Francesca Soster is a 36-year-old Italian whale scientist, currently working as a researcher on bottlenose dolphins in Malta. Here is her story…
Francesca’s story started in the textile industry
I studied Textile Engineering at the Polytechnic University of Turin. I have completed a Master’s Degree in Nobel Fibres, a specialized path in fabrics and clothing to provide a sound knowledge of the entire supply chain with a specific focus on natural fibers. My story started in Biella (Italy), a famous textile district. There, most of the economy and knowledge has gravitated around wool for at least a century. So I stayed there to find a good job, doing something I found interesting while being close to home. I wanted to stay close to home for two main reasons. On one side, I was scared. I grew up in a small village, and the world outside looked so big at that time. Secondly, I didn’t want to leave my family who was struggling, especially my brother.
But this was not the life I wanted. From the age of five, I kept collecting articles on cetaceans from newspapers, magazines, and journals. When I was eight years old, I translated information I found in different books about whales and dolphins; one example would be Carwardine’s “Whales, dolphins, and porpoises.”
Marine mammals to cure trauma
In 2017 I decided to participate in the citizen science program of the CSR Cetacean Sanctuary Research, a Tethys Research Institute project; and that experience blew my mind. I spent one week onboard a beautiful vessel, the Pelagos, spotting fin whales, sperm whales, pilot whales, and dolphins. After that week, I struggled to go back to my everyday life as a manager in my industry. Nevertheless, I kept procrastinating.
In 2018, unfortunately, my brother passed away. This kind of trauma has the power to change the perspective from which you look at your life. When you feel so much pain and sorrow or when you have to deal with grief, you reconsider everything; you give a different value to your present. Once you can accept that life cannot be changed, you realize that the only thing you can do is change the way you live. Then you try to get the best out of it. So, that is what I did. I asked for a sabbatical from the company I was working for. I decided I would dedicate at least one year to volunteering in marine mammals research.
Jumping into the unknown
This jump into the unknown had me scared and definitely insecure. I remember telling myself, “you’re over 30; who needs a self-taught cetaceans nerd with no experience on the field?”. But my passion and love for these animals was too strong and took over the bad inner voices. As soon as I entered this new world, I found out I wasn’t the only one with a different background. I also realized that I could use my engineering and organizational skills for research.
First real intership: Montenegro Dolphin Research
I applied for my first internship with DMAD – Marine Mammals Research Association in October 2019, which I found through MARMAM. For this internship, I participated in the Montenegro Dolphin Research project. After two months in Montenegro, I spent one month in Turkey in January 2020 as a research assistant for DMAD to a winter survey in the Levantine Sea, the Istanbul Strait, and the Aegean Sea.
All the experiences were more than positive. They gave me a solid knowledge of fieldwork and data collection and a glimpse of the use of software such as R, QGis, and photo-ID. At DMAD, I learned how to perform land surveys using a theodolite! I also trained in boat surveys, visual observations, acoustic data collection, photo-ID, and behavioral pattern identification of dolphins. This first experience was intensive training and gave me a strong base of fieldwork.
Back to Tethys Research institute
After this experience, I was supposed to fly to South Africa with Sea Search Africa for three months for a project on killer whales, but it did not happen because of the pandemic. In summer, I had the opportunity to spend several weeks, from June 2020 to October 2020, as a research assistant to the CSR (Cetacean Sanctuary Research) project of the Tethys Research Institute, onboard the same research vessel that had me as a participant a few years before. Words cannot express how lucky I felt. I learned so much; this will remain one of the most beautiful experiences of my life.
During the CSR project, I could improve my observation skills. I had profound insight on field data collection, focusing on the acoustic, especially the deployment and use of hydrophones and the PAM software. During this experience, I could work alongside some of the most outstanding scientists and cetologists. I could understand how to collect data on many species and identify them through their vocalizations.
In addition, this internship taught me life at sea, how to manage the resources, how to take care of the equipment, and the basics of navigation. The human side of it taught me so much. I got to meet people from all over the world. The same passion unites us. We got to rescue a fin whale in distress during this internship and perform a necropsy on a stranded Cuvier’s beaked whale. I was the one taking photos of every single part of the animal’s body.
What is Francesca up to now?
In October 2020, I finally landed in Malta after meeting Patrizia Patti, Founder, and CEO of Eco Marine Malta, at the World Marine Mammal Conference in Barcelona. Eco Marine Malta is the first sustainable tourism company that organizes eco-tours on a sailing boat around the stunning archipelago. They offer marine wildlife spotting tours and environmental education onboard. They also research cetaceans, especially the bottlenose dolphins that live around the islands. I’m involved in the company both as a researcher and educator during the sailing tours.
As a researcher, I’m in charge of photo-identification and carrying out a study on the interaction of the bottlenose dolphins with fisheries. Eco Marine currently collaborates with the National Environment & Resources Authority and aims to set up a long-term strategy for monitoring cetaceans and turtles. Thanks to my background in project management, I’m also in charge of developing project plans for the different activities, mainly concerning research. Tour days, fieldwork, and office-based work alternate during the week.
The perks of being a bottlenose dolphin researcher
Being involved in various tasks makes my job dynamic and allows me to learn many different subjects. I have the opportunity to be at sea quite often during every season. In summer, the number of days at sea increases thanks to the tours and favorable sea conditions. The collaborations in place at Eco Marine allow me to access a network of leading professionals in different areas, from marine scientists to sociologists, artists, and educators.
Collaborations with local NGOs enable me to explore other fields, such as bird ecology, and better understand the ecosystem of Malta and its challenges in protecting the environment. Working with local authorities is then crucial to effectively use your work to put conservation measures into action.
Furthermore, being an environmental educator allows me to instill in people the respect for nature and the values of preserving it. Especially when it comes to kids, it is beautiful to see how fast they learn and how our program enables them to make a difference and spread the word around them.
Francesca’s tips to aspiring whale scientists
This is a tip for everybody: follow your dreams and believe in yourself. Don’t be afraid of uncertainty. Study, read, and constantly increase your knowledge. Take courses and keep yourself up to date with the latest research. My last piece of advice: don’t be scared of hard work; it pays off.
What does the future look like for Francesca?
On a personal level, I’m determined to take a master’s degree in Oceanography in the upcoming year to have a more comprehensive understanding of all aspects of the ocean. In terms of research, I aim to keep on carrying out the long-term study on the Maltese population of bottlenose dolphins, focusing on behavioral ecology and the impact of human activities on them.
How to connect with Fancesca?
We would like to warmly thank Francesca Soster for her inspiring story. You can connect with her on instagram, here.
Do you want to read more inspiring stories from whale scientists? Check out Leanne Rosser’s story. She, just like Francesca, started her marine mammals’ adventure uniquely…