Meet Joëlle De Weerdt, Marine Biologist & founder of Association ELI-S
Joëlle De Weerdt is a Marine Biologist based in Belgium. She also happens to be a Peli Pro who travels the world to study the oceans and whales. In this post, we interview her about her passion for ocean and marine wildlife conservation, Association ELI-S and her use of Peli cases.
Peli: What made you become a marine biologist and how did you start working for Association ELI-S?
JDW: My life is all about whales, coincidences, and success in failure. I was born and raised in Brussels in a modest family of three children, with parents that worked in the administration of city hall.
My involvement with professional scientific research had its roots, as it often does, long ago in childhood experiences. As a kid, my curiosity was triggered one day by high school classmates who made a presentation in biology class on whales and dolphins. I started reading books about whales and dolphins, and my fascination about them kept growing almost daily.
This passion for oceans and whales might be surprising, particularly since I grew up in Brussels, but I was lucky to spend my summer holidays in Bassin d’Arcachon, a beautiful bay surrounded by astonishing sandy beaches. It was my first connection with the ocean.
Over the years, my interest and passion for the ocean and whales encouraged me to study biology. During my studies at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel, my world broadened and I was stimulated by all the knowledge I could access. I was eager to learn more about research, and nature in general. Therefore, I wanted to learn as much as I could and my interest grew in different research areas.
I did my Bachelor thesis on the genetics of frogs, and chose “human biology” as a specialization. I did my master’s thesis on the wood anatomy of mangroves and studied a semester in marine biology at the university of Leioa in Bilbao. While my passion for whales did not disappear, I gradually developed an interest in scientific research and methodology.
After obtaining my master’s degree in 2010, I wanted to experience research in the field and spend time with whales in their natural habitats; and so I decided to volunteer for a non-profit organization involved in humpback whale research in Madagascar. A very significant episode in my life as a biologist, turned out to be this unique experience where I witnessed the first hours of a newborn humpback whale. This rare birth event (there are only four official records in the world) increased my curiosity about humpback whale reproduction and made me dig into scientific literature, which strengthened my fascination about these animals.
In the meantime, I worked as a wood biologist at the Museum of Central Africa in Tervuren (Belgium), allowing me to financially sustain my volunteer research experiences between 2011-2015, working for non-profit organizations on whale and dolphin research in different locations around the world.
As the years passed by, my passion for whales and dolphins did not fade, and my willingness to study them became even stronger. Therefore, in 2014, I decided to apply for different PhD scholarships to study humpback whales but at the time I was unsuccessful. I believe that failure is the seed for growth and success, thus I decided to start my own research program through my own non-profit organization in Central America.
Along the Pacific coast, particularly off Nicaragua, an unstudied humpback whale breeding ground is recovering from whaling, but very little data is available on the dynamics of this population.
One day in 2018, I met one of my former professors at a conference and he suggested I should enroll as a PhD student at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel to validate my experience and my research.
Over the past 10 years, I have encountered many struggles and used different paths to reach my objectives, but I finally feel I am in the right place at the right time to make a significant impact on large whale research, particularly in the unexplored waters of the Pacific central American coast. Today, I feel that same passion for whales as I did when I was reading those books that fascinated and inspired me as a child.
Peli: Last year you received the Young Researcher Award from the Jane Goodall institute France. Could you please tell us a bit more about it and what it meant to you?
JDW: To me, Jane is a bit like the rock star of conservation. So it's an honor to be a winner and to have her recognition, it's very gratifying. It means a lot to me, it helps me to move forward, it makes me feel that I am on the right path and that I must continue despite the difficulties. Jane is an example! When I see that she's been working in conservation for all these years… She sets an example for the future. I feel close to her because of the bond she has created with the chimpanzees. It may sound strange, but this is the kind of connection I have with whales despite the size difference! I would love to be the mouthpiece for whales like Jane is for chimpanzees and that's why I feel a connection to her actions.
Peli: One of the key objectives of Association ELI-S is to generate responsible eco-tourism related to whale and dolphin watching. How do you put that into practice?
JDW: I give workshops to fishermen on sustainable whale watching guidelines and help in the development of sustainable and responsible whale watching guidelines with the national institutions.
Peli: What is the most memorable experience you lived so far during an expedition?
JDW: I have many different memories from the whales and it is hard to pick only one. I remember that we were on a field expedition and we found a small group of two whales. We were observing them according to our protocols and they just decided to come really close to the boat. Having two adult whales only an arm distance away was very impressive, especially when you navigate on a 6m fiberglass boat and that the whales are on average 15m long!
Peli: What type of research material do you protect inside the Peli cases you bring with you on the boat? What are for you the benefits of using a Peli Case?
JDW: The Peli case protects the project's camera, hydrophone and recorder as well as our computer. The benefit is that our material is completely protected from the salt and the sun.
Peli: Last but not least, how can people support your association?