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What’s it like to work in conservation? Fact vs. fiction

Game developer BeefJack have recently launched a brand new role player adventure game in partnership with WDC. Iron Fish features brave, female, conservation hero, as its lead character – Cerys.

Move over Lara Croft, Cerys is in town… Or more precisely, in the water:  Exploring the mysteries of the deep, uncovering the horrors that lurk in the deep oceans and evading terrifying sharks.  She even finds time to protect whales from harpoons.

But are there similarities between virtual reality and the real world?  We caught up with a real life conservationist, WDC’s own Sarah Dolman, to help sort fact from fiction.  Sarah has spent a lot of time on boats and cliffs looking for whales and dolphins. And more than a few days and nights in a wetsuit at whale strandings.  She really is at the front edge of conservation.   

A lot of people say they’d love to be a marine biologist, spending time in the field. But what’s it really like?  


Name: Sarah Dolman

Job title: Policy manager

Qualifications: Engineering degree, fisheries science masters.

Experience:  Field research in many places, from land, in boats and aerial surveys, including Azores, Hawaii, Scotland, Wales, Antarctica and Australia. Sarah is a member of various committees and coalitions that work on whales and dolphin conservation.

Q: In the Iron Fish game Cerys rescues a range of creatures, including a whale who has been harpooned.  This is a pretty realistic scenario; hundreds of thousands of whales and dolphins need our help every year. But how easy is it to do a ‘rescue?’

Being caught or entangled in fishing gear happens to dolphins and whales all over the world. I once saw a humpback whale in the so-called ‘pristine’ waters of Antarctica that was swimming with fishing gear attached. In the case of large whales, like humpback whales, it is sometimes possible to disentangle the whale from the gear. However, this is a very complicated procedure that has to be done with specialist equipment by trained experts. This is so that it is not dangerous and, to give the whale the best possible chance to be freed from the gear and go on and live a healthy life.  

Q: Obviously, not all whales and dolphins who are in need of our help are able to be successfully rescued. Far from it.   What’s the best long term solution to stop death from entanglement in fishing gear; should we be banning some types of fishing for example?

A:  No fisherman wants to catch anything in their gear except the fish that is meant for our dinner plate. There is no simple solution to stop dolphins and whales dying in nets. In some fisheries, changing the way the gear is used or switching to different types of methods would help. Existing data on the numbers of dolphins and whales that die in fishing gear is poor. We are not even confident about how many hundreds of thousands die, but it is way too many.

In areas where very rare species, such as the Vaquita or Maui’s dolphin live, and where bycatch is responsible for the deaths of the last few tens or hundreds of individuals, then banning the types of fishing that cause these deaths is essential.

Q:  What’s it like to attend a live stranding of a whale or dolphin?

A:  It’s very distressing to see a dolphin or a group of dolphins or whales on the beach and out of their natural habitat. I have attended quite a few strandings on my travels, and even a mass stranding of pilot whales. It is difficult to prepare yourself fully as every stranding is different. I admit that when I arrive at the shore, I need a minute to assess the situation and quite quickly take a breath to try to compose myself, so that I can get on and help the dolphin to the best of my ability. There are basic activities that can be undertaken to make the dolphin as comfortable as possible, such as protecting them from the elements and keeping people and dogs a safe distance away, until veterinary or expert advice can be taken about their potential release. 

Often I have attended a stranding where the whale or dolphin has already died. Sad though this is, it is important for us to be able to gather as much information as possible to understand what might have caused the death. We can learn so much from dead stranded dolphins. Ultimately, that helps us to make decisions about what activities are allowed at sea and how they can be undertaken without affecting whales and dolphins. 

Q: The life of a researcher – with all the travel and time in boats looking for dolphins – appears from the outside to be both thrilling and glamorous.  What’s the reality?

Very different! Although the locations sometimes seem glamorous, and seeing whales and dolphins is often thrilling, the reality of field work is using heavy field equipment that is often temperamental and spending many days at sea, frustrated without encounters. Also, the weather can be difficult because it is too hot (sunburn, glare on the waters surface!), too cold or too wet (which means we can’t take photographs to identify individuals) and if it is too windy it is difficult to survey because we can’t see the whales and dolphins. And some researchers suffer from seasickness!

Q:  Can you tell us how field research contributes to conservation, why is it so important?

A:  Decision makers in governments rely on solid evidence to make their decisions. It is more important than ever that we understand where populations of whales and dolphins are, particularly areas that they rely upon and return to for feeding, breeding and socialising. It is also important we understand how populations are changing over time, and what activities at sea might be impacting them. This is essential; to inform decisions about activities like fishing, marine renewable energy development and looking for oil and gas deposits, as well as considering the potential impacts of all these activities collectively.

Q:  Finally, how can people help your work and the work of Whale and Dolphin Conservation more widely?

A:  Buying the game will help, but of course we also need long term support to fund research and other work that can take years to have real impact.  Find out how to set up a regular donation, or you may want to choose to adopt a dolphin, humpback or orca through our adoption programmes.