KATHARINA HEYER on the roof of her small boat, the firmm UNO
The story about a woman, who despite business success searched for a deeper ‘meaning’ in life and found what she often missed. Or why our hearts are worth following…
She has just turned 71: Katharina Heyer, Swiss, former successful fashion designer and now animal activist more than full time and for life!
Is it a coincidence or not, but the surname HEYER means: protector, nurse, … With her foundation firmm Katharina Heyer has been applying herself with heart and soul in Tarifa for already 14 years now. She definitely wants to protect the defenceless dolphins and whales in the Strait of Gibraltar against the ca. 300 reckless containerships and supertankers, that pass through it daily at high speed. Because time is money for the shipping companies!
Katharina Heyer fights as David did against Goliath. But after a very difficult start, she has been able to gain the sympathy of a great part of the local population with her extraordinary perseverance in the meantime. And with her diplomatic skills and never ending patience Katharina has already obtained a great deal from the Spanish and Moroccan authorities, such as the planning of a dolphin sanctuary in the bay of Tangier…
How it all began for Katharina Heyer…
Katharina Heyer was born in Zurich on Monday, July 20, 1942. Zurich is the driving force behind Switzerland’s economy. Its international flair, multicultural society, many financial institutions, banking giants and multinationals make this city one of the most successful business metropolises in the world. This good environment will certainly have influenced Katharina’s future career…
‘My sister and I always went to our grandparents with our parents and we loved spending time with our playmates of the countryside and with the animals,’ Katharina Heyer once said about her childhood. So her love for nature and animals had already been sparked, when she was with her grandma and grandpa in Walzenhausen, near the Lake Constance!
Katharina studied to become a foreign correspondent and in 1962 she married an agricultural scientist. Later on, in the early 60s she discovered her passion for the fascinating underwater world and the mighty sea creatures, on her first snorkeling experiences in Tanzania. In 1967 and 1969 Katharina had two sons, whom she raised all alone after her divorce. She and her two boys learnt to dive in the eighties. To this day, she still remembers their fantastic encounters with rays and sharks…
For about two decades Katharina Heyer had been travelling constantly around the world, as a designer of sports bags for internationally well-known brands, such as Puma and L.A. Gear: to and fro between Zurich, Los Angeles, Hong Kong and Tokyo! Only then she realized that this stress-filled life with two mobile phones was not exactly what she was looking for…
So to flee from this glitter world and at the advice of a mentor, whom she had got to know from spiritual courses, on Christmas Day 1997, Katharina Heyer went on holiday to the south of Spain, to Tarifa, in the Strait of Gibraltar. On that trip Katharina, completely unexpectedly, met long-finned pilot whales and dolphins, a touching experience that would always be on her mind and would even totally change her life! Despite the fact that there was no official scientific evidence of the presence of whales in the Strait of Gibraltar, the fishermen knew about it! ‘But who would ever have thought, that someone could be interested in it? The animals are much too big, you cannot eat them – so they were not important to the fishermen,’ said firmm captain Sebastian Rodriguez…
Because of her passion for these lovely animals Katharina also found out soon, which dangers in one of the busiest international seaways in the world are threatening them all the time: collisions with cargo ships, underwater noise, and pollution by oil, chemicals, plastic and radioactive wastewater, overfishing, by-catch, trawl nets, ever increasing tourism, whale hunting and invasive research. And to say nothing of the building of a mega, dirty and commercial seaport in the small fishermen’s village of Tarifa, which was fortunately put on hold in May 2011. In former times thousands of animals swam in the Strait of Gibraltar, but their number is greatly reduced in recent years… ‘Something must be done here!’ this highly engaged woman thought. And at once this stirred strong maternal instincts in her: from that day on Katharina Heyer would defend and protect the weakest and in this way try to save the last giants of the sea from extinction!
Thus at the age of 55 she resolutely put an end to her career in fashion. Katharina left her family, children and grandchildren behind in Switzerland and moved far away to Tarifa. She was full of self-confidence there to dedicate the rest of her life entirely to her beloved animals in the Strait of Gibraltar…
But the first years in Tarifa were extremely difficult for Katharina. She did not even know Spanish! And as a woman in a macho country and moreover coming from Switzerland, where there is not even a sea and certainly no whales, it was twice as hard to survive… First the stranger in Tarifa was ridiculed and massively opposed. ‘A woman who knows completely nothing about the subject, wants to tell us, Spaniards, that there are whales here!? They all thought I was crazy!’ according to the Swiss. The locals would have put stones in her way, where they could. ‘I was given up to the authorities, insulted and accused. I had not enough life jackets on board. And I would earn millions by organizing whale watching tours! One night the motor of my ship was burning…,’ Katharina Heyer complains about her lots of resistance and misfortunes. And environmental protection was not a good conversation topic for many Spaniards either. New dolphinariums, for which they need about five dolphins each time, were still built. And therefore they hunt 100 dolphins! About 30 percent of them die from heart problems during the hunt itself, 30 percent in transport, and during the first three months in captivity 30 percent from inflammations in the lungs, caused by chlorinated water, or from depressions…
firmm office and shop in TARIFA
So because nothing of the dolphins and whales living there, was known yet to science, and also because there was no organization for endangered animals, after coming to Tarifa in the spring of 1998, Katharina Heyer had immediately established her own foundation, called firmm, which is still very active at this moment, not only in Spain, but also in Switzerland and even in Morocco!
The foundation firmm
firmm’s logo, the fluke of a diving whale
firmm (= foundation for information and research on marine mammals) is a non-profit organization with, as the name already suggests, two very well thought out goals: on the one hand research on the dolphins and whales in the Strait of Gibraltar and on the other hand sensibilizing people on the protection of the sea and the animals living in it.
To meet the first target and since Katharina had no experience in marine biology, because of her education as a foreign correspondent, she contacted the university of Basel. Hence she first got to know Prof. Dr. David Senn and in February 2010, his successor, Prof. Dr. Patricia Holm. The latter is a member of the scientific committee of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) and at present member of firmm’s foundation council. Patricia Holm provides firmm with important background information for negotiations, as the IWC is the major control institute for the preservation and the calculation of the whale population sizes.
firmm‘s research work includes among others the registration of all sightings, populations and migrations using photo-identification, taking plankton samples, and so on in the Strait of Gibraltar. This should deepen the knowledge about the dolphins and whales in this area and ultimately support firmm’s requirements for protection.
Prof. dr. Patricia Holm
Thanks to Patricia Holm’s involvement with the IWC and firmm’s research, Katharina Heyer’s foundation could already accomplish something for the whales and dolphins living here, but their job is not yet finished!
Thus in February 2007 the Spanish Ministry of Environment imposed a maximum speed limit of 13 knots (24 km/h) in the Strait of Gibraltar. Unfortunately until now these speed limit controls still haven’t been performed. The speed limit is only a recommendation…
In January 2009 firmm made successful efforts to obtain regulations for a respectful whale watching in the Strait from the Spanish authorities. Not to disturb the animals, these laws provide a.o. that the boats cannot sail carelessly head on to the animals and how close they may get to them. Since then most (though not yet all!) ferry companies make a detour to avoid the area, in which e.g. sperm whales come to the surface to breathe or take a rest.
And through its data gathered during many years of research, firmm could prevent a planned new boat line between Tarifa and the new port of Tanger MED.
The firmm Spirit, one of the most modern whale watching boats in the Strait of Gibraltar
The foundation firmm finances its research activities through gifts and through organizing whale watching courses for marine biology students and interested people, and tourist boat trips taking 2 or 3 hours. The Strait of Gibraltar between Africa and Europe is only 14 km wide, but Katharina Heyer doesn’t know another place in the world where she can go within two hours and see so many species… Because of the confluence of the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea and the associated flow conditions, it’s an important feeding ground for whales and dolphins. Here not only long-finned pilot whales, common, striped and bottlenose dolphins occur. If you are lucky, you may also meet killer whales and fin whales, and yes, even sperm whales, humpback whales, flying fish and … sharks! It’s an amazing spectacle, when the clever killer whales, to the great annoyance of the fishermen, drag the small fishing boat along, to steal the expensive red tuna fish from the fishing hooks and leave only the head for the fishermen. Or when the biggest and strongest pilot whales, called waiters, chase the much bigger killer whales, to protect their young and their territory…
A school of breaching common dolphins
A fin whale blasting
Over the past few years, Katharina Heyer has had the wind in her sails, since ecotourism and whale watching have become increasingly popular. In fine weather the foundation firmm navigates several times a day with its two boats, the firmm Spirit and the firmm Fly Blue. The revenues of the whale watching tours will also be used for building the Dolphin Sanctuary in Morocco…
A spyhopping pilot whale
Katharina Heyer draws her strength from the dolphins and whales during her boat trips at sea. When she encounters ‘her’ animals, she is smiling and happy. Then she knows, what she is using all her energy for. A very special relationship, based on trust, indeed exists between this tireless woman and the whales in the Strait of Gibraltar. The animals express this by fearlessly swimming very close to her boat to play in the bow waves or proudly show her their calves… These are behaviours, that wild whales do not usually show: mutual feelings, an endless love between human and animal! And this has already yielded firmm some extraordinary sightings in the Strait of Gibraltar…
Thus Katharina and her guests will perhaps never forget the boat trip of September 4th 2003, when a pilot whale mother showed them her stillborn baby… Deeply moved Katharina Heyer, who is convinced that whales have feelings and wish to get into contact with people, tried to put her certainly most unique experience up to then (and even now!), into words:
‘The animals did not really move; they seemed to rest or to wait. It looked to us, as if they watched the events under water, without moving…
Then six adult animals left and they swam loud whistling very close to the boat. They rubbed repeatedly on the side of the boat, looked up and turned around.
Suddenly and quite unexpectedly a pilot whale mother emerged and she quite explicitly showed me her belly, on which a small piece of a bloody umbilical cord was still hanging. I could not see her head, which was under the boat. She descended very slowly. I felt that there was something wrong and went to the afterdeck, where I was alone…
Then all six animals came back again, raised their heads and whistled at me; but they certainly did not whistle a happy tune!
And then I saw the mother again. She came swimming alone, just up to me, and had something big in her mouth. My first thought was, that she wanted to show me a fish. When she was one metre away from me, I saw that she held a pilot whale baby crosswise in her mouth. She showed it to me just above water. It was probably her newborn baby, and it was obviously dead…
Several times the continuously loud whistling group of pilot whales returned back to the boat. The mother constantly showed her dead baby, and every time she swam alongside the boat, touching it with her skin. It was almost unbearable, because there was nothing we could do to ease her obvious pain…
This meeting touched us deeply, and we will need a long time to process what happened…’
Two years ago, on June 8th 2011, Mondrino/Pigmento, a sperm whale mother, showed her two calves to the whale watchers on board the firmm Spirit! And in this way she gave them the greatest proof of confidence that a wild animal can give, because as a rule sperm whales are extremely shy…
Mondrino/Pigmento owes her name to the many spots on her back.
Also in 2011 the bottlenose dolphin SALTO jumped so high that he was at eye level with Katharina, who was looking out from the upper deck of the firmm Fly Blue.
And what about this wonderful cure during Katharina’s first years in Tarifa?:
The little Simon was bound to a wheelchair after a vaccination accident. His greatest desire was to see a whale in the wild once in his life… Katharina Heyer sailed away to the sea with him. Instantly a whale mother and her two young came to visit them. And to Katharina’s great joy a little later the boy could move his hand for the first time again!!!And what about this wonderful cure during Katharina’s first years in Tarifa?:
Because Katharina Heyer understands the importance of scientific research while dolphin and whale watching, and launched the first whale watching boat in the Strait of Gibraltar, she plays, as it were, a pioneer role there. Heyer follows her own course: her foundation is completely different from the other competing whale watching companies in Tarifa, which are only commercially minded and do not always respect the rules, by which they endanger these cute animals. Unfortunately, getting beautiful snapshots is still more important to them than protecting marine mammals!
Under the motto ‘only what we people know, we can appreciate and love – and we are willing to protect’ Katharina Heyer tries to strive after her second purpose, sensibilization. For this she cooperates with Spanish authorities (including the Ministry of Environment), environmental organizations, public institutions and the media. Furthermore she holds seminars and lectures (often with marine biologists and volunteers) just before the boat trips and at cultural and informative events at Spanish, Swiss and German schools and hotels, to associations and companies, in municipalities, etc. Her presence with firmm at the world’s biggest travel fair, the ITB (Internationale Tourismusmesse) in Berlin was new in 2011!
To realize the aims of her foundation, Katharina Heyer focuses on two key action areas year in year out. She spends the summer months from April to October in Tarifa, Spain. And in November, when the boat trips around Tarifa, the wind capital of Europe, become impossible, she returns to her country of birth, Switzerland. Both in Stallikon, a little village close to Zurich and firmm’s headquarters since 1998, and Meisterschwanden, the seat of firmm, she winters until March. From time to time Katharina goes to an appointment in Tangier or visits ‘her’ bay in Morocco…
The Dolphin Sanctuary
The beach and the existing dikes
Who else, but Katharina Heyer herself, could better explain to us, which circumstances led her and firmm to build the Dolphin Sanctuary in Morocco?:
‘The wish for founding a rescue station for wounded animals already grew in me during the first year of our activity in the Strait of Gibraltar. Each time we found an injured animal, I felt helpless. In rare cases we succeeded in saving a stranded animal, but for most animals we came too late. When later on I heard from owners of dolphinariums, that there is no rescue centre for aging dolphins, I knew, what I had to do. The idea for a dolphin friendly installation took shape.
Dolphins in captivity cannot easily be released to the sea. But we can take them in and readapt them to their natural environment. With the separate rescue centre wounded or stranded sea inhabitants have a real chance of survival in the future.
This is my dream and therefore, I’ll do everything. Many people share this dream and together we will make it.’
The bays in the Strait of Gibraltar with their long-term food web lend themselves very well to such a project. Along the Moroccan coast the largest dolphin and whale populations live. But exactly in this place the inhabitants are also least aware, that they should protect the sea right in front of their main door and the animals in it!
The building plan of the DOLPHIN SANCTUARY
The Dolphin Sanctuary will consist of a dolphin area, a marine centre and a rescue centre…
The floor space of the dolphin area will be more than 30,000 m². Visitors will be able to watch the playful animals from footbridges or an underwater observatory. But there will be no shows or therapies with dolphins, because they violate the basic principle of allowing animals their freedom.
In the marine centre multi-vision presentations and interactive expositions will bring guests, pupils and students closer to the sea environment. Veterinary surgeons and biologists will continue their research work in the scientific section with the laboratories.
The rescue centre will be intended for stranded or wounded marine animals. In this first-aid post a specialized team will take care of the animals and release them again after recovery.
After completion the Dolphin Sanctuary will offer day tourists and holiday goers an all-round programme. The following activities around the marine environment are planned: a one day visit to the marine centre, multi-day courses and whale watching tours such as in Tarifa and a large rural restaurant.
As firmm attaches great importance to ecological friendliness, the dolphin sanctuary will also meet high environmental standards through the use of solar energy, a fully biological wastewater treatment plant and energy saving air conditioning.
This prestigious project will be financed by donators, sponsors and investors.
Donations are among other things necessary for renting land, building the rescue centre, medical instruments and laboratory equipment. This also includes gifts such as freezers, laptops, a minibus, etc.
Dolphin area, marine and rescue centre will be funded and run using sponsorship money.
The restaurant will be financed by investors.
For years now one of firmm’s favourite animals, but at the same time the problem child of the Strait of Gibraltar, has been CURRO, a male pilot whale, who has already been seriously injured twice in his life…
In May 2008 he got a deep, dark red cut presumably from a ship’s propeller on top of his back…
And on July 22nd 2011 Curro’s wound was cut and ripped open again, probably by a fisherman’s line…
Unfortunately so far firmm could do nothing for Curro, but he would certainly have been a right candidate for the planned dolphin sanctuary in Morocco… Luckily, Curro has got a very strong will to survive and he is helped by the other pilot whales!
Without a doubt the Dolphin Sanctuary would really be a necessity, not a luxury!!!
In September 2009 a documentary about Katharina Heyer’s work, firmm and the dolphins and whales in the Strait of Gibraltar was released in cinemas under the title: ‘The Last Giants – Wenn das Meer stirbt’. This film directed by Daniele Grieco documents with fascinating images Katharina’s never ending fight for a hospital for stranded sea animals, the Dolphin Sanctuary…
In the film you can also watch Katharina and the pilot whales swimming together in perfect harmony… It was a very exciting passage, when Katharina left the zodiac and calmly slid into the water… No one (she included!) could predict, how the pilot whales would react to this… Luckily for her, the whales knew and accepted her and they left her in peace! And Katharina herself was feeling very relaxed…
The Moroccan politicians still recognize the ecological, economic and touristic importance of the project of the Dolphin Sanctuary, not only for the region of Tangier, but for the whole country. And they keep favouring future cooperation with Katharina Heyer and firmm. Besides, Katharina is a Swiss manager and Swiss management has a very good reputation. Switzerland is known for the quality of its school education and workmanship. And people, who prefer discussing rather than fighting, to come to an agreement. It is home to many great thinkers, such as Henry Dunant, founder of the International Red Cross and the very first Nobel Peace Prize winner. And in several knowledge disciplines, Switzerland sets the benchmark for research. Katharina Heyer is no exception to this; she has got all these characteristics…
However, Rome wasn’t built in a day… Since firmm’s presence in Morocco in 2002 Katharina has had a long way to go and many obstacles to overcome. In Morocco the word ‘fast’ as we, Europeans, understand it, does not exist… Katharina Heyer speaking again: ‘This was the beginning of a long journey; numerous visits to the location, countless face-to-face meetings with authorities and politicians, and consultations with architects, land surveyors and technicians followed.’ Sometimes she got good news and bad news… For instance in 2002 Katharina visited as many as twenty possible bays along the Moroccan coast! She found the perfect bay in Ras Laflouka with its already existing old smuggler harbour and about a quarter of an hour away from Tangier… In the beginning of 2007 Katharina was promised, that the existing harbour could certainly be integrated into the Dolphin Sanctuary project. But shortly afterwards she was startled on hearing, that the Moroccan army was planning a military base in the neighbourhood, which could also include ‘her’ harbour… Several nerve-racking weeks later, in April, she learnt, that the military harbour would be built further towards the east! And this gave her new hope for the future… Since 2009 Katharina has got active support from a member of the Charity Bank of England, which finances charity projects and functions like a non-governmental organization… In 2012 the Casablanca harbour authorities had signed the rental agreement and Katharina was waiting for the final approval by the governor of Tangier… But when Katharina went to Morocco on September 24th, finally sure to get the definitive agreement, she heard the bad news, that exactly at the place, where firmm’s project was planned, a military harbour would certainly be built. Tears of disappointment and sadness were flowing. Was it really true, that after many years of exhausting work firmm would not be able to give the dolphins a new home? But sometimes when one door closes another door opens. Knowing what the loss of ‘Ras Laflouka’ meant to firmm, the governor of the Tangier region promised them a piece of land, which they hadn’t dared to hope for until then: between the hotels Mövenpick and Tarik, much closer to the centre of Tangier. The area is very open and accessible. In this way the project phase would be considerably shortened. The future looks bright: should firmm get the definite ‘Yes’, then the ‘first spade in the ground ceremony’ would probably be very close. After that the very last stone for the dolphin sanctuary could be laid some months later and they would soon be ready to take the first captive dolphins…
Building a dolphin sanctuary is also much easier said than done… Besides the fact that it involves many people to convince of its importance and to cooperate with, this costs a lot of money and, to speak in terms of economics and market structures, there’s almost a monopoly! This means, that there are only a few providers of that product. In Spain itself there is a Marine Mammal Stranding Centre in Malaga (about 200 km away from Tarifa), but its basin is barely big enough for one animal and it serves the whole region! And in the neighbouring countries, e.g. the Netherlands SOS Dolfijn is working together with the Harderwijk Dolfinarium. So it’s almost impossible for Katharina Heyer to take another close dolphin resort, similar to her planned dolphin sanctuary, as an example for building the Dolphin Sanctuary. Though, knowing her sportswoman characteristics and motivation, it must be a real challenge for her to get this other new organization off the ground once again successfully…
Thumbs up for Katharina!
If you really want something very much and you work very hard for it, then there’s a great chance that you will find it. But … a goal is a dream with a deadline. And this also applies to Katharina Heyer.
Katharina is a real power woman, who thinks positive in life, has a passion and cherishes an ideal. She has a good sense of humour, works almost every day for 18 hours, takes the initiative easily and possesses a magnificent talent for organization. Regularly, she brings her message to the world and as a foreign correspondent she is not afraid to talk openly about it to the media or press. She has to go through all this for only one dream: her brainchild, the Dolphin Sanctuary. It would certainly crown her second career, if Katharina Heyer after almost ten years of fighting could make this dream come true as soon as possible…
What’s more, should there be a Nobel Prize for this field, then this unique woman would definitely deserve it for her extreme courage!!!
Katharina Heyer once seen from another point of view…
Power women are actually ordinary females, but they are full of potential: they are very well aware, that they have a lot to offer to the world and the people around them. They are always ready to help others and can cope with everything: usually they combine a job or an independent business with work, home and friendships.
One could easily still write a second biography of Katharina Heyer, namely her story as a chairwoman of the foundation council of the institution Gärtnerhaus in Meisterschwanden… This integration centre for people with psychological problems was founded in 1997 and proves that Katharina is not only an immense animal lover, but also a philanthrope, always ready to defend the rights of the most neglected, forgotten and vulnerable ones in this world… The Gärtnerhaus receives many charitable gifts and is in full development. It provides services such as a flower shop (making stylish bouquets), home accessories (supplying table ware and decorations) and others. Katharina Heyer’s two foundations, Gärtnerhaus and firmm, frequently cooperate, e.g. when the Gärtnerhaus team caters the annual firmm-meeting about firmm’s latest achievements and goals in Aarau, Switzerland. A nice initiative knowing that firmm would never have existed without the Gärtnerhaus and its director, Benny Stutz! Katharina came into touch with this charismatic figure during her many travels as a fashion designer and together they established the foundation Gärtnerhaus. Hence she learnt that a foundation can be very useful and this made the leap to firmm – with Benny Stutz as a member of the foundation council – very easy for her…
Finally, it’s also typical for a power woman, that the people around her often admire her. Consequently she inspires others. Such a person is Katharina Heyer! The world needs more like her…
You can find more information on the foundation firmm, the Dolphin Sanctuary Ras Laflouka and ways to support them on: http://www.firmm.org/en/ and www.dolphinsanctuary.org.
Some remarkable statements of Katharina Heyer…
– ‘The reaction is invariably one of joy at seeing dolphins swim alongside or in front of the boat and a feeling of peace… Often a trip will include members of four or five different nationalities, who do not talk amongst themselves as they board the boat. But when the dolphins come alongside they are as excited as children, all talking to one another on the way back to shore. It breaks down barriers.’ (in Swiss info, Conservationists use whales to woo public to their cause, 2000)
– ‘Since my sons are grown up, the dolphins and whales are the biggest part of my life’. (from the press kit for the film ‘The Last Giants – Wenn das Meer stirbt’, 2009)
– ‘I love the whales; that is clear. And I belong here, I belong with them – in fact I would never, ever be able to live anywhere else.’ (from the film ‘The Last Giants – Wenn das Meer stirbt’, 2009)
– ‘You must have the courage to do what is close to your heart. And then find ways and means to go on instead of always just say: I’ll, I would, it… or I’ll do that then some time. These are all false excuses. I think we ourselves should act the way we talk and think. We could change so much more in this world.’ (from the Basler Zeitung, Auf meinen Booten wurde Feuer gelegt, 2010)
– ‘It has become a nice job being able to bring people to the whales and dolphins.’ (from an interview for EHC (Eishockey Club) Biel/Bienne, sponsor of firmm, 2010)
KATHARINA HEYER on her boat, the firmm Spirit
– ‘It has never really given me so much as now.’ (Katharina about her former job as a fashion designer during the television programme REPORTER ‘Katharina Heyer – Die Walfrau von Gibraltar’, broadcast by the Schweizer Fernsehen 1 in 2010)
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