As one of the founding members of the Irish Whale & Dolphin Group (IWDG), and now it’s chief scientific officer, Dr Simon Berrow is Ireland’s number one cetacean expert. Dr Berrows’ experience with this astounding group of marine mammals spans more than 25 years both in Ireland and abroad, in places like Cape Verde, Uruguay and the South Atlantic. Dr Berrow begins by explaining how he was born and raised in Birmingham in the heart of England. He explains while growing up he was fascinated by the life and adventures of Jacques Cousteau, the pioneering marine life documentary film maker, marine biologist and among other things co-developer of the aqua lung. The life Cousteau lived really appealed to Dr Berrow almost immediately and that appeal never faded. This appeal he later goes onto explain was absolutely necessary for him: “My problem is I have to want to do it. I’m not very good at being told what to do and then do it. I have to want to do it myself”. Like many of us have experienced (or will experience very shortly) Dr Berrows’ first hands-on conservation work was in a voluntary capacity with the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust in the UK (WWT). After communicating with many like minded (paid) people in his voluntary capacity he just further thought “I want to do that”.
Once he completed his undergraduate study he found himself in UCC in Cork doing a PhD in1988, a PhD he claims he did for all the wrong reasons! Especially since his original plan was to cycle around the world: “Wrong motivations but still gets you there in the end!”. A very important point which was brought up in a previous interview with Dr Ken Whelan was that a degree isn’t really enough: “You have to have a degree and a degree is to give you tools, but you have to have experience and you got to know you need it. Get experience, expose yourself to all sorts of experiences, even to find out what you don’t enjoy.” From the angle now of employer or academic supervisor again Dr Berrow gives us some insight into what they are looking for from us: “I get maybe 3-4 CV’s a week in the spring and I give them 3-5 seconds and I go straight to the experience”. A piece of interest which some may find even a bit contradictory to general advice you’ll hear in the interview is, you have to have a genuine deep down interest. “If you’re not interested… it’s going nowhere. You always have to follow what your interested in, and don’t think about ‘where I’ll get a job?’ or ‘where will I be?’, that’s just a dead end in my opinion.” Dr Berrow goes onto stress that you have to be proactive in questioning and chasing up people who can help you: “You have to be a little bit pushy. I like people who are pushy.”
Focusing on Berrows’ personal research and findings, he goes onto say that data collected by the IWDG, and analysed by colleagues in UCC, shows that strandings are on the increase. This increase is mainly driven by common dolphins (Genus Delphinus). This finding also indicates that the common dolphin has now overtaken the harbour porpoise (Phocoena phocoena) as the most frequently stranded species. The main questions that are being asked by Berrow and the IWDG are now: why is this happening and what is the significance? Berrow does believe though that this increase is predominately fisheries-related and may be down to cetaceans becoming “by-catch” in the fishing industry. One major “puzzle”, as Dr Berrow puts it, is the increase in live “mass strandings” where many individuals of the same species strand alive. These live strandings do tend to occur in Mayo and North Kerry and he believes there could be a correlation with the topography there, with gently sloping beaches making them almost like “traps” for cetaceans. During Dr Berrows time researching whales and dolphins in Ireland he makes no excuses that one of the IWDG’s failings is the failure to establish a nationwide post-mortem program to establish the causes of death. “We can as a group now tell you when something unusual has happened, something that bucks the trend. But we can only speculate and not follow it up with a evidence based vet report, which is very frustrating.” The IWDG can guarantee that if an animal is reported to them stranded a flesh sample will be collected and stored with the Natural History Museum in Dublin (at which point I’d like to further stress if you do find a stranded whale or dolphin to please contact the IWDG immediately and you will find there contact details on the links below). For the IWDG re-floatations are still done on a case by case status based on species and condition. “To try refloat an animal that is old, emaciated or sick is just torture and that’s just not acceptable”. So the IWDG does have to establish if it is “a good candidate”. The next plan for Dr Berrow and the IWDG when it comes to refloating animals is to satellite tag good candidates. Berrow has permission to do this now and has some vets trained for the procedure.
The IWDG are the only group in Ireland which focuses work and research on basking sharks, the world’s second largest fish. Berrow believes whales and dolphins are “easy” compared to sharks when it comes to working with them and their conservation issues: “What we’re doing to Lamniformes (sharks and rays) is appalling it’s absolutely shameful.” The problem now with the basking shark research, it appears, is funding. What makes this seem even more unfortunate is listening to Dr Berrow explain that the funding he requires to continue this work isn’t even a large sum in the grand scheme of things: “I don’t want €100,000 or €1,000,000. €5,000-€10,000 for two or three years from the heritage council we were doing fantastic work.” Seed funding is a major issue for most conservation projects in Ireland and elsewhere, “it’s those small little local grants that gives everyone a chance”. Finally, Berrow believes Ireland does have fantastic opportunities but also obstacles: “All the opportunities are there, but there’s also allot of obstacles, but you just knock them down or go around them.”
I finished up my time with Dr Berrow talking about one of his and the IWDG’s must exciting and recent success projects, the monitoring and studying of Irish humpback whales off the coast of Cape Verde. Dr Berrow explains this expedition with such enthusiasm and excitement that I won’t try to summaries or imitate it in any way here. I just strongly encourage everyone to listen to it for both a wonderful story and source of encouragement to keep fighting to become a conservation scientist.