Conservationists use whales to woo public to their cause

The plight of the whale is being brought to public attention once more Keystone

As the International Whaling Commission debates whether to loosen a moratorium on whale hunting, a Swiss organisation is trying to promote public support for whales by arranging trips where these mammals can be seen in their natural marine habitat.

This content was published on July 3, 2000 - 23:56

From her office at Stallikon near Zurich, Katharina Heyer had the idea of providing one- and two-week study trips to view pilot whales and other marine mammals in the Straits of Gibraltar. People of all ages and backgrounds go to sea accompanied by marine biologists, after briefings at the shore base in Tarifa, Spain.

"Some have already been on whale-watching trips all over the world," says Heyer. "But before joining us many had just been dreaming of seeing a free-living dolphin once in their lives."

That dream has now become a reality for supporters of her brainchild, the Foundation for Information and Research on Marine Animals. "The reaction is invariably one of joy at seeing dolphins swim alongside or in front of the boat," adds Heyer, "and a feeling of peace."

Her idea, as she puts it, is "to bring information from animals to the people, from the sea to the land, and to share it with a wider public".

This aim has the full support of Dr David Senn, a marine biologist at Basel University, who has recently completed a lecture tour in Switzerland entitled "The Future of the Whale".

Senn says the more people who know about the threat posed by humans to the marine mammal population, the better their chances of survival. "Over-exploitation of the oceans accounts for at least 95 per cent of whale deaths. Fishery catches, poisons and pollution are also killers, and another factor is whale hunting, which is supposed to be regulated by the International Whaling Commission."

Katharina Heyer sees the study trips off Tarifa as an important exercise both on behalf of the marine mammals and of the people who observe them: "Often a trip will include members of four or five different nationalities who do not talk amongst themselves as they board the boat. But when the dolphins come alongside they are as excited as children, all talking to one another on the way back to shore. It breaks down barriers."

by Richard Dawson

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