Bernadette’s (LAST) Take on
Ursula Tscherter from Solothurn
A Whale of a Time
Did you know that there is something like a portable whale? No? Well, marine biologist Ursula Tscherter invented it. This Swiss whale researcher spares no effort to drive her message home. Which is: Get to know the minke whales from the St.Lawrence River in Quebec/Canada!
Ursula (50) made – among other animals -a life-sized minke whale from fabric so that she can carry it from class room to class room in Switzerland.
You can see a photo here: www.ores.ch/index.php/education
And when she is not teaching Swiss kids about her favourite whales or does speeches about this not very well known species, she is in Quebec and researches them. Her project is called The Ocean Research and Education Society (Ores).
For many years, she almost singlehandedly managed the project near Tadoussac in Quebec. In the summer months, she collected data about the behaviour and life of minke whales. Many Swiss interested in whales participated in the research.
At least, that is what Ursula has done for 20 (twenty!) years. The future of her extraordinary project is uncertain, though, due to lack of financial funding and local support.
Already as a kid who grew up near the Swiss city of Basel, Ursula dreamt of seeing whales. She is a product of the environmental movement in the seventies that took hold in Switzerland.
Swiss people really rally for whales. Maybe because there is no ocean in their country. And Swiss must have a natural affinity for minke whales (in German: Zwergwale) because minkes are the smallest whale species, and Switzerland is small too.
I just invented that comparison, but Ursula finds it a bit far stretched. Okay, I change it to: As a result of Ursula’s educational outreach, a growing number of Swiss have meanwhile developed an affinity for minke whales.
Ursula had to wait until she was 30 years old until she could see whales in their natural habitat. She traveled to Quebec where she met Ned Lynas, a Canadian animal behaviourist. Her summer there was a life-changing experience.
Ursula went back year after year, became eventually the assistant of Ned Lynas in 1998 and – when he died in 2002 – she took over the project. She was a certified whale researcher by then.
It is time for an UPC (Urgent Phone Call) to Ursula Tscherter:
Ursula, why on earth would you spend 16-hour-days for whale research in Canada for virtually no money?
I cannot help it. Having spent hundreds of hours among them, I developed a deep passion for the Minke whales. My heart beats for them! We don’t know very much about minke whales, not even in Canada.
And the hearts of the Swiss, do they belong to the whales in Canada, too?
Oh yes, we had a lot of Swiss participating in our summer workshops, beside other Europeans. The Swiss, among them many teachers, are keen on education and they can afford to travel. With their fees, they helped finance the ORES whale research project.
What are these whales doing in the mouth of the St. Lawrence River?
They are very busy with feeding to build up fat reserves for the winter in unknown waters.
Were these Swiss land rats useful?
Of course. They helped to collect data, for instance how the whales hunt, their location, the rhythm of their breathing and so on. After a few days, the participants could already identify some individuals. This an experience they will never forget!
What about the Swiss kids that you teach about whales in the schools?
I remember a Swiss girl named Alicia who was in a class in Basel. The class had adopted a minke whale named Loca as sponsors. Alicia somehow talked her parents to travel to Quebec. And when she was out in the boat on the St. Lawrence River, she actually did meet Loca!
So people in Switzerland financed most of your research. What about Canadian money?
As minke are generally not threatened it is difficult to get funding. I worked like crazy every summer with little income and I had to spend the winters in Switzerland with odd jobs. I lived in two different worlds. It was exhausting. It was not my choice to do it on my own but I could not afford to pay other people.
But you must have liked being in Quebec, otherwise you would not have done it for 20 years!
Yes, I really liked the lifestyle there, the joy of life and the freedom. I made friends, most of them worked in the whale watching business. And Tadoussac has a lively music scene.
Friendship with the locals: This is Ursula with Canadian Pierre-Henry Fontaine who loves bones including whale bones. Ursula writes: “His whale museum on île Verte was always a highly educative visit for our course participants.”
Can you tell us of a special encounter with one of your whales?
You have to know that minke whales are not like dolphins, they are very independent and usually stay away from boats. But one day in 2002, a young female named Shawne swam with our boat for about 40 minutes. This is very unusual. She showed an immense trust when she was under the hull of our boat with her tail close to the engine. When she breathed out through her blowholes, I could feel the vibrations caused by the air bubbles in my feet – like a foot massage. It was awesome!
(Watch Shawne here:
So what is the future of your project in Quebec?
For now, I will be staying in Switzerland. Who knows what the future holds …
Have a look at Ursula’s website: