Common dolphins, striped dolphins, bottlenose dolphins, long-finned pilot whales, orcas, sperm whales and fin whales. These are just some of the marine mammals you can see when you take a whale watching tour with firmm in Tarifa (Cadiz). On discovering that no one had done any continuous research in the Strait of Gibraltar, Katharina Heyer decided to create a platform to collect and exchange information about the cetaceans living there.
Firmm, the Foundation for Information and Research on Marine Mammals, stands up for the rights of marine mammals and their oceans and aims to create understanding of their life through respectful whale watching tours, courses, lectures and seminars. Spanning Spain, Switzerland and Morocco, its a non-profit organization. All the money they make is reinvested into the protection of dolphins and whales.
As you look out to the Straits of Gibraltar you are witnessing a battle for survival. “The lives of dolphins and whales in the Straits are at risk from ferries getting faster and faster, the noise from shipping traffic, food getting less and less and the big almadraba tuna nets between Tarifa and Cadiz fishing pregnant tuna on their way into the Mediterranean for reproduction. It’s the silliest thing,” explains Katharina Heyer, president of firmm.
Who would have thought we have our very own Dian Fossey, author of Gorillas in the Mist, working out of Tarifa? Fashion designer turned animal conservationist, Heyer transmits her frustration at the lack of awareness that is depleting food supplies and polluting the ocean crucial to the survival of dolphins and whales that live in it. Recently the protagonist of German documentary The Last Giants - Oceans in Danger, Heyer is more than capable of expressing firmm’s message: “We need to wake up. People need to be more aware about the needs of the ocean and of these mammals. There is too much litter, petrol, plastic and traffic. People simply don’t care about the sea”.
That’s where firmm comes in. Before each trip they teach an introductory course to sensitize people to this underwater world. Thousands of tourists, students and researchers visit every year to take part in what Heyer calls their “respectful whale watching tours”. Firmm is a meeting point and research centre. Every year about 300 students from Germany and Switzerland volunteer to come and learn from the ocean and the foundation collects data to be analysed at the University of Basel.
“Surprising, touching and impressive meetings” with dolphins and whales in 1998 set the idea in motion. When Heyer tried to find out more “it turned out that up to that time no one had actually done any continuous research in the Strait of Gibraltar, and people knew neither about the cetaceans living there, nor about the extraordinary natural phenomenon that the Strait between the European and the African continents represents,” states Heyer in a statement published in September 2009.
With the help of the Marine Biologist Professor David G. Senn from the University of Basel and the other founding members, firmm has become a centre of research trying to fill this informational void. Today the foundation receives hundreds of emails, visits and donations from people who have heard of the work they are doing.
In their blog, there are countless posts by enthusiastic visitors and members of the team. “There were two young dolphins romancing each other next to the boat. How elegantly they slide through the crystal clear water, gently touching and obviously enjoying each other. They seemed to be nuzzling. Days such as this are real gifts!”. Statement like this one bring the importance of protecting the area into sharp focus.
Since 2002 firmm has been working on a hospital and sanctuary for marine mammals and resort hotel in Morocco known as Dolphin Resort Ras Laflouka. “The Spanish side of the Strait of Gibraltar is more organized with vets and biologists to help stranded animals, but on the Moroccan side there is nothing,” she explains. “We are currently looking for investors. We’ve found people to build the project and we’re using donations to create the sanctuary”.
In November 2006, Richard Black, environment correspondent for the BBC, wrote under the title: ‘Only 50 years left’ for sea fish. A friend of mine read it and fell into a deep depression. I thought he was exaggerating, but having discovered firmm I now understand why. “Since we started our work here we are already seeing less of the smaller common and striped dolphins. There aren’t less orcas, but they now come for shorter periods since there is less tuna and less fish for them to eat. They used to come in June, July and August, but in 2009 they were only here for three weeks in August”.
But it’s not all gloom and doom. “When you see sea mammals with their young in the water it’s a sign that the conditions are still ok. The pilot whales and dolphins have adapted to the ferrys and the noise”. While firmm campaigns to reduce the speed of boats in the Straits to 14 km an hour, there are some victories: “One of the captains on the ferries used to work with us. He understands the way these animals behave and so when he sees sperm whales he takes his ship around them. Now we just have to convince all the captains in the area to do the same.”
If you’re interested in donating money to firmm you can do so on their website.
Only by appointment. Contact firmm 2 or 3 days in advance and confirm the day before to check weather conditions.
Price: 2-hour excursion: adults € 30, children (up to 14 years old) € 20, children (up to 6 years) € 10.
Ver Tertulia Andaluza en un mapa más grande
- • Official website for Firmm
- • Official website to watch the trailer of The Last Giants - Oceans in Danger
- • Official website for the documentary The Last Giants - Oceans in Danger
- • Official website for Dolphin Resort Ras Laflouka
- • Video: Andalucía - En la Costa de la Luz
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