ExplorersBio

Bernd Würsig

Biologist

Committee for Research and Exploration Grantee

Two Bottlenose Dolphins Leaping from the Water

Photograph by David Tipling, Getty Images

Photo: Bernd Wursig

Photograph by Stefan Bräger

Birthplace: Barsinghausen, Germany

Current City: Galveston, Texas

What did you want to be when you were growing up?

Ever since I was about nine or ten, I wanted to be a marine biologist, largely due to the writings of the German explorers Hans and Lotte Hass, and my then-hero from France, Jacques Cousteau. As I got older, I also read the works of John C. Lilly, who purported that dolphins are smarter than humans. He was probably wrong, and we do not even know how to properly measure and compare "intelligences" in our own species, but he sure was a driving force in my early (unscientific) thinking.

How did you get started in your field of work?

I was accepted as a Ph.D. student at Stony Brook University of Long Island, New York, and was fortunate to be taken on by Charlie Walcott, a fine behavioral biologist. One of his friends was the amazing marine mammalogist Roger Payne, and somehow—I still do not know how—I was allowed to go on one of Roger's expeditions to study southern right whales in Patagonia, Argentina. Here I learned theodolite tracking and photographic recognition, and transported these techniques to dusky and bottlenose dolphins. It was only due to Charlie and Roger—wonderful intelligent, caring, and giving—that I had a chance at fieldwork with dolphins and whales. What inspires you to dedicate your life to the oceans? I learned early on that our oceans are besieged, back then by whaling and industrial pollution (including PCBs and DDT in the 1970s!), and now by continuing habitat degradation, overfishing and squiding on huge scales, ever increasing human-made noise, and, sadly, a rapid climate change that is leading us to we do not know where. Dolphins and whales have changed their habits and habitats remarkably in these past 40 years, in part due to explained or likely human effects, in part for unknown reasons. They are upper-level users of the oceans, hallmarks of the health of ecosystems, and emissaries of goodwill to point to problems and potential solutions. The more we learn of these animals, the better we are equipped to argue for sustaining our ocean and mighty river environments.

What's a normal day like for you?

The only thing normal about my day at university is that there are no normal days. I teach, have meetings with undergrad interns and grad students, largely about field research data analyses, edit a manuscript that is probably past the time requested, see a visiting postdoc or professor, attend a seminar, sit in a financial decision committee meeting, be on an orals defense for someone else's Ph.D. student, etc. It can be hectic, but it is always fun. In the field, I like to get up early and face the day before the sun, and work in a boat or from shore or from the air with my beloved dusky dolphins (or, at times, other species). Fieldwork, gathering the data and helping to organize expeditions, makes the university, back at the lab, times even more fun.

Do you have a hero?

I have many heroes, and foremost among these are Charlie Walcott and Roger Payne, my university and fieldwork mentors, respectively. However, the great Kenneth S. Norris, with whom I was fortunate to do my postdoc and write a book on spinner dolphins together, is also a wonderful hero. And—this is not a polite or fawning notion—my greatest hero is my wife, Melany Carballeira Würsig; she waitressed to put me through school, served as teacher to the Payne kids and translator in Argentina, gathered the most painstaking notes and later helped to analyze them, wrote, counted, advised, cajoled, consoled, and edited. She is not only a soul mate, but also a soul colleague and friend.

What has been your favorite experience in the field? The most challenging?

My favorite experience in the field is probably when Melany and I first figured out that dusky dolphins coordinate activities to bait-ball feed. They secure, stop from traveling, and tighten a school of fish to make likely cooperation profitable. The most challenging is closely related, as it has occasionally been the weather—at times landing us in quite some danger while on an open sea in a tiny inflatable boat—that has made us briefly wonder why we were out in the field in the first place.

What are your other passions?

I enjoy puttering in native gardens we have in hideaways in New Zealand and Arizona, and a tropical (but not fully native) garden in southeast Texas. I enjoy leading nature tours in those places. I enjoy carving dolphins and whales out of cottonwood bark, and giving these to especially treasured colleagues. I enjoy reading good and writing not-so-good poetry.

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In Their Words

The more we learn of these animals, the better we are equipped to argue for sustaining our ocean and mighty river environments.

—Bernd Würsig

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