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Posted by on May 09, 2007
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Blue Whale expert Dr Diane Gendron believes that, what you do in your every day work is the most important thing in life, so find what pleases you the most, and do it well. She says this with a knowing smile on her face and with her being an expert in her field, leading a fulfilled life after 20 years of research work in Baja California, as Sarah Markworth found out.

Interview with Dra Diane Gendron and Blue Whale research in the Sea of Cortez

Blue Whale expert Dr Diane Gendron has a positive view of life. “I would say that my path has not been difficult, doors have opened and I have been very lucky.” During her Masters degree at CICIMAR, a marine biology research centre in Baja California, Gendron’s biggest door opened 20 years ago. She proved that the books on Blue Whales were wrong and that they did feed during the winter season in the Gulf of California.

This discovery won her a prize from the Mexican Marine Biology department, and shortly afterwards she was offered an opportunity to set up a laboratory at CICIMAR. This news brought mixed feelings for Gendron, She recalls twenty years later: “I was scared to death, I was 25, too young. I thought, I do not want to be in charge of a lab, but someone said that you are not married to the lab, if you do not like it you have created a new job for a Mexican. Oh yeah if that is true it would be good either way”.

She says her laboratory had humble beginnings. It was started with her own binoculars, camera and proposals. She said: “It turned out to be one of the most productive laboratories on the study of cetaceans in Mexico. Not just because of me, but because of the students, the collaborators around me, everyone.”

The study of whales in Baja has not always been this French Canadian’s aim “My interest arose whilst I was working as a boat guide in North Quebec. Questions arose about the whales. It was the lack of information available that started my research. The opportunity to learn more arrived when someone I worked with was travelling to Baja. I immediately volunteered to go along. She enthusiastically said: “When I got here I fell in love with the place, the desert, the sea with all of the life in it, the different culture, a different language, an easy-going way of life. I loved it.”

When Gendron first visited CICMAR she discovered that no one was studying the Blue Whale. It was a year later that she found a way, an advert offering her the opportunity to study Krill, this was to be how she would reveal her theories about the blue whales and their feeding habits. “My intention was to come and do my two or three year masters and then go back home. I never thought that I would stay,” she added.

But stay she did, and created a collection of data on the Blue Whales that spans over 20 years. “I started to take pictures in 1988 when I came to Baja, it is a unique catalogue and a long term study. We know over 550 individuals, half of them have been analyzed in terms of genetics, we know a lot about them, it is starting to give some fruit.”

Diane’s Blue Whale catalogue is powerful and has been useful in the protection of the species. She praises conservation departments within the Mexican government by telling me that, “The results we have for the whales help and they are listened to by the Mexican government. Most of our funding comes from here. They use the findings to protect nursing areas.”

Gendron mentions the proposals for new marina developments along the Baja coastline, the increase in boat traffic and its affect on the whales.  Diane is philosophical about this however, “I think that the most negative impact could be noise. Maybe they will get acclimatized to the noise, maybe nothing will happen, but I do not think so, the blue whale is a shy animal, so there needs to be limits.”

Diane explains that she is keen to expand her studies to include acoustic work. She said: “Maybe not vocalization, but I think that it is time to start something. We need to know how it is now in terms of acoustics and noise and then compare it to a study in 10 years time.” It would appear that even after 20 years of research there is still much more work to do. “We have not done much here, we have only had one cruise along the entire gulf, and that cost us a lot of money.”

I asked Diane about her views on global warming/climate change. Does she expect to see a change? Diane believes that there will be a change, and the problems will be less food for the whales and changes in its distribution. She explained:, “I think we will all feel the changes of global warming.” So I ask the woman whose cup is always half full, are you getting prepared? “Am I getting prepared?” She says with the smile. “Yes I think in a way, I am. If you are already living a simple life, it will be easier to cope with change.”

Blue Whales are protected under the international endangered species treaty. Blue Whale hunting was banned in the 1960s by the International Whaling Commission. The last countries to abandon Blue Whale whaling were the USSR in th elate 1970's and Japan under international pressure in 1984. For more information on Blue Whales click here.       

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