Joëlle De Weerdt is a 35-year-old Belgian marine mammalogist currently doing her PhD in Nicaragua on humpback whales. She developed her own NGO in Nicaragua and funded her own PhD research! Here is her story…
I completed my studies in 5 years (3 years bachelor’s + 2 years master’s). I did my master’s in biodiversity and ecosystems at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB) in Belgium. The reason why I chose this degree specifically was to become a biologist and study whales. Initially, I wanted to become a vet for wild whales and dolphins. But since blood was repulsive to me, I decided to study biology instead. During my second year of my Master, I went on an ERASMUS exchange to Bilbao, Spain. There, I did a 6-month study in marine biology. This was my first travel outside of Belgium altogether.
A blossoming early-career
I did a total of four field internships. In 2010, I did my first three-month internship in Madagascar with Cetamada. I worked on humpback whale monitoring. In 2011, I volunteered to work on bottlenose dolphin monitoring in Great Brittain with Sea Watch Foundation for three months. Then in 2013 and 2014, I did a bottlenose dolphin monitoring internship in Slovenia with NGO Morigenos. I first did a 10-day internship which was followed by a six-month internship! Finally, in 2015, I flew to Mexico to work on humpback whales with Whales of Guerrero. I found all these internships through MARMAM.
The internships gave me valuable knowledge on many things, not only on research techniques but also on project management, human interactions, independence, etc. Traveling on itself is very challenging, first because you need to learn to be away from home, you need to learn other cultures, other ways of thinking. Thanks to these experiences, I wanted to create a project with only the positive things I learned throughout my internships.
Therefore, I created this marine mammal training program in Nicaragua, where people can learn about science and whale-human interactions. Communication is very important; being non-judgemental in a conversation is also essential to understanding each other. I strongly believe that we are all actors in change and can positively impact the world, but first, we must change and adjust our inner world to make things happen. This road is not the easiest one, but it is the best in the long term.
Paving your own path
Today I am the project director and principal investigator for my own non-profit organization. My project is The Cetacean Conservation Project of Nicaragua and is a community-based research and conservation initiative that educates the public while simultaneously generating baseline information on humpback whale presence, distribution, and population size through a scientific program.
Nicaragua is a developing country in Central America that depends primarily on marine resources for a living. Those resources include eco-tourism (e.g., whale watching), megaprojects (notably the construction of a shipping canal), and fisheries. None of these activities currently includes sustainable management plans. Since coastal areas are a common space for anthropogenic activities and breeding humpback whales, there is concern regarding the impact of those (unregulated) activities on this species.
Nicaragua is home to two distinct breeding humpback populations, and one of them is considered endangered due to its low abundance (500-600 individuals). During past fieldwork, we rescued a mother humpback whale that was entangled in a fishing line, collected ghost nets, and observed the illegal use of artisanal fishing bombs. To ensure the protection of this species, knowledge must be generated on both whale populations to understand its ecology and to offer proper sustainable management plans.
The project’s strategy is to combine scientific research with the environmental education of local communities to ensure a balance between animal needs and anthropogenic activities. Different stakeholders from local communities, ranging from kids to fishermen to decision-makers, are involved in the project to promote the sustainability of marine resources. Since 2016, more than 100 fishermen, 155 kids, 35 biologists, and several thousand followers on our social media were sensitized to our project. The project aims at involving as many locals as possible to spread the word and promote changes in the community.
Joëlle developed her own PhD project
My self-funded PhD is part of the Cetacean Conservation Project of Nicaragua. I am studying the ecology of humpback whales in the area. In particular, I look at their migratory patterns and their ecology according to social groups. The goals is try to understand the effect of ocean upwellings on their distribution patterns. I received the Young Researcher Award from the Jane Goodall Institute in 2020 and two other Awards (Terre de Femmes from Yves-Rocher Foundation and the Denham Award from Ecology Project International) for community engagement in whale conservation.
The advantage is the freedom to do whatever I want and schedule my time like I want to. The disadvantage of it is the insecurity that this will last forever. I have to look for funding all the time (instead of every 2-3 years for postdocs or every 3-4 years for PhDs), which is mentally exhausting. Thinking about the financial part of the project is definitely the less romantic part of it.
In the future, I wish to have a permanent position within my organization Association ELI-S to continue significantly impacting whale conservation in Central America. I wish to be a conservationist (remaining in the field), continue my independent research activities, and generate knowledge through peer-reviewed papers.
What does a typical day look like for Joëlle?
Typical days in marine mammal research don’t exist. My activities include fundraising, looking up for grants, and sponsorships. I developed my own merchandise (I have lovely hand-made bracelets and silver rings made in Nicaragua for sale). Of course, I collect data, enter and organize the information, analyze it, and write peer-reviewed papers. Community outreach activities are also part of the work: beach clean-ups,
Joëlle’s tips for aspiring marine mammalogists
At this point, it is not a secret: this community is very small, with little funding available, and finding paid positions is very difficult! I would advise being bold, reaching out for opportunities, and never giving up. According to most people, it was impossible for me to study large whales, and I was not supposed to have a job in Marine Mammal research, but still, I managed to create my own job. Be sure of what you want, set a goal, and do everything possible to reach it!
A fun story from the Sea
On one survey, we saw a few blows at the horizon. We went toward the humpback whales. There were more than 20 whales out there! We were so excited. When we arrived, we couldn’t see any! Out of a sudden 3-4 whales started to circle around us. It seemed that a female was harassed by a few males and that she was taking advantage of the boat to get rid of the annoying whales. They were so close that I couldn’t even take pictures of them! After maybe a good half an hour, they started engaging in a competitive group and moving quickly. After that, we found a fish bait ball, and hundreds of spotted dolphins started feeding together with frigates and humpback whales. We watched this for an hour and couldn’t believe our eyes! This remains one of the best memories of my project.
How to get in touch?
You can contact Joëlle and ELI-S by clicking on these icons or on their website below
We would like to warmly thank Joëlle for sharing her story with us. If you’d like to read more stories from inspiring whale scientists, make sure to check them out here.
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