22nd firmm meeting on the 22nd of February 2020 in Aarau

by firmm Team

Text: Andrea Stampfli, Photos: Thomas Brückmann and Stefan Bichsel

On the 22.2.2020 the annual firmm-meeting takes place for the 22nd time! Katharina starts the evening by welcoming the numerous whale and dolphin friends. Also this year some of them came from abroad. Especially many people from Germany and Austria as well as the employees from Spain are present. Warmly Katharina also welcomes the whole foundation board.

Foundation board member Prof. Dr. Patricia Holm and Jörn Selling, marine biologist of firmm, have written a scientific paper about the injuries and health condition of the cetaceans in the Strait of Gibraltar, which has already been presented by Prof. Dr. Patricia Holm to the IWC and will soon be published in the "Aquatic Mammals journal". Katharina thanks both for their valuable work and for letting firmm be part of this.

Samuel Notz, the youngest member of the foundation board, briefly explains the further course of the evening.

Marine litter and micro plastics

A particular threat to whales and dolphins?

Prof. Dr. rer. nat. Patricia Holm

In December 2019, a Sperm Whale stranded on the coast of Scotland with over 100 kg of garbage in its stomach. Again and again animals whose stomachs are filled with plastic strand.

The oceans are becoming increasingly filled with plastic. Originally there are 5 big oceanic garbage patches circulating in the sea and collecting plastic garbage, which can be seen on satellite pictures for quite some time already. As can be seen on new pictures, the patches are constantly expanding. Soon it will be easier to identify regions where no plastic is floating. The swirls are merging more and more. It is estimated that there are over 5 trillion pieces of plastic with a total weight of 250'000 tons in the oceans.

But who produces all this plastic and where is it used? Since the 2nd World War until today the demand and therefore the production of plastic is constantly increasing. Between 1950 and 2015, 8.3 billion tons of plastic were produced worldwide. 56% of this amount has been produced since the year 2000. By 2050, 20% of the fossil fuels will be used for plastic production.

Where is the problem? What is plastic used for? You cannot demonize plastic in general. Plastic also has good qualities. It is light, easy to shape and is used, for example, to ensure hygiene. On the other hand, almost 40% of it is used for packaging. Even that is not a problem in itself.

The problem lies in the period of use; in how long plastic is in use. In the construction sector, for example, plastic is used for up to 35 years. For packaging, the average service life is only about 2 months. And what happens to it afterwards?

Switzerland is world champion in waste disposal. It has no landfill sites and has the highest recycling and recovery rate. We can be proud of this. Other European countries by the sea still have landfills and do not have a good waste management system. At the sea it is always windy and so plastic gets into it in no time. But even in Switzerland, not a day goes by without plastic. Even vegetables from the open sale were once in contact with plastic. Most of them come from Spain.

From Huelva, for example, come almost all Straw-, Black-, Rasp-, and other -berries, for their cultivation water is drained from the National Park Doñana. The famous "Mar de Plástico", a huge sea of greenhouses in Almería, is the world's largest intensive cultivation; an area of over 360km2 (corresponds to about 10 times the size of the canton of Basel-Land). There our vegetables are grown under plastic. The plastic tends to tear up and is not disposed of properly and thus ends up in the sea. A lot of waste from fishing also ends up in the ocean in form of nets and lines. The Mediterranean Sea is one of the most polluted seas and is also known as a plastic trap.

In contrast to micro plastic (smaller than 5 mm), the large parts of macro plastic are clearly visible. Plastic does not decompose into molecules, but only into fragments. These are created by thermal, photochemical (electromagnetic radiation, e.g. UV), chemical (salt, etc.) and physical decomposition (erosion through wind, waves and sand). The fragments float on the water surface when they are lighter than water, settle on the bottom if they are heavier, or are washed ashore. Primary micro plastic is used in form of small pellets, e.g. also in toothpaste. So how important is the problem with micro plastics? You can hardly see it. What we can see is only the tip of the iceberg. Only 1.4 % of the particles are larger than 5 mm and therefore clearly visible. On average, there are 463g of micro plastic per m2 in the Mediterranean. This makes up over 3 trillion particles in the entire Mediterranean Sea.

But how does plastic affect whales? They can get entangled in plastic. Lines and other rubbish can hinder them in their movement and thus also in their hunting. Especially with rare species, even the loss of a single animal can have devastating consequences. Again and again animals whose stomachs are filled with plastic strand. It is not yet possible to explain why Sperm Whales, Cuvier's beaked Whales and Risso's Dolphins in particular, which hunt with sonar and not according to visual stimuli, ingest so much plastic. The effect of micro plastic intake is also not yet known. Experiments with water fleas show that the micro plastic that is ingested is completely eliminated. Certainly the process of absorption and excretion alone requires a lot of energy, which the animal later lacks. The uptake of micro plastic in whales and dolphins is measured by evaluating the prey animals and requires complex questions and evaluations. Among other things, the following questions arise: What are the preferred prey animals? Do these animals ingest micro plastic? (e.g. in mackerel, micro plastic were found in 71% of cases)

Prof. Dr. Patrizia Holm has published the booklet "Ehrfurcht vor dem Leben" (" Respect for life") together with her husband. They are given away for free; however a donation for firmm is highly appreciated.

Presentation of the foundation board, the team of employees and volunteers and review of the 2019 season - Katharina Heyer

Katharina introduces the foundation board, all employees and all volunteers of the 2019 season. She would like to thank them and all those who have contributed to the success of the season 2019 for the work they have done.

Katharina takes everyone present to Tarifa with a few beautiful pictures. She explains to everyone who does not know Tarifa yet, the special location where firmm is stationed and where the animals are. This is illustrated by means of sighting maps, on which the routes of the ferries are also shown. firmm now has several locations in Tarifa, but is still looking for a more suitable main office. The small main office has been located in the centre of the city, somewhat hidden in a side street since its foundation. The two boats of firmm are moored next to each other in the harbour. firmm has still not been allocated a permanent harbour site.

In the year 2019, 33'445 tourists were on the excursions with firmm. Since there were only 59 days where the trips could not be made due to strong winds, this is significantly more than in the previous year. 1'700 charlas were used to impart knowledge and information to tourists. A short film by Sebastian Kanzler gives everyone an insight into how a boat trip is organised.

Afterwards Katharina presents the sighting numbers of the animals. Since 47 more trips were made, more animal sightings were of course recorded. Katharina shows short films and beautiful sequences about all animal species.

In 2019, there was no need to organise trips in the bay of Algeciras, as there were only a few days of wind. Nevertheless, the Common Dolphins, which mostly live in the bay, were also frequently sighted in the Strait of Gibraltar.

Also the Striped Dolphins could be seen again in large groups and always provided a nice experience.

Among the Bottlenose Dolphins more than 23 new-borns were sighted and the largest group counted 75 animals (average group size approx. 45 animals).

The Pilot Whales could be observed in two impressive "Entradas" with about 150 and 200 animals each. They retreat to the Mediterranean Sea during strong Levante (east wind) and then return to the Strait all together in large groups.

Also the Orcas have been spotted a little bit more, although not as much as in the past. Katharina is always especially happy when she can see the “Matriarch” again every year, as she has done already for 22 years. The Orcas are probably not moving too far away at the moment because of the many young animals amongst them.

In the past season there were also many Sperm Whale sightings in September and October, i.e. outside the main Sperm Whale season in spring. A very special encounter occurred when one Sperm Whale appeared just under the boat and then swam away comfortably. Everyone on the boat was devoutly silent at that moment. After all a Sperm Whale is up to 18m long and that makes a big impression on the people on the small firmm-boat.

In 2019 about 40 Fin Whale sightings with a total of 65 animals and 8 juveniles were recorded.

The number of animal adoptions has increased to 480.

After 20 days of uninterrupted trips with the crew working non-stop (there was no wind), they organized a great birthday party for Katharina.

On special "Beach-Cleaning-Days" Jörn Selling was this year in different school classes to give a lecture and afterwards on two mornings with over 200 children on the beach to clean it together with them. firmm sponsored gloves. The teachers would like to hold the Beach Cleaning Days again next year.

There were also sightings of drug traffickers' ships and occasional encounters with refugees trying to cross the Strait in small boats.

A special scene occurred in the harbour, when over several weeks about 300-400 berry pickers arrived daily from Morocco by ferry and returned a few months later with fully packed suitcases.

On August 11th, 2019 a film team from the WDR TV-channel visited and shot an episode of the programme "WDR-Bus-Tour-TV" in Tarifa. Together with volunteer Alexander they went on a trip. As always when a film crew is present, the whales did not let firmm down and granted a unique experience. After a large group of Striped Dolphins had provided entertainment and beautiful photo-opportunities, a large group of Orcas appeared out of nowhere and completely off schedule and moved through the Strait!


For the first time an interesting quiz takes place, it was prepared by the firmm team from Tarifa in cooperation with Daniel Ihly and Heike Pahlow. 10 exciting questions make everyone present think and provide good entertainment. Later on the quiz will be solved and prizes will be awarded. There were 12 great prizes to win, which were organized by Reto Roderer.

State of progress of the project SABA and current topics that have occupied firmm in the season 2019

Jörn Selling, Marine biologist of firmm in Tarifa

Jörn Selling presents a short update on the project SABA (System for mooring ships in the Bay of Gibraltar). It consists of protecting the bottom of the Bay from the anchors of large ships. Jörn Selling already explained the topic in detail at the firmm-meetings in 2018 and 2019.

The goal still is to find a company that takes underwater pictures of the bay. Also a ship is needed, which is able to release a suitable ROV (Remote Operated Vehicle) with camera into the water. One company finally made an offer and informed us that 5 permits are necessary for the project. The company has submitted the requests for the first two permits in the proper manner. However, if one submits something, one does not necessarily receive an answer and the applications often disappear in a "black hole". A lot of money is earned in the Bay and therefore possible restrictions are not desired. Despite the fact that there exist already protected areas in the Bay, ships still anchor inside them. Furthermore the anchorage area has been extended. Fortunately, there is now a party that has objected to the also planned expanding of the port facilities next to one of the protected areas. Jörn Selling has no idea how things will continue. It seems to be impossible to follow the proper way and procedure if one wants to get ahead.

In the second part of his lecture, Jörn states that Sperm Whales hunting with echolocation eat plastic and he therefore suspects that plastic and squids have the same backscatter-pattern in echolocation. He suggests that this would be worth investigating.

He continues speaking about Fin Whales, which can live up to 100 years. They swim out into the Atlantic in spring and into the Mediterranean in autumn. Do the whales from the Strait of Gibraltar belong to the same population as those from the Mediterranean Sea? Stock estimates in 2003 have shown that the population in the Mediterranean Sea consists of about 2000 - 8500 animals. 901 animals of them in the Ligurian Sea. Most of the Fin Whales swim westwards in summer, which is why Jörn Selling has concentrated on them when preparing the studies. There are constant sightings and thus a clear pattern of migration behaviour is evident. The peak of the migration is in June. Projected to 24 hours of whale watching/day, about 65 whales migrate to the west. The current velocity in the Strait of Gibraltar varies. With outgoing tide there is a full pull into the Mediterranean Sea while at incoming tide there is the least current into the Mediterranean and therefore it is easiest for the whales to swim out into the Atlantic Ocean. It has been observed that the whales wait behind the Rock of Gibraltar until the current is right before crossing the Strait.

Do the whales migrate earlier with climate change? Observations of the migratory behaviour of birds have shown that they set off about 2 weeks earlier. In order to find out whether the Fin Whales are now also starting their migrations earlier, Jörn Selling has calculated everything over again. He found out that the whales do indeed migrate earlier.

To which population do the Fin Whales in the Strait of Gibraltar belong? The sum of all sightings per month indicates a migratory behaviour that does not correspond to that of the Fin Whales in the Ligurian Sea, which stay there in summer. Between 1921 and 1926, at least 4149 Fin Whales were killed off Gibraltar. Until the beginning of the 1980s, they were hunted as far as Finisterre (Galicia). Their quick end suggests that it was a small local population. In addition, isotope analyses show that they have a different diet than the Fin Whales living in the Mediterranean Sea. A Fin Whale marked with a tracking device migrated from the Ligurian Sea to northern Portugal. Recent analyses of stable isotopes of C, N and O from skin samples of 151 Fin Whales from Western Finland, Galicia (Finisterre), the Azores and the Strait of Gibraltar show that the four groups feed in the same hunting grounds in the Northeast Atlantic at different times. "Our" whales are there in summer. In winter they feed in the Mediterranean Sea.

Based on our data, we can cautiously assume a small recovery of the population. But to confirm this, we would have to calculate the actual numbers.

By using the earwax accumulated in the ear canal from a whale, forming annual layers, the stress hormone cortisol can be analysed over years. From this the influence of stress caused by humans on a whale is clearly recognizable (e.g. when World War II was, the peak time of whaling, etc.).

With pictures of a jumping whale, Jörn concludes his extremely informative and entertaining lecture.

Afterwards the audience had the possibility to ask Jörn questions, which they used extensively.

Are there other whales than the ones you already now in the Strait of Gibraltar?

Jörn Selling: There used to be 14 species. Today there are still 7, but every now and then some Humpback Whales and Minke Whales are sighted.

Is there anything that can be done about the prevailing algae plague?

Jörn Selling: No. The invasive algae species is spreading everywhere. It is mainly active in summer when it is nice and warm. Where it grows, there is a strong smell and it no longer has sea urchins, for example. The algae grows even on moving sea cucumbers. One possibility would be to import natural enemies from Japan. However, even then there is a danger that they will prefer native species and things will only get worse. We can only hope that nature will take care of this itself.

Is there nothing that can be done about the noise of ships?

Jörn Selling: There are electric or hybrid engines or even diesel generators that provide electricity to run a quieter electric engine. But the power is not yet sufficient. Since time is money, the will to improve noise pollution therefore does not exist in the shipping industry.

Are there also counts and statistics on the occurrence of animals other than the Fin Whale?

Jörn Selling: There are no recent numbers. There were once counts of Pilot Whales using photo ID. But that was a long time ago. Otherwise, it is based on experience. Common Dolphins, which depend on the Bay of Gibraltar are practically extinct in the Mediterranean. Only around Gibraltar and Malta the populations are more or less stable. The Striped Dolphin is doing better thanks to its preference for offshore waters. The Bottlenose Dolphins are also doing well. They are probably more resistant to the morbillivirus, that seems to be endemic in the Mediterranean, than the Pilot Whales are. Sperm Whales have been stranding in the Mediterranean Sea more and more often (consequence of the plastic ingestion). The population of Fin Whales has increased somewhat, but will never again reach the numbers of the past.

What can be done to make the ships less dangerous for the whales?

Jörn Selling: Only slowing down!

GP Challenge 2020, Gibraltar to Palermo

Rüdiger Böhm and Lars Kyprian

An extraordinary challenge: 2 men, 2 legs, 1 boat, 2020 nautical miles from Gibraltar to Palermo. The start is in Tarifa. Rüdiger Böhm, who has no legs since an accident, and his friend Lars Kyprian (former squad sailor) will tackle the 2020 nautical miles to Palermo with a racing catamaran. They are accompanied by an escort boat.

Samuel Notz briefly introduces the two adventurers and then asks them: How did you get the idea for this project?

Lars Kyprian: Rüdiger is a good friend and he visited me one day to have a cup of coffee together. After many hours and 2 proseccos I had the idea to start a sailing challenge. At first I thought that this would probably not work - without legs. A few proseccos later I thought, maybe it would work with a catamaran. Let's test it on a lake. This is what they did and it worked.

Rüdiger Böhm: I am a professional motivational coach. Boundaries arise in the head. With my crazy ideas and projects I always want to show what this means. I want to show that it is possible for everyone to achieve something with passion, if it is really wanted. Just like Katharina has proven it impressively.

Lars Kyprian und Rüdiger Böhm abwechselnd: The launch of the catamaran and a tender will take place on August 28th, 2020 from firmm in Tarifa. The idea would be that the launch would be accompanied by the firmm-boats and whales. Since we will later go on tour with a documentary film, this would also be an advertisement for firmm. In addition, several events and sponsoring activities will take place afterwards, so that firmm will be mentioned in the film. Furthermore, a bracelet will be sold, the revenue of which will go 50% to the Association for Handicapped People and 50% to firmm. On the headsail all those who have donated something to the project will be mentioned. All donations made today will also go 50 % to firmm.

Samuel Notz wishes them all the best on behalf of all and congratulates them for their great courage.

Finally, Katharina asks all non-Swiss to sign the European Citizens' Initiative "Sharkproject".

With thanks to all media, companies and all people who have supported the foundation in some way, the 22nd firmm-meeting ends at 21:40.

The 23rd firmm-meeting will take place on February 20, 2021.

Go back