By Nuri Max Steinmann.
Cristina Otero Sabio is a marine biologist, photographer and artist with a special affection for marine mammals. While working for the whale watching company Turmares in Tarifa, Spain, she started a photo-ID study to identify the killer whales that visit the Strait of Gibraltar every year in order to learn more about the population. That’s when she decided to do a master’s in marine biodiversity and conservation to learn more professional skills and methods to follow up her dream. For her master thesis she studied the distribution of common dolphins in Irish waters using acoustic monitoring data. Now she is doing her PhD at the University of Padova, Italy, with a main focus on marine mammal’s cell culture to investigate the effects of different environmental stressors and cytotoxic agents on these animals. She is also using her photography and artwork to tell stories from another perspective.
Hi Cristina! You have worked in several research projects studying whales and dolphins. You also photograph and paint them. Why that special fascination for marine mammals and is there a special moment in your life where you decided to turn your passion into a career?
Hi! My passion for marine mammals started when I was very little, around 3 years old. My father used to watch many documentaries, and from the first moment I saw a killer whale in one of them, I felt very curious and fascinated about these animals. That is how everything started, and as I grew up, I decided I wanted to become a marine biologist and I never changed my mind.
Studying whales and dolphins is the dream of many young marine biologist, but it’s a hard and long way to pursue a career in this field. Do you find it hard to climb up the scientific career ladder? What’s your advice for the new generation who want to go into studying marine mammals?
I have to say that I feel very lucky because I started working in Tarifa as a whale watching guide the same week, I finished my degree on biology. Being a whale watching guide is one of the most beautiful experiences ever, but as many cetacean-related jobs, it is seasonal. My advice to others is to do some volunteering to see what they like the most about cetaceans and to attend conferences to make as many contacts as possible. This is a good way to discover the different career opportunities available in the marine mammal’s field. And the most important thing, never give up. Get to work with cetaceans is not an easy road.
In some parts of the world, whales and dolphins are still hunted. But not only hunting is a problem. The list of major threats is long….
Well, there are many endangered species that still being hunted, and whaling is legal in many countries. Apart from that, there are many human-related things that have a negative effect on cetacean populations, such as overfishing, which has both direct and indirect effects by prey depletion or by incidental capture in fishing gear (by-catch), ocean noise, ship strikes or plastic pollution, among others.
Plastic pollution is of particular concern. Though, it seems as if society starts to understand this issue and changes are being made. In time or too late?
I prefer to think that it is never too late. In my opinion, the plastic issue is starting to be loader and a lot of information about the effects of plastic pollution in the marine ecosystems is now available. Some companies are changing the way of production in order to reduce the use of plastic, however, there is still much to do. We all can help to palliate this problem, by including small actions in our routine. For example, bringing our own reusable bag when go to shopping, refusing single use plastics such as bottles or straws, and even buying sustainable clothes made of organic materials. Environmental education is the key to reach the public and make people more concern. If we want a real change, our voice has to be heard and lots of actions have to be taken as soon as possible.
We all can help to palliate this problem, by including small actions in our routine.
Besides scientific research you are also doing paintings of whales and other marine life, as well as photography. Were you first in to art or science? Or were you in both at the same time?
I used to paint a lot during my childhood, dreaming of the wonderful marine world that seemed to be from another planet to me. Everyone in school knew me because of that. I stopped painting for a very long time, and I was more focused on photography, but a few years ago I decided to retake this hobby and I started painting again. I never thought of giving up my dream of becoming a marine biologist to be an artist. Maybe I get to combine both things, who knows?
What does your art mean to you? Does your painting help to sometimes forget about the tough science world and the dry statistics?
Art means being alive to me, it is like a basic need. Sometimes I have a bad day and creating something like a painting or a picture, just gives it a meaning. That is also why I didn’t want to work just as an artist, because I think art it is something you have to do for yourself first, and not just for the others. In science you cannot always be creative, so of course painting helps me to get away.
Art means being alive to me, it is like a basic need. Sometimes I have a bad day and creating something like a painting or a picture, just gives it a meaning.
Back to the future. The oceans face an uncertain future and the list of major challenges is long. Do you still have hope that humanity will manage somehow to turn the tide around? What would be the three things we have to change, which you think are the most important?
I always try to see things with positivity but turn the tide around is not going to be easy at all. The change starts from each of us, not just from the big companies. We absolutely have to change the way we consume which is completely out of control, from food to basic things we use daily. A higher investment in science is necessary in order to find more eco-friendly ways of production and to implement clean energies. And the most important thing, spread the word and set an example to others. There is no planet B.
It is 2050 – What is Cristina doing, what will be the state of the worlds whales and dolphins and how will our planet look like?
Well in the first place, I hope to be alive! All species within an ecosystem play an important role, including cetaceans. If we want to make profit of marine ecosystems, we have to take care of all the constituents. Cetaceans are on the top of the food chain and help to maintain the balance in aquatic ecosystems, for example by preventing overpopulation of other species. Without whales and dolphins, our planet would be a completely mess, so I hope our oceans will look healthier by 2050.