Impressions of the Book ‘Herzenssache’

by Sonja Van Den Bossche

Text: Sonja Van Den Bossche; Photos: Dirk Vandevelde, Sonja Van Den Bossche & firmm

There was a waiting silence in the White Hall of Volkshaus in Zürich on Saturday, November 19th, 2016… Glistening eyes, shy smile, restrained voice… Katharina Heyer was obviously moved by the massive turnout, when she welcomed her family and supporters of firmm to the presentation of her book ‘Herzenssache’ on the stage. But the atmosphere changed, as Katharina and the audience were carried away by the enthusiasm of Gabriella von Arx, director of Wörterseh Verlag, the humour of her husband Frank Baumann, Swiss television presenter, and the serenity of Michèle Sauvain, co-writer of the book.

It was a fascinating evening and many went home satisfied and with the book signed by Katharina as a souvenir. But it’s not a book to be laid in the closet without reading it. On the contrary, once you start reading the first pages, you can’t stop, as ‘Herzenssache’ brings the true story of a part of the life of Katharina Heyer without concealing anything and is fluently written. But it also makes us think…

Gabriella von Arx  Katharina Heyer and Frank Baumann 

A First Glimpse

At first acquaintance with ‘Herzenssache‘ its colourful cover is remarkable. It shows pictures of Katharina Heyer dressed in red standing next to three leaping bottlenose dolphins on the front cover and an orca on the back cover.

Book cover 

The title ‘Herzenssache’ is written in very large red letters. All images and letters are placed against a blue background. Red is the colour of the ‘heart’, love; blue of the sea, the sky and the corporate house style and logo of firmm.

The bottlenose dolphins are making simultaneous heart shaped jumps, which refers to a key fragment from the beginning of the book:

»Wir standen an der Reling und schauten hinüber zu dem goldenen Streifen im Osten, als plötzlich ein riesiger Delfin hoch in die Luft schnellte. Er drehte sich um die eigene Achse und tauchte wieder ab, während fast zeitgleich zwei weitere Delfine aus dem Wasser aufstiegen und in hohem Bogen aufeinander zu sprangen. Wieder schauten Rita und ich einander ungläubig an. Die Delfine bildeten mit ihren Körpern ein Herz!« (p. 23)

Along with the cloud in the shape of a dolphin (p. 13-14) this was for Katharina a sign: she had come to Tarifa only because she loved dolphins very much and she absolutely wanted to see them. It was as if nature and the animals felt this: they also loved her and welcomed and invited her to stay…

Baby orca Wilson, the public’s favourite on the firmm-boats during the orca season, graces the back cover of ‘Herzenssache’. Katharina Heyer recognizes him by the white spot around his eye.

Inside Out and Round About

  • Main Character

Katharina Heyer is the woman, around whom the book revolves. This lead character and her foundation, firmm, need no introduction. The press kit on the official website of firmm ( contains a brief, but already impressive curriculum vitae of Katharina and a long firmm-chronology from the beginning in Tarifa (1997) until now. Several articles have been published about Katharina Heyer and firmm in various Swiss and German newspapers and magazines, documentaries and films (The Last Giants – Wenn das Meer stirbt, 2009) have been made about her and her work and she has frequently appeared on radio and television. But Michèle Sauvain, co-author of ‘Herzenssache’, gathered all the pieces of the puzzle and put them together so as to form a whole, which surpasses everything that has preceded it. What’s more, she explored in great depth all the information and added still more details. So the recently published book is complete and up-to-date. In this way Michèle Sauvain gave us a very moving description of the last 19 years in the life of Katharina Heyer, her (auto)biography, which at the same time also gives us all sorts of background information about Katharina’s faithful companions during all these years, the whales and dolphins in the Strait of Gibraltar. There’s a passing reference to the important research done by Prof. Dr. David Senn (Uni Basel) and Katharina’s encounter with the first pilot whales adopted by firmm, thus providing us with a valuable reference book. Without doubt, a must for everyone interested in the activities of Katharina Heyer and firmm, a professional-looking guidebook for future firmm-volunteers in Tarifa…

  • Title

The book is entitled ‘Herzenssache‘ (A Matter of the Heart), which is not an original title – as many foundations and actions for charity bear the same name in the German-speaking countries – but a very strong one: short and sweet, ‘made to measure’, completely fitting Katharina Heyer. In order to have a perfect understanding of the title, it must be seen in close conjunction with the subtitle of the book, ‘Mein Leben mit den Walen und Delfinen in der Straße von Gibraltar’ (My Life with the Whales and Dolphins in the Strait of Gibraltar), a reference to the 19 years in the life of Katharina Heyer with an almost uninterrupted engagement, a pure passion for ‘her’ animals in the Strait of Gibraltar. At the age of 55 Katharina was fed up with the stress of dealing with her business, the expectations of her clients and the constant travelling for professional reasons. Somehow, she wanted to settle down and came to Tarifa, amongst others, in order to oppose the increasing number of ships in the Strait of Gibraltar and the building of more dolphinariums in Spain. Through founding firmm she wanted to inform and sensitize the people and do research, because nothing was known about the existence of marine mammals in the Strait of Gibraltar. Once successful with her foundation in Spain, she had time again to go looking for a new challenge. On the other side, in Morocco, among many other things, she wanted to have a refuge for old dolphins from dolphinariums built. She failed, however, and since then, firmm supports other projects to protect the whales and dolphins living in the wild in the Strait of Gibraltar. Moreover, it’s quite admirable that Katharina still knows everything about her activities in Tarifa and Tangier – from the very beginning until now – which proves once again that she loves these animals very much and that she takes their fate to heart. As a matter of fact, the word ‘heart’ very often occurs in the book, especially when the deepest feelings that Katharina has towards the animals, are described…

At least 300 cargo-vessels sail into and out of the Strait of Gibraltar every day 

  • Contents

In her Foreword co-writer Michèle Sauvain also refers to the title of Katharina’s book, ‘Herzenssache’, by literally quoting her words: p. 7-8:

Michèle Sauvain is reading ‘Herzenssache’ aloud to a large audience.»Irgendwann fragte ich sie, warum es sie, die erfolgreiche Geschäftsfrau und Mutter von zwei erwachsenen Kindern, in doch eher späten Jahren nach Tarifa verschlagen hatte. Ihre Antwort war ebenso kurz wie einfach: »Wegen der Tiere.« Keine Liebesgeschichte? Kein Mann?»Nein, keine Liebesgeschichte, aber trotzdem eine Herzenssache! Du kannst dir nicht vorstellen, was das für ein Gefühl ist, mit diesen Tieren draußen auf dem Meer zu sein. Es ist einfach wichtig, dass ich den Menschen zeige, dass man sie schützen muss.«

–> ‘No, no love story brought me as a successful businesswoman and mother of two grown-up children to Tarifa in later life, but a matter of the heart! You can’t imagine what a feeling it is, to be out at sea with these animals. It’s just really important that I show the people that they must protect them.’

After she has been working together with Katharina Heyer for many months and knows her through and through now, Michèle Sauvain comes to the conclusion that this book is much more than Katharina’s story and her great commitment to the whales and dolphins in the Strait of Gibraltar. It’s about the meaning of life… As a consequence, ‘Herzenssache’ often gets categorized under the larger umbrella of ‘religion, philosophy and spiritualism’ by libraries and bookstores.

‘Herzenssache’ consists of 3 parts, each highlighting a different period in the life of Katharina Heyer.

Part one starts in December 1997, when fashion designer Katharina Heyer wanted to escape the daily grind, went on a short holiday and stayed with Swiss friends in Gaucín, near Tarifa. When she sailed out to sea for the first time with the ‘Scorpora’, a small boat with a captain rented from a local ‘freak of diving’, she met pilot whales and striped dolphins. Right before her eyes three leaping dolphins were making a ‘heart’. This was exactly what triggered the sensible Katharina to start a new challenge. In a few months she set up her own foundation, firmm, and prepared a team for an even greater challenge: the first whale watching season in Tarifa. During the very first trip with 9 passengers on the ‘Beluga’, the first firmm-boat, dolphins and lots of pilot whales were spotted. The next seasons Katharina Heyer had to struggle very hard, but this part ends on a positive note, because firmm finally had success…

So many whales! (firmm’s very first boat trip) 

Katharina Heyer‘s success was due to random circumstances. Her firm character had, of course, contributed most to it: p. 63:firmm’s head office in the old town of Tarifa

»Lange studierten wir an einem sinnigen Namen herum und einigten uns schließlich auf »Foundation for information and research on marine mammals«, Stiftung für Information und Forschung über Meeressäugetiere. Auch die Abkürzung klang gut: firmm. Das englische Wort »firm« bedeutet »felsenfest, entschlossen, verbindlich«. Das passte gut und war für mich wie ein Bekenntnis, dass ich es ernst meinte mit dem Schutz der Tiere.«

–> ‘The abbreviation also sounded well: firmm. The English word ‘firm’ means ‘solid as a rock, determined, binding’. This fitted well and sounded like a confession to me that the protection of the animals was seriously meant.’

Part two covers the time between November 2001 and 2013. The Dolphin Sanctuary project ‘Ras Laflouka’ in Morocco, a refuge for old dolphins from dolphinariums and injured dolphins, planned by Katharina Heyer, cost her a lot of time, energy and money. Once again, by coincidence, useless attempts to cooperate with the Swiss theme park Conny-Land, corruption in Morocco, continuous adjustments of the building conditions and plans, changing governors, the assignment of a new plot of land in Tangier, etc. her brainchild failed. ‘Ras Laflouka was dead’ after a long and persistent struggle of more than 10 years, which was very difficult for the ever ambitious Katharina to accept and process. So this part of the book is likely to come to a sad end…

The long and arduous efforts on two fronts, in Tarifa and Tangier, took a heavy toll on her, both physically and mentally: Katharina had a stroke. On the advice of Andy and Sam, her two worried sons, she had to take it easy from then on. At the firmm-office she delegated some of her tasks to other team members. And so Katharina Heyer came to terms with herself and the second part still ends on a positive note…

Part three goes from 2013 to 2016 and has an open ending. Here, the positive trend of the previous part continues. First, other reasons for the failure of firmm‘s project in Morocco are mentioned.

But despite her bad Morocco experience there was one force that bound Katharina Heyer to Tarifa, namely her ‘heart’ for the animals, with whom she enjoyed many magical moments. She has now added another unit to this: ‘her small, great family’, the current firmm-team. These two cornerstones will determine the future. Furthermore, Katharina’s age (74) doesn’t stop her from starting new projects, such as the purchase of the Vision, a new boat with underwater windows for firmm

On the firmm Vision there’s enough space for 113 tourists 

Katharina Heyer has explored her boundaries and expanded her horizon. Yet, there’s one constant, recurring repeatedly throughout the book: p. 243:

«Die meiste Zeit verbringe ich allerdings auf dem Meer, oben auf dem Flydeck eines unserer Schiffe, ganz nahe bei den Walen und Delfinen. Dort gehöre ich hin.»

–> ‘Most of the time I spend at sea, on the flybridge of one of our ships, very close to the whales and dolphins. I belong there.’

Moments of sheer happiness …

Katharina Heyer (on the left) is on the lookout on the flybridge of the firmm Spirit 

  • Supporting Characters

Katharina Heyer has already been active with firmm in Tarifa for nearly 20 years and in the meantime has got to know a lot of people, who either helped her move and go forward or sabotaged her. Some friendships were only temporary, others everlasting. It was impossible for Michèle Sauvain to mention everyone in the book who has ever crossed Katharina’s path. She had to confine herself to some minor characters.

In the first part particularly Ara, David and Benny are worth mentioning.

Ara, Katharina’s spiritual teacher, advised her to visit Tarifa, as there are whales and dolphins… David was a professor of marine biology at the university of Basel and member of firmm‘s foundation council. Benny, also a member of firmm‘s foundation council, helped Katharina draw up the statutes for her foundation.

In the second part we get acquainted with Rachid, Ahmed Bounakoub, Mohamed El Yaakoubi and Hanae.

Rachid, of Moroccan origin, was in contact with government officials and thus for Katharina the ideal negotiator on her project in Tangier. Ahmed Bounakoub was a controversial figure in Morocco: he was in prison for drug trafficking, but very popular with the locals, because he gave money to the poor. The corrupt governor, Mohamed El Yaakoubi, promised Katharina another site for ‘Ras Laflouka’ closer to Tangier, but he broke his promise: exactly in this place there would be a new congress centre! Hanae, Katharina’s architect in the final stage of the Morocco project, probably knew of the plans for the congress centre in Tangier, but didn’t tell Katharina…

In the third part Katharina Heyer puts her team – Jörn, Nina & Oli and Eduardo – built up over the years, under the bright spotlight. She calls them ‘her small, great family’. Small, as firmm is but a mini-company with few employees. Great, because these staff members have been loyal to her for many years now. And meanwhile, they’re so perfectly attuned to each other, that they’re even enormously important for the perpetuity of the foundation: at this moment Katharina is still fit and healthy and they’re constantly more than just her right hand, but for the future she puts her hope on them above all …

  • Katharina’s Personality

Michèle Sauvain masterfully describes the character of the protagonist. Already from a brief character analysis it soon becomes clear that Katharina Heyer is a universal human being, in whom we recognize ourselves. A woman like any other with good and bad qualities, sometimes black-white contrasts.

Mainly in the first (and longest) part of ‘Herzenssache’ she was repeatedly torn between hope, optimism, self-confidence and despair: should she stay in Tarifa or return to Switzerland? In difficult, confusing times and when she had to make tough decisions, she asked advice from Ara, her family (her ex-husband, Peter, and her two sons, Sam and Andy) or Benny. Peter, an agriculturist, and Andy, an air traffic controller, are Katharina’s opposites. She and Sam, a bank employee and member of firmm‘s foundation council, are hand and glove. They could bring her back into balance. And in the end Katharina never gave up, because she’s a real fighter. Katharina Heyer reached the heights of despair when she had lost everything (captains, boats, containers, data and photos of the animals, …) and had to start over (p. 115-131, the longest chapter in the entire book). But at that moment a pilot whale mother showed her newborn baby to Katharina. They taught her to think positively again and she persevered. So Katharina often finds comfort in being with the animals, too, and some time later, it becomes apparent once more how much she loves pilot whales: p. 136-137:

»Kurz darauf schwammen etwa dreißig Grindwale auf uns zu. Es waren mehrere Familien in Gruppen von drei bis fünf Walen. Plötzlich kamen drei Riesenmachos ganz nah ans Boot, legten ihre Köpfe aneinander und schauten mir lange in die Augen. Dieser Augenkontakt wirkt bei mir jedes Mal wie eine Seelenmassage.«

–> ‘Every time this eyecontact works for me like a soul massage.’

A spyhopping pilot whale is watching the passengers on the firmm-boat 

Sometimes Katharina Heyer, being overcome by grief, shed bitter tears, for example in the first part of the book (p. 98-102), when she – at the age of only 20 – gave birth to a baby girl, Gabriela, who only lived for a short time because of a serious heart defect, the greatest sorrow that she has ever borne…

Katharina Heyer, the businesswoman, is very enterprising, has many ideas and is a well-organized person, but everyone has imperfections: because in the beginning she had to recruit so many staff members every year, she sometimes put herself into question: why did everyone stop working for her after one or two years? Was she a bad boss? Did she demand too much? Did she show too little appreciation? (p. 188)

But there’s more: Katharina Heyer is an intelligent and, above all, good-hearted and humble woman. She wanted to protect the animals with firmm and certainly didn’t want to make a profit with whale watching (p. 119). Katharina didn’t intend to become famous (or a star). Nevertheless, she’s very well-known, because she did something, of which others might already have been thinking, but which they’ve never dared to do so far, that is breaking out of herself, stepping out of her comfort zone and turn her life around. In this case Katharina exchanged her lucrative job and nice family in Switzerland for an uncertain life in the service of the whales and dolphins in Tarifa. Even more impressive: with a Swiss foundation and as a woman, while women in Spain normally do the household and educate the children and don’t employ men, who sail out to sea for them (p. 119). And though she wasn’t completely successful in her plans, yet Katharina Heyer has awakened something in us that keeps us awake. She’s a trendsetter for the future protection and welfare of the whales and dolphins in the Strait of Gibraltar. Furthermore, the release of a(n) (auto)biography is an extraordinary challenge and it just takes courage to reveal details of your private life. All this makes Katharina Heyer so special …

  • Style

In 2010 Michèle Sauvain made a beautiful documentary about Katharina Heyer entitled Die Walfrau von Gibraltar‘ (The Whale-Woman of Gibraltar) for SRF (Schweizer Radio und Fernsehen). Five years later she found that Katharina’s story was also worth a book and so ‘Herzenssache’ arose. With her typical narrative style, the sensitivity of a woman over fifty with three children and the objectivity of the journalist, she captures the ‘hearts’ of everyone, young and old.

In the greater part of the book (to p. 238) Michèle Sauvain is telling the story. It’s written in the past tense, in direct speech and in the first person singular point of view (I), here from the thoughts, feelings and experiences of Katharina Heyer and hence in biographical form. Michèle Sauvain put herself in the position of Katharina, enabling us to project ourselves deep into the story and the protagonist’s point of view: through the words of the writer we cannot only vividly imagine how Katharina behaved externally, but also exactly see, hear and feel what she experienced internally. The result: ‘Herzenssache’ has become a masterpiece of its genre, a book with a warm ‘heart’!

Towards the end (from p. 238) Katharina Heyer herself starts telling us about her team and the firmm Vision, her new boat. However, she does this in the first person plural point of view (we=my team and I), present tense and indirect speech, so autobiographically.

Katharina’s (auto)biography is composed of three parts, each consisting of a number of quite short chapters. The chapters are laid out in a chronological order, making it easy to follow the plot.

The book is written in clear and understandable German, which is sometimes interwoven with typical, luscious Swiss-German words, revealing Katharina’s origins (Zürich), for example ‘Samichlausgeschenk’ (instead of Christmas present) (p. 191).

Dry facts (such as high-level negotiations) are alternated with special encounters and emotional moments with the animals, which makes ‘Herzenssache’ very pleasant to read. In the last part during one trip 6 species of the whales and dolphins living in the Strait of Gibraltar (3 Fin Whales, a Sperm Whale and 30 Bottlenose Dolphins) and on another one 9 sperm whales (Unexpected Visit of Sperm Whales) were spotted! (Magical moments: from p. 232)


Common dolphins A large school of about 1,000 striped dolphins A diving sperm whale is identified by its tailfin A fin whale can be more than 20m long, but is an elegant swimmer 

  • Extract

One of the most heart touching passages in the book is the tragic story of Curro, a male pilot whale that got injured on two occasions – the first time by a ship’s propeller. This adopted animal had always been the Problem Child of the Strait of Gibraltar for firmm, but nobody could do anything for him. After a year-long and bravely fought battle, in which the other animals had constantly stood by him, he eventually had to ‘lay his weary head to rest’…

p. 218: »Als »Curro« mit seiner Grindwal-Familie kam, war ich beruhigt. Er und seine Partnerin »Fina« und ein jüngeres Männchen, das wir »Edu« getauft hatten, waren über die Jahre ebenfalls zu ständigen Begleitern geworden. Aber was war bloß mit Curro passiert? Ein tiefer Schnitt verlief quer über seinen Rücken, und es sah aus, als ob er gleich auseinanderfiele. Er musste in eine Schiffsschraube geraten sein. Eduardo, mein neuer Marinero, war dem Weinen nahe, als er das sah. Curro bewegte sich langsam und kraftlos. Die anderen eskortierten ihn. Es sah aus, wie wenn sie ihn beschützten. Auch mir brach es fast das Herz. Ich machte ein paar Fotos, die ich umgehend meiner Veterinärin mailte. Vielleicht wusste sie Rat. Aber es gab nichts, was wir tun konnten. Wenn das Rückenmark nicht verletzt sei, antwortete sie, würde die Wunde von innen heraus heilen.

p. 222-223: Erst gegen Ende Saison sah ich Curro wieder. Vor einem Jahr, bei einer der ersten Ausfahrten mit der »Spirit«, waren wir ihm zuletzt begegnet, und es schien ihm besser zu gehen. Seine Wunde sah damals zwar immer noch schrecklich aus, aber sie verheilte langsam. Die Rückenflosse war zur Seite gekippt und lag wie ein überflüssiges Stück Fleisch auf seinem Rücken. Er und seine Gefährtin Fina waren Eltern geworden und hatten mir ihr Junges gezeigt.

Jetzt mochte ich es kaum glauben: Curro hatte sich erneut verletzt. Diesmal sah es noch schlimmer aus als beim ersten Mal. Die Finne war nun fast vollständig abgetrennt. Die Wunde eiterte, und rundherum hatte sich ein weißer, entzündeter Abszess gebildet. Ich stand auf dem Boot und dachte gerade, dass man dem Tier die Geschwulst dringend wegoperieren sollte. In diesem Moment kam Edu und schlug sie ihm mit der Schwanzflosse einfach ab. Nun war die Wunde wenigstens sauber. Aber Curro machte mir Sorgen, sicher hatte er starke Schmerzen. Als ich ihm im nächsten Frühling wieder begegnete, war die Finne noch immer grässlich entzündet. Curro bewegte sich nur noch langsam und schien sehr müde zu sein. Er kam auch nicht mehr nahe ans Boot heran. Die anderen Tiere schwammen schützend um ihn herum.

p. 225: Am nächsten Tag suchte ich wieder einmal Trost auf dem Wasser bei meinen Tieren. Ich hielt Ausschau nach Curro, doch nur Fina und Edu tauchten am Boot auf. Wie gern hätte ich von ihnen erfahren, wie es Curro ging. Aber ich verstand ja nicht, was sie fiepten. Curro habe ich nie mehr wiedergesehen, er hat seine Verletzungen offenbar nicht überlebt. Im folgenden Jahr übernahm Edu die Führung  der Familie.«


Poor Curro 


A Timeless Book for All People

These are just some impressions of the 256-page book ‘Herzenssache’; there are certainly more, because it has much more to offer. Anyone who has read this book, will look differently at Katharina Heyer and her foundation, firmm, even those who believe they already know firmm very well! ‘Only what we, people, know, we can appreciate and love – and we’re willing to protect,’ sounded the motto of Prof. Dr. David Senn. If we replace the words ‘what’ and ‘protect’ there by ‘whom’ and ‘support’, we have a totally new, but equally applicable device: we can only feel admiration for Katharina Heyer and her work; she deserves a place among the world’s greatest animal protectors. And even though a(n) (auto)biography is but a snapshot and her (and firmm‘s) story will be very different in a few years, nevertheless, ‘Herzenssache’ shouldn’t be missing on the bookshelf of many a friend of the sea!

Katharina’s (auto)biography can be ordered online HERE. And if you ever have the chance to meet Katharina Heyer in person, she’ll gladly fulfill your desires, sign your book and write a personal message in it.

‘Learned when young is done when old.’ We must protect and save the oceans for our children so that they can continue to enjoy their treasures in abundance 


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