Well, at long last, we have a new episode to share! It has been such a scattered year, and we are still learning how to manage our complex schedules. Tara will say it is her fault, but it is more like she is so overextended! I am just so grateful that she can help me with this and so many other things.
So, I am very happy to introduce this episode featuring Jo Marie Acebes (Jom), a friend and impressive conservation researcher from the Philippines! We will share this interview in three parts. Today is part 1!
I so enjoyed chatting with Jom and learning more about her work, and I hope you enjoy watching! Video and transcript below.
Learn more about Jom’s work at Balyena.org:
Learn more about the marine animal plushies:
Tara: Alright, ready to start?
Danny: So ready!
D: Awesome, exclamation point, done and done!
T: It’s been a while since we’ve, uh, done one of these, huh?
D: Too long!
T: So… for those who haven’t seen any of Danny’s recent videos for other projects, what he’s saying at the end there is “Awesome, exclamation point, done and done!” It’s just a thing he’ll commonly do at the end of spelling a sentence, especially when it ends in an exclamation point!
So, what do you want to say to everybody?
D: Hi my Ocean Friends!
T: Yes, I echo that. What do you want to say?
D: We missed you!
T: We did miss you.
D: We missed you and we are excited to share new episodes with you!
T: Yes, we are excited to share new episodes with you.
So it has been a while – maybe almost a year – since our last episode because time is a fickle beast. I was really busy with work last year, and Danny has some other projects, and we’re also constantly working on Danny developing skills that he needs to be more autonomous in his communication and his life. All of that takes a lot of time and energy. We are finally at a place where we are able to come up – interview, edit, post – more episodes to share with our The Ocean and Us family.
D: I can’t believe it has been so long!
T: Yeah, I can’t believe it either. I guess we did post your SpellX video later last year, but in terms of real podcast episodes, it’s been close to a year. Yeah, I can’t believe it. But here we are! So, do you want to tell our friends about this episode?
D: You should!
T: I should? Ok. So, we were really excited to have our first in-person interview with my friend – our friend – Jom or Jo Marie Acebes, because she was visiting San Diego for a conference. She’s actually from the Philippines and works in the Philippines. She’s a Senior Museum Research in the Zoology Division of the Natural History Museum of the Philippines, which is a relatively new position, it’s a relatively new museum, so that’s exciting. And she’s the founder and principal investigator of Balyena.org, which is a non-profit working on whale and dolphin [and other large animals!] research and conservation in the Philippines. They have some really great social media posts that are really informative and engaging, so I recommend checking them out – we’ll post some links.
Not only does she have a PhD, but she also has a doctorate in veterinary medicine. And, beyond even those two, her research has also taken an interest in looking at the human side of conservation, and that’s something she and I have spoken about a lot as well.
So we were really happy to have her staying with us while she was in town in December – yes, we are very behind on filming this introduction and editing, it’s already the 2nd half of March. I will say that we have a new webcam now that has higher resolution. The one we used for her interview, unfortunately, was not up to our low light settings, so the resolution is not particularly good. But we hope you can look past that and see the scintillating nature of the conversation we had with her!
How’s that for an introduction?
T: Anything else you want to say?
D: We will be posting this in multiple installments!
T: Yeah, so these conversations we have on this podcast are so interesting, they could go on for a long time. We recognize that it’s hard to focus – especially if it’s not a podcast per se but there’s a video involved, it’s hard to focus for very long as an audience member. So even though the conversation itself was about an hour, we’ll be posting it in – we haven’t decided how many installments, maybe 3 installments – more digestible episode parts, so to speak. And so we hope that makes it easier to follow along.
D: I really loved chatting with Jom!
T: Yeah, you did really love chatting with Jom.
D: And learning more about her work!
T: Yeah, even as someone who’s her friend but also her professional colleague, I really enjoyed learning more about her work as well. And you two definitely had a really nice rapport, a really nice flow together.
D: So how about starting the episode now?
T: I think that’s an excellent idea, Danny. We hope you enjoy.
T: This is our first in-person interview
J: Oh really?
D: Hi Jom!
J: Hello, good morning!
D: Do you like my hat?
J: Oh yes! Sperm whale! That’s really cool. Where did you get it?
T: Shay gave it for him as a birthday present this year. He loves it. But yeah, you requested to wear it, I suspect for you [Jom]
D: I know it is not a humpback whale, but close enough!
J: Yes, it’s still a whale!
T: I’m glad we can do this. I know scheduling over email, things can get really busy, but now we have you trapped in our house! I’m gonna let you lead this conversation, bud.
D: It is so nice to meet you and have a chance to learn about your work!
J: Thank you. It’s so nice to finally meet you in person!
D: So tell me all about Balyena.org!
J: Thank you, and you got it correct the first time – most people just say Balyena, but Balyena.org, yes, that’s the name.
J: So, Balyena.org, I only got the idea to start it after I quit WWF-Philippines – I used to work with WWF, and at that time I was already working on humpback whales in the Babuyan Islands in the northern Philippines.
I decided, because WWF didn’t want to continue the project anymore, and I thought we put in a lot of work on it and I really wanted to continue it, so I thought why not just do it on my own with some of my friends, former volunteers, former colleagues. So, informally, I thought okay, we’ll start it informally, we’ll find our own funding, write small grants, and continue the work, and eventually we thought it’s better to register it as an organization.
So our first project was the humpback whale project, continuing the work we were doing in the past. Eventually, we thought of expanding it, working on other things like blue whales and then helping with strandings.
T: I actually didn’t know any of that!
D: Wow, I love that you just started it on your own!
J: Thank you. It wasn’t easy, but I wasn’t really just by myself – I had friends to help me. That was very, very important. Without them and the volunteers, it wouldn’t have happened.
T: Yeah, that is important. That’s something I really learned with the team in Myanmar. In the Philippines, you have a lot more people doing work on marine mammals, on marine conservation, but still there’s a lot left to be done, and there’s a lot of room in the region for people with good ideas, if they can get something started, to do something new and needed.
D: Totally! So tell me about those whales!
J: So the humpback whales that visit the Philippines every year, they are part of the Western North Pacific population. So they are the same whales that you find here. But the Philippines, and Okinawa and Ogasuwara in Japan, they are considered breeding grounds for a specific, small, distinct group of this Western North Pacific. So, of the Western North Pacific population, you have small subpopulations, so the ones that breed in the Philippines and Japan are distinct genetically. And they go to feed in Alaska and Russia.
And then every year they do that migration – feeding grounds in the summer, breeding grounds in the winter, so they spend their winters in warmer countries like the Philippines.
T: They’re smart!
D: So cool! How do you study them?
J: So we do photo-ID – that’s the main method – we take photographs of their flukes, the tail. So the whale, when they dive, they raise their tail or their fluke. A humpback whale, each fluke has a unique pattern of black and white. Also, the serrations are very unique. Let me get a photo here so I can show it.
So we take a photo of their flukes, so each whale will have a unique photograph, so we can identify. So we know which whale is coming back, and where they are, and who they are with.
And then so we take photos of every humpback whale that we see and then so every time we see a humpback whale, we take a photo of the fluke, mark the location with a GPS, and then we match it. We have like a photo album of all the fluke photos of the humpbacks that we know come to the Philippines. We look at them and match to find out if we’ve seen that whale before or not.
And then, at the end of the season, we compare that with other researchers in Japan and also in feeding grounds in Russia and Alaska. So we know if our whale went there and which year or which season they were seen.
And if it’s a female, it’s even more important, because we will be able to tell if it’s had a baby or not, and how many times it’s had a baby.
D: So fascinating!
J: Here is a photo: see, it’s unique, this one is a different whale, it’s named Johnny Moon, and that’s Chandria.
D: I had no idea! Who gets to name them?
J: Normally, as researchers, I like to name them just by the numbers, so very boring. For us, just to remember it’s from the Philippines, we go PH001, and then chronologically.
But the example I showed you is from our Adopt A Whale program, so people can virtually adopt a whale, and they can name them if they don’t have a name yet. So those guys who adopted that decided to name them Johnny Moon and Chandia.
D: Is that through Balyena.org?
J: Yes, that’s part of our fundraising!
D: So creative!
J: Thank you!
D: How do you fund this work besides that?
J: Very good question. I have to write grant proposals every year. Most of our funding comes from international organizations that give out funding. So Adopt a Whale is just a very very recent program that we started. We also sell some merchandise. And the other recent fundraising project is that we’re selling this field guide on whales and dolphins in the Philippines to help fund our research. But yeah, I have to write research grants every year, multiple times a year. So no assurance that we get funding, sadly.
T: And Jom also works for the Natural History Museum in Manila, as well.
J: I have to stay in a regular day job to survive!
T: Do you still do the felt animals – what are they called?
J: Plushies. Yes, we still do them. I don’t have the Plushies with me because we had to transfer to another volunteer and she’s in charge of trying to sell them. Locally-sewn whale toys or plushies by the women who live in the islands where we work.
T: It’s a cool program. I met Zerlina – she’s from Hong Kong – and she makes these patterns and they do all sorts of different species. I think they have an Irrawaddy dolphin?
J: Yeah, Irrawaddy, narwhal… she’s done every marine mammal, I think, oh maybe not the too unfamiliar ones, like vaquita I’m sure she hasn’t done.
T: That’s a very niche one!
J: But she’s done blue whales, sperm whales, killer whales
T: It’s just cool that women in coastal communities can learn how to do them and people who like those animals can have these nice Plushies while supporting conservation. I like that a lot. It’s a really cool program.
D: So cool and I want to buy some one day!
J: That would be really nice. You can choose – for the Adopt a Whale, we have 16 whales up for adoption. It was hard to choose, because you have to choose the really nice-looking fluke ones, the really interesting ones. Because part of the Adopt A Whale, you get a certificate of adoption, a fluke photo, a plushie, a sticker, and a postcard, and you get updates about your whale quarterly. We tell you if we saw the whale, who it was with, and all those things.
T: So, at marine mammal conferences – I didn’t grow up as “oh, I love dolphins and whales!” – so there’s a lot of cheesy stuff that gets sold. But Balyena.org, they actually have really nice, tasteful things, like their T-shirts have really cool designs. They have good taste.
D: That is so important!
J: Thank you.
[TO BE CONTINUED NEXT WEEK!]