmm meeting had a very special theme. This year the foundation celebrates its 20th anniversary!
Therefore, a large number of people came to celebrate this anniversary and to acknowledge firmm's work of many years.

Shortly after 5pm Katharina welcomes the numerous whale and dolphin friends to the 20th firmm gathering.
In particular she welcomes the members of the foundation board and guests who have come from far away (Germany, France, Italy and Spain). Also this year Jörn Selling, firmm’s biologist as well as three other German-speaking employees have travelled especially from Spain to join the gathering.The boat crew sends their regards from Tarifa.

Afterwards, Samuel Notz, member of the foundation board, also welcomes all those present and explains the further course of the evening. He talks about how he had to grin quietly to himself when his mother Katharina told him in 1998 about her plans to build something in Tarifa to protect whales and dolphins.
However, at the latest when Katharina was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Basel, his smile had gone, he said.

20th firmm meeting opens with a welcome speech by Samuel Notz The award of the doctorate to Katharina Heyer in a short film 

A short film allows everyone to participate in the award of the honorary doctorate to Katharina and therefore to experience this indescribable moment. Everyone is clapping and cheering.
The fact that Katharina was honoured at the same time as Roger Federer and the President of the National Bank shows how important her work is!

Award of the honorary doctorate from the University of Basel - Prof. dr. Patricia Holm

Prof. Dr. Patricia Holm, despite her busy schedule, wanted to personally inform at the firmm gathering about the award of the honorary doctorate to Katharina.

The honorary doctorate of the University of Basel is awarded once a year on the last Friday in November. The title is only awarded if at least two thirds of the members of the respective faculty are in favour of it. In most cases, only one or two honorary doctorates are awarded among the proposed persons per year.Since it is far from usual to receive this award, Prof. Dr. Holm is very proud.

The University of Basel was founded in 1460 and is thus the oldest university in Switzerland. Initially, the university consisted of the Faculties of Theology, Law, Medicine and Ars. Subsequently, the Faculty of Philosophy and Natural Sciences, the Faculty of Economics and the Faculty of Psychology were added.

The "Dies Academicus" has a high significance in Basel and is still celebrated according to a very old procedure.
In traditional robes and stoles in the colour of the respective faculty, the university's chair parades through the city to St. Martin's Church which is already filled with invited guests and spectators.

Prof. Holm explains the Dies academicus Katharina together with Dean Prof. Martin Spiess and Rector Prof. Andrea Schenker 

There Katharina has been granted the honorary doctorate of Basel’s Faculty of Philosophy and Natural Sciences by Dean Martin Spiess.

Prof. Dr. Holm reads out the complete tribute. She thanks Katharina once again for the successful work she has done and concludes her speech with the words "Katharina you really deserve it".

You truly deserve it 

Bay of Algeciras, SABA (system for mooring ships in the Bay of Gibraltar) - Jörn Selling, marine biologist of firmm from Tarifa

Jörn first tells us about the historical development of the Bay of Gibraltar. He wants to point out that not only industrial use but also the past can enhance an area and make it worth protecting.

The bay of Gibraltar is not far from Tarifa. With the help of maps, Jörn shows how the bay looked like during the Ice Age. At that time, the sea level was much lower and instead of the sea, a large river led inland through the present bay. The famous Gorham Caves under the Rock of Gibraltar were still far from the shore and served as a place of residence for the Neanderthals. Bones of dolphins were also found there, indicating that dolphins were hunted by Neanderthals or at least that they ate stranded animals.

Jörn Selling presents the SABA project The Strait of Gibraltar with the bay

Then, the area was populated by the first Iberian advanced culture of Tartessos. However this suddenly disappeared from the scene in 500 BC. Their temples, often located in the swamps, have been sealed and thus, many contemporary witnesses were preserved.

The bay with the rock of Gibraltar The former wetlands 

The filtering wetlands along the coast of Algeciras remained largely untouched until the late 1960s. As a result of increasing industrialization in the 1970s, dunes, areas of brackish water and swamps disappeared. Unplanned draining and refilling led to a badly planned urban development.

Only thanks to small farmers who defend themselves and fight for their fields, there still exists an otherwise unprotected remaining rest along the Rio Palmones. However, it is even planned to build on the last remaining free sections.

Along the coast, Europe's native seagrass meadows grow, stabilizing the seabed and thus also the beaches. They also filter and purify the water and provide livelihood and protection to countless living organisms. They are of inestimable value.
While the Posidonia oceanica grows upwards and forms millennial "reef barriers" there, the Cymodocea nodosa forms carpets in a terrace-like structure.
Snorkelling, for example, could be offered there, to generate income. The value of one hectare of seagrass meadow along the Andalusian coast for fishing and tourism is estimated to be € 40,000 annually. However, the ground is being destroyed by the increasing number of anchorages. When a ship drops its anchor, it first pulls it along the ground for a long distance until the anchor grips. This creates huge paths across the meadows. What remains is churned up soil and destruction.

The anchors of the large ships are gradually destroying the seagrass meadows 

Besides numerous smaller animals, the common dolphin also lives in the bay. Since 2003, the population of common dolphins has been classified on the red list of threatened species as endangered in the Mediterranean Sea. The destruction of the seagrass meadows also deprives the dolphins of their livelihood. There is a lack of food. Jörn heard from the fishermen that Fin whales used to swim into the bay to eat krill. Today, this is not happening anymore.

According to Katharina, the common dolphins were still numerous at the time of the foundation's beginnings (1998). For a period of 10 years, firmm went to the bay with the small boats when it was not possible to sail from Tarifa. After a break from 2014 on, firmm started again last year to do excursions in the bay.

Events during the trip showed that the dolphins in the bay urgently need help. It is not time yet to rest on our laurels.

So how can the situation of the dolphins be improved? Although there is an exchange of water through the old Guadarranque and Palmones river valleys, the wetlands that filter the water coming from the interior are largely absent. Furthermore, the areas were often filled up with hazardous waste. What remains are the seagrass meadows along the coasts, which need to be protected and supported. One approach is already that the area has been declared by the EU to be important for the restoration of natural habitats. It is also classified by Spanish law as "contributing to a great extent to the conservation or restoration of the various habitats in their natural environment". This creates the obligation to protect these places from destruction. However, what happens in the sea needs to be addressed, as usually nobody is interested. To ban the large oil tankers, refineries and other cargo ships is not a realistic solution. Nevertheless, alternative anchoring possibilities for the vessels can be presented. An ideal option would be the Australian screw. It is bolted firmly into the floor. Buoys mark the chain and prevent it That way the ships can moor well. Also concrete blocks that are sunk, can be used for this purpose. However, a good quality concrete needs to be used (e.g. as the ancient Romans did) to prevent the release of substances that prevent the colonisation of seabed flora and fauna. Jörn has already made first calculations as to how big such a concrete block would have to be for the massive cargo ships. At most, a service with small ships would be needed to help with the docking to the buoys. This would certainly be a good approach. In other ports it has already been documented how the seaweed around the concrete blocks has recovered well.

All this is still in its infancy. A lot of research is still needed. Questions such as: "How long should the chains be? Are there interchangeable chain links? Which material, which approach? How exactly to design a project?" still need to be clarified.

One advantage at the moment is that it is planned to expand the port. In this case, the EU stipulates that compensation must be made for the damage caused. Alternative anchoring options could protect the common dolphins who are on the red list and increase fish stocks for fishermen and dolphins by improving water quality (seaweed filters). firmm would need to initiate and finance the launch. The EU could pay for underwater pictures. Afterwards, the financing could be guaranteed by the three largest companies based in the port.

Once there has been an incredibly rich fauna in the bay of Algeciras. It is a miracle that the dolphins are still in the bay despite all the pollution and destruction in recent years. The question arises how firmm should best invest energy and money for the dolphins in the bay. The project is still at its very beginning.

www.firmm.education - Thomas Brückmann

firmm-education - Why two websites?

In recent years, many students and whale and dolphin friends have written very informative and with much love and commitment designed treatises, lectures, etc. on the subject of marine life and its protection. This work should be accessible to all people interested.

Thomas Brückmann presents the new homepage firmm.education The homepage is divided into two main areas 

The homepage is divided into 5 sections. The "education" section covers 11 subject areas, each of which contains information, tips and links to other social media on the respective topic. This makes it easy for those interested to conduct more intensive research.

Also on the subject of "What can I do? How can I help? tips and suggestions can be found on the Homepage.

Presentation of the foundation board, the staff and the volunteers in the season 2017 - Katharina Heyer

Katharina thanks the foundation board, all employees, all volunteers and all those who contributed to a successful season 2017 for their work.

In particular, she mentions the development and relevance of the homepage www.firmm.org, which showed 9% more clicks and 7% more regular visitors from various countries. The newsletter is also becoming increasingly popular with 10'000 German, 2'000 English and 250 Spanish sent copies.

The last trip this year took place on the 5th of November 2017.

Sketch "a volunteer’s day at firmm" - Adna and Daniel

Adna and Daniel loosened up  the evening with their entertaining and very amusing sketch "a volunteer’s day at firmm". There was a lot of nodding, laughing and finally clapping in the hall!

Daniel and Adna parody a day in the life of a firmm volunteer Big applause for Daniel and Adna Big applause for Daniel and Adna

Review of the 2017 season - Katharina Heyer

After a break with a delicious meal of either cannelloni, soup, salad or cheese platter and a dessert offered for the anniversary, the programme continued with a look back at the past season.

Katharina starts the review with a song (Message from the Whale, Silent Gal) in which the female sperm whale "Mondrino" speaks to us.

The lyrics of Whale Tidings by Silent Gale 

Afterwards Katharina explains again to all those present where Tarifa is, which circumstances make Tarifa so special, where firmm has its offices, etc. and what could be achieved with the research (among other things, that the new ferry line was not approved).

Despite almost 3 months of wind (97 days in total without excursions) and thanks to the large boats, more tourists (27'830) could whale-watch with firmm in 2017. 228 Studies participated in a weekly course. Thus, the level of previous years

There were 706 pilot whale, 375 bottlenose dolphin, 249 striped dolphin, 98 common dolphin, 197 sperm whale, 53 orca and 25 fin whale sightings. After the record sperm whale year 2016, there were again fewer sperm whales in 2017. The slightly lower number of orca sightings compared to last year is certainly also due to the bad weather.

In 2017, 400 adoptions were concluded, with Baby Wilson still being by far the most popular.

Conclusion: There were fewer tours but thanks to the larger boat more people could be carried, which was the original purpose of the boat (less trips = less disturbance). Katharina shows us pictures and films from the season 2017 about all the animals.

20th anniversary - Katharina Heyer

For 20 years already firmm has got an office in the old town of Tarifa. This first branch was created out of an old, smoky bar. Initially, the information talks took place in a damp cellar or in the alley in front of the office. Afterwards containers were purchased. So a further office and rooms for the information talks were created in the harbour.
However firmm had to leave there.  First to another location on the beach and then the containers were completely banned by the city administration after persistent reports by third parties. In distress, firmm rented the "Centro" located near the harbour. This had to be renovated thoroughly and is now even wheelchair-accessible. It mainly serves as a lecture hall for the course participants and the students of the University of Basel.
There, already Prof. Senn had taught students with a lot of passion. He was co-founder of the foundation and showed, among other things, how firmm should conduct research.

How it all began in 1999 with containers in the port Prof. Senn, the man of the first hour 

firmm's research supposed to cover the areas of "biodiversity research", "photo identification", "mapping" and "plankton research".

Katharina shows a movie by Tom Forster from the year 2002. On the basis of the quality of the films you can see how much time has passed since then. In the film you can see tuna that is over 3 metres long; nowadays they hardly reach a length over 2 metres.

After that, Katharina presents the firmm boats of the past 20 years. It all started in 1998 with a Zodiac. Then the "Fundacionfirmm" followed in 1999 with 12 seats. After an arson attack destroyed the engine, constant breakdowns undermined the tours. Then, in 2006 the "firmm UNO" followed. It was a very fast boat that could carry 24 people. Unfortunately, it was not only fast, but often all passengers were soaking wet after the boat trips! In 2008 the "firmmSpirit" followed with 63 seats and in 2009 the "Fly Blue". The "Fly Blue" was very popular. However, the captain had to drive without visibility, since all people were standing in front of his windows. Therefore, the "firmm VISION" has been in use since 2016 in addition to the "firmmSpirit”. It has underwater windows, provides space for a total of 116 passengers (2 wheelchair places) and was built especially for the needs of firmm.

The first boats of firmm 

Between the presentation of the boats, Katharina repeatedly shows us films and photos. They document impressive experiences such as the stillbirth of a pilot whale and how the mother showed her stillborn baby first to Katharina and then to the whole boat. They document as well how sperm whales actively participated in mourning together with several pilot whales in a star Formation.

Furthermore, a 90-minute documentary with the title "The Last Giants" was released in cinemas. The documentary was Various appearances of Katharina on Swiss television followed, among others in "Reporter", "Horizonte", "10vor10", "Aeschbacher" and "Brisant" (German television).

On April 1st 2012, the large port office opened and the information talks (in Spanish: “Charlas”) can now be held there. In the past 20 years around 17,000 Charlas were held by 320 volunteers for 293,000 tourists.

Also further projects were tackled. A dolphin resort was to be built in Morocco. Despite many efforts, a lot of passion and invested energy, numerous plans and costly studies, the project came to a final end in 2014. Accobams has banned the import of bottlenose dolphins. As Morocco itself does not own any dolphinariums, the location made no sense anymore.

Katharina shows us more films about a sperm whale mating in 2013 and about the experiences of a grandfather and his granddaughter in a course in 2014, as well as a firmm-movie by Sebastian Kanzler, also from 2014.

Also in 2014, Ran Levy was able to show the film "A Fashion Designer" in various schools in the Faroe Islands, where whales are still brutally killed. In this way children can be sensitised in places where whales are still brutally killed and therefore shown a completely different side of pilot whales.

In 2015, 250 pilot whales were killed in the Faroe Islands on one single day. firmm also participated in the stand-up action of SeaShepherd with a film by Sebastian Kanzler.

Afterwards Katharina shows more beautiful photos of animals we know.

The era of drones followed: a drone-film about a sperm whale from 2016 and three films from Sebastian Kanzler from 2017, namely "Fin whales", "last exit on the 5th of November 2017" and the drone film "Farewell of Tarifa and the Sea".

In the end, Katharina thanks various media who reported about firmm last year and various people who have supported firmm with services, donations or otherwise.

The next 21st firmm meeting will take place on February 16th 2019.

The next 21st firmm meeting will take place on February 16th 2019 

Thus, the 20th anniversary firmm meeting comes to an end at 9.30 pm. Katharina thanks everyone for coming and wishes a safe journey home.

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