28 December 2008

Whale Watching Uphill

A recollection

I arrived in Montecastello di Vibio with my father’s motorhome late in the day, parking near the hotel recommended for the international workshop on “Scientific aspects of managing whale watching”. It was the end of March 1995 and the brownish hills of Umbria, in central Italy, were covered by a thin layer of snow. I had managed to be invited at the workshop largely because it was co-organized by Tethys, that back then was my mother organization, but no room had been booked for me at the only hotel in town.

If I already felt a bit like an intruder, spending the night in the parking lot didn’t make things easier. I had a hard time keeping myself warm in the icy night and spent most of it awake, wondering whether I should drive back home in the following morning, and forget about the workshop altogether.

The morning sun was up and I was sleeping when someone knocked on the plastic window. It was Bernd W├╝rsig with his wife Melany. They were told that I was there and came to greet me with big smiles. Leaving now was out of question, because Bernd informed me that breakfast had already been served at the hotel and I was late for the meeting. They were waiting for me to join in.

Bernd is one of the brightest cetacean scientists I’ve ever met. Besides his huge and lasting contribution to cetology, he is an extremely nice human being. Five years earlier, my mentor Giuseppe Notarbartolo di Sciara had phoned him, saying that there was this Italian student who wanted to see how dolphin research was done in the States. Bernd and Mel invited me to their home near Houston, Texas, and orchestrated a most incredible tour of marine mammal laboratories – something that set me right on track for the decade to come. Back then, Bernd did not bother about me speaking a very few words of English and being socially inept. He just took me under his wing and offered opportunities I could hardly dream about. I still wonder why he did so much for me.

In the parking lot of Montecastello di Vibio, Bernd and Mel did not care about the weird settings (I was still in my underpants) and treated me like a head of state, or at least that’s how I felt. Heartened by their warm welcome, I got quickly dressed and joined the scientists where the workshop was held, at nearby Teatro della Concordia.

This tiny architectural jewel of the early 18th century is sometimes claimed to be “the smallest theatre in the world” and it certainly must be one of the finest. Inside the theatre I found an amazing concentration of cetacean experts, people whose names I had been reading in the cover pages of outstanding scientific publications: Roger Payne, John Ford, Steve Leatherwood, Vic Cockcroft and Sidney Holt, to mention just a few. To a young cetacean researcher like me, back in 1995, these were supernatural creatures rather than men. They made me feel extremely small, even in that miniature theatre.

Organizers of the week-long workshop had successfully convened about thirty top specialists from around the world to address the various problems caused by a growing whale watching industry. The intent was to review existing information, assess evidence of damage to the animals and propose appropriate management solutions. For most of the week I just sat in my place admiring those extraordinary people, who all seemed to master the art of saying the right thing at the right moment and could even do so with elegant body language and words. That looked to me like an unreachable skill: not only I was far from mastering English, but whenever I thought about saying something in front of such an audience my heart started hard-beating and no words would surface out of my fear.

Because I could offer no intellectual contribution due to my shyness and limited expertise, I was growing increasingly uncomfortable. I had formerly concluded that I knew dolphins well enough to make sense of my participation, but I was wrong. Those people were miles ahead and it was clear that I had stolen my seat at the workshop. Nevertheless, I was waiting for a chance to show that I deserved being there. Deep inside, I couldn’t accept that some of those admirable researchers could be wondering why I had joined their elite, neither could I swallow that they didn’t give a damn about me being or not being there. My cumbersome ego was pushing hard to express myself and show who I was. The opportunity came on the last day of the workshop.

Participants were drafting a list of factors that had to be taken into account for research into whale watching impacts. The focus was on environmental parameters and the various experts were contributing items such as water depth, ambient noise, ice cover and the like. I was thinking hard to find something that hadn’t been mentioned, but there was always someone faster than me and able to express gracefully whatever came to my mind as a draft. At some point I raised my hand and said: “Pollution”. There was a sudden silence and everybody stared at me with knitted brows. This must have been the one and only word I said in the whole week – and apparently it wasn’t the right one.

One of the respected whale researchers who had been fuelling the discussion looked right into my eyes and asked: “Pollution? Are we going to claim that pollution is a relevant variable to assess the impact of whale watching?”. His attitude could also mean: “Are you stupid? And who are you after all?”. I felt lost. I could certainly agree with him that pollution was scarcely relevant. Why did I say that? I wished I could disappear.

Bernd, however, noticed my distress and came to rescue me. While others were vocally expressing dissent about the inclusion of pollution, he argued somehow that, well, even pollution could not be dismissed. His perfect and charismatic statement admitted no reply, so the discussion moved on and away from me.

On that day, Bernd taught me a lesson more important than anything I ever learned from him about cetacean research. I’m quite sure that he didn’t feel strongly about my clumsy proposal. What he did feel, however, was that someone needed a kind of help that he could offer. Facing his reputable colleagues, he partly or entirely waived his own ideas and used his reputation to get me out of trouble. It was a lesson of compassion, suggesting that people are more important than abstract theories, generosity more valuable than intellectual confrontation.

In the end, “Pollution” was not given a salient place in the workshop report, and luckily so. On the contrary, that lesson of Bernd’s will remain steadily imprinted on my mind.

Giovanni Bearzi, December 2008

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