‘I fell in love with the astronomic image of the whale, it is like a huge dinosaur in the ocean’
Marine biologist Lidia Krinova on whale jails and international volunteering
“The public protested against catching orcas, beluga whales under the guise of scientific research, then they are sold to oceanariums. Maintenance of these animals in captivity is prohibited in many countries. This is still possible in Russia. Moscow has Moscvarium. And Russia catches animals to sell them to other countries. Apart from Russia, this happens only in Africa thinks marine biologist Lidia Krinova. In an interview with Realnoe Vremya, she explained why she studied whales, talked about her life during expeditions on Chukotka and in the Philippines and international volunteering.
“Their tails differ like our fingerprints”
Lidia, what do you research now?
Now I am on an island in the north of the Philippines. It is a breeding ground of humpback whales, the northern part of the Pacific Ocean. I got here for the first time three years ago and stay here every year for a month — to observe whales, to listen, take photos, study.
I was born and grew up in Moscow, and I first saw a sea only at 23. I loved whales after I got to Kunashir Island in the Pacific Ocean. I understood that an ocean is space, that the ocean has whales, they can be observed. I fell in love with the astronomic image of the whale, it is like a huge dinosaur in the ocean. When I first saw whales on Kamchatka, I had an aha moment, I understood I wanted to deal with it, I was curious to know what creatures they were because at the moment science knows very little about whales.
Then I went to Komandorsky Nature Reserve, I worked there for a year and saw how great it was to live next to whales and observe them almost every day. I fell in love with whales there, on Kamchatka. But I immediately rejected the option of whale watching in the natural habitat as a tourist. This area also develops in our country, but it is expensive and can’t be done a regular basis, this is why I decided to go into science, I studied marine biology on Russky Island in Vladivostok.
I fell in love with whales there, on Kamchatka. But I immediately rejected the option of whale watching in the natural habitat as a tourist. This area also develops in our country, but it is expensive and can’t be done on a regular basis
What expeditions have you participated in?
For the master’s degree, I participated in an expedition of the Russian Geographical Society on Chukotka in Kresta Bay. It was in 2017. We observed a big pod of humpback whales. The main method of study of whale migration is taking a photo of the lower part of their tails. Their tails differ like our fingerprints. They can change a bit with time because of scars, but a whale can anyway be distinguished by its tail even in 20 years.
At that moment we have identified 83 whales by taking photos, and I compared them with the catalogue of whale tails in the Pacific Ocean. It was when we concluded that humpback whales I studied were migrating species, they migrate from north to south, and whales that came from Japan, the Philippines, Hawaii, Mexico appear on Chukotka. It is noteworthy that when I was on an expedition in the Philippines last year, and we put out to the sea every day, I saw a whale I had observed on Chukotka two years earlier. It was very pleasant.
How is this research sponsored? Who initiates it?
It is hard enough to obtain grants. There is a handful of research groups in Russia that deal with whales. There is a scientific group FEROP that has been dealing with orcas and humpback whales, northern swimmers on Kamchatka and Chukotka for several years already. There are few such groups because little money is given to research whales.
I participate in the expedition in the Philippines at my own expense, during some years I managed to receive support from sponsors. But it is cheaper to go on an expedition to the Philippines where it is warm than to organise an expedition to Kamchatka or Chukotka where both the climate and logistics are different. Here we put out to the sea by boat that can hardly be imagined on Kamchatka and Chukotka.
We concluded that humpback whales I studied were migrating species, they migrate from north to south, and whales that came from Japan, the Philippines, Hawaii, Mexico appear on Chukotka
“Humans are a major threat to whales”
What problems linked with whales should be delivered to the public?
There are a lot of issues in marine biology that haven’t been explored. It is still unclear what species the whales are. Whales are very important, they indicate the state of our ocean.
The problem of maintenance of marine whales and mammals in general in captivity has been on everyone’s lips recently. You have probably heard of a whale jail, this story got out last winter. The public protested against catching orcas, beluga whales under the guise of scientific research, then they are sold to oceanariums. Maintenance of these animals in captivity is prohibited in many countries. This is still possible in Russia. Moscow has Moskvarium. And Russia catches animals to sell them to other countries. Apart from Russia, this happens only in Africa.
Many say: “Where else will children see these animals if not in oceanariums?” But such an attitude must change. Both children and adults must be educated. These animals have a natural habitat, no big oceanarium will replace this habitat. It is social animals, they have groups they have an affection for, while these groups are destroyed when catching them. This is why I think that the main problem is that people treat these animals like entertainment.
Is the number of whales known?
Such a calculation if humpback whales I deal with was done in 2006, it was a calculation of all countries of the Northern Pacific. About 20,000 whales were counted then. And it was concluded that their number recovered and grew after the whale killing industry cancelled. Whales were removed from the Red List in some countries. In Russia, they are still on this list.
Humans are a major threat to whales. Humpback whales are often noted in statistics that they got stuck in nets, waste in the ocean or die when they clash with ships, for instance, there were introduced speed limits in some areas in the western seashore of the USA. The migration route of whales is known, and a speed limit for ships is imposed during a certain period of migration.
The group Friends of Oceans precisely collects this information on whale beaching across Sakhalin — they collect samples to understand why the animals die. This moment hasn’t been investigated yet, I hope research and money for this research will appear
“Meetings with whales give so intense emotions that you forget any unpleasant everyday issues”
Isn’t there anything similar in Russia?
No. The first research on whales here was done in 2017, on Chukotka. An absence of information, weather conditions and complex logistics — all this impedes constant research. We have only Chukotka summer, it is just a month. There are statistics on the USA, animal bodies are found on the seashore. Our Far East seashore isn’t densely populated, and there isn’t such a practice of information collection, it is just created. The group Friends of Oceans precisely collects this information on whale beaching across Sakhalin — they collect samples to understand why the animals die. This moment hasn’t been investigated yet, I hope that research and money for this research will appear.
What are the living conditions for researchers during such expeditions?
The village we lived on Chukotka is considered to be Chukotka’s Switzerland, it is very good, there are usual flats, everything is well organised. And when you go on such expeditions, you spend most of the time working, the rest of the time is just enough to sleep. Now, in the Philippines, we spent 11 hours in the ocean, we quickly ate, had a shower, begin working with data we collected during the day. Then we go to sleep right away, we wake up at 6 a.m.
But all this is compensated by emotions because of meetings with whales. For instance, today we had jumping whales — a mum with her baby, singing whales, we lowered a hydrophone, listened to them for long. We didn’t see the whale, it was underwater, but the sound of singing approached, and in the end, we found it. It is such intense emotions that you forget any unpleasant everyday issues. For instance, we don’t have a shower here but a bucket with cold water, and we have to pour it on ourselves. Electricity is supplied from 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. The building has three walls — one wall is absent, we have an ocean in front of us, we sleep under mosquito nets. But it is such a trifle.
When you go on such expeditions, you spend most of the time working, the rest of the time is just enough to sleep
“You are in an international group, you practise a language. It is life 24/7 for 2-3 weeks, it is friends for life”
You also organise international trips for volunteers as one of the founders of AYAvolunteer non-profit organisation. What opportunities does it provide for travel and research?
We send people, mainly students, to different projects abroad, we also organise projects in Russia, we host foreigners, mainly this happens in summer. Once I went to my first project, 12 years ago to France to restore a Roman wall around a castle somewhere in the south near Toulouse. And I turned out in an international group with lads from different countries. It was the first real practice of the English language, immersion into culture when the mayor of the town comes and greets, where the locals say “bonjour” to you every day. You aren’t just a tourist, you are a volunteer, you are one of the team, it is more interesting that just travelling. I kept doing this and learnt how to travel alone. I went to different countries, and at a moment my friends and I decided to create an NPO, we’ve been existing since 2012.
Are there a lot of organisations of this kind in Russia?
About eight. One can go to the website of any organisation that’s close to one’s city, submit an application. The volunteer himself or herself pays for road expenses in these projects. Moreover, it is road expenses till the project, nobody welcomes you at the airport. Now projects with finance of the European Commission are appearing, but there are few, and to go there, it is necessary to have an interview, win a contest. But even if you pay for the road yourself, in this case, such a trip turns out much cheaper than a trip as a tourist. It is an opportunity to go on your own to an organised story, you are in an international group, you practise a language. It is life 24/7 for 2-3 weeks, it is friends for life. It is different projects: environmental, restoration, there are a lot of social projects, one can go and see how everything is organised in other countries. Stereotypes are broken, and you have a chance to see how volunteering is organised there and try to make it here. Ordinary people who decided to improve the space around themselves initiate these projects, they created a project and then invited international volunteers.
Is there interest in such projects in Russia? Do people often turn to you?
People turn to us, but we are a small non-profit organisation, we don’t rush for a big number, some organisations are larger. Moreover, more commercial all-inclusive programmes appear, they use active marketing, and all our social non-commercial effort fade compared with such philantourism.
But in general, as it seems to me, the desire to help, to do something for others grows. The thing is that there are a lot of different opportunities now, and what we offer is just one of them.