A life-long love affair can start in many different ways. For Emilia Benavente, it began with a sea lion at a South American zoo when she was three years old.
Things could have got off to a better start. One December afternoon in 2010, 23-year-old Emilia Benavente stood outside the airport on Grande Comore in the Indian Ocean, waiting for someone to meet her. But no one came. With the help of a taxi driver – one of a few people in the former French colony who spoke a little English – she managed to get a room for the night. The next day, she took a domestic flight to the island of Mohéli.
“It was the worst flight I’ve ever been on! It was a bumpy little plane with eight people on board. There were no seatbelts – just a strap to grab on to.”
EMILIA HAD COME TO the Comoros Islands to volunteer for two months for a project that involved mapping and photo identification of humpback whales. The plane landed safely, and the next day Emilia and the other participants were out on the project’s boat.
“Three humpback whales – two bulls and a cow – were moving along at a distance from the boat. They disappeared beneath the surface, but suddenly the female came up right next to the boat. It was incredible! The water was completely clear, and it was my first encounter with a marine mammal in the wild. It was the best thing I’ve ever seen.”
MARINE MAMMALS HAVE been part of Emilia’s life ever since she refused to pull herself away from the sea lion at a zoo in South America, aged three. She describes herself as a whale nerd, and when she left school there was no question that she would study a marine-related subject. She chose the bachelor’s programme in marine sciences at the University of Gothenburg. Before continuing with her master’s degree she took a year off, which was when she ended up on the Comoros Islands. Back home again she completed her studies, and in summer 2013 she managed to get a completely different job – again involving whales.
“One of my fellow students had got a job as a whale guide in Andenes in Northern Norway, but was also offered another job and took it. I e-mailed about the whale guide job and got an immediate reply: ‘If you want the job, it’s yours.’”
THE JOB INVOLVED working as a guide at a whale museum and on whale safaris, answering questions about whales and helping the safari participants to find whales. This time the whales in question were sperm whales. The bulls head off to deep sea canyons off the coast of Northern Norway in the summer to feed, returning to the waters around the Azores and the Canary Islands in the winter to mate with the cows that have remained there.
“The sperm whale has a blowhole on the left-hand side, so when it blows water out it produces a frothy white cloud. We can use this and hydrophones to find out where the whale is. But it only stays at the surface for 15-20 minutes at a time, so you have to spot it then before it dives back under the water for 30-40 minutes.”
IN APRIL 2014, SHE started working as a research assistant for the Sea Watch Foundation in New Quay, Wales. The organisation has been running a research project since 1991, monitoring a population of bottlenose dolphins in Cardigan Bay off the Welsh coast.
“There are around 250-300 dolphins moving around the whole of the bay. We look at individuals, observe their behaviour and see how the population changes over time. When the researcher I worked for left, I took over responsibility for analysing the results of our observations, which we’ve just published in a report.”
Emilia is currently back in Gothenburg, but she will continue working with the bottlenose dolphins in Wales for the Sea Watch Foundation. She has just started a project in which she will analyse the acoustic data gathered by the organisation from the dolphins over a five-year period.
“Dolphins make two different sorts of sounds: a click, which they use to orientate themselves, and a whistle, which is a social sound. The whistles are individual and are used in roughly the same way as we use our names. And now I have the data, I can analyse it here in Gothenburg.”
Occupation: Research assistant for the Sea Watch Foundation in Wales.
Hobbies: I enjoy photography and reading – ideally about marine mammals!
Five years from now: Hopefully I’ll have a doctoral position in a project about marine mammals, ideally on behavioural studies and acoustics.