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For six weeks every year Denis Ody of WWF France joins the whales in the Mediterranean. Denis leads a team of six scientists, plus a skipper and a sailor, on a 15m catamaran, tracking fin whales, pilot whales and sperm whales from sunrise to sunset up to 70 nautical miles from the shore. They collect skin and fat samples from these three species to study their fertility and the level of contamination of several pollutants.
Can you explain how you follow the whales?
On board we have three people at a time scanning the sea, their eyes sweeping their assigned observation quadrant back and forth looking for movement. On a clear, calm day it is easy to pick up the movements of whales, but when conditions are rough it is very difficult. The team changes every two hours. When a whale, or group is sighted three people stay on the main boat to guide the three “chasers” who get the dinghy into the water and moving as fast as possible. They are the marksperson, with a special crossbow, the pilot and a photographer. The aim is to get close enough to the whales to be able to do a biopsy.

How does that work exactly?
We target an individual and launch an arrow tipped with a titanium apparatus that captures a small sample of skin and fat. There are three tip sizes – the smallest for pilot whales, medium for sperm whales and the largest for fin whales. We try to target the largest individuals in a group, and to choose those with distinctive markings so that they are recognizable and we reduce the possibility of biopsying the same individual more than once. The photographer’s role is to capture as much visual data on each individual as possible, shooting photos and making notes. Back on the main boat, the skin and fat samples are carefully divided and packed for analysis.

How many whales do you manage to biopsy each day?
On a day with good weather we might be able to do four or five whales. We are lucky if we manage to biopsy just one sperm whale a day. Fin and pilot whales move in larger groups and we biopsy as many individuals in a group as we can. On one remarkable day at the end of August last season we were able to biopsy 22 whales – 1 sperm whale, 4 fin whales and 17 pilot whales – an incredible haul!
At times I have the impression that the whales are actually cooperating with us – the gentleness and knowingness of these creatures is astounding. And it is hard to find words adequate to describe the sight of a majestic fin whale gliding through an azure expanse of crystal clear water. It is a vision that goes straight to your heart.
Sperm whale coming to the surface.

© F.Bassemayousse / WWF France