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Isabel Beasley talks about studying dolphins, and her favorite books. – Page 2

Isabel Beasley talks about studying dolphins around the world...

READERSVOICE.COM: You’ve studied dolphins around the world. Can you talk a bit about what you were doing in places like Hong Kong, Borneo, Thailand, the Philippines, San Diego, Peru, and Hawaii?
ISABEL BEASLEY: During the final six months of my Diploma in 1996, one of my courses was to undertake a placement anywhere in the world to assist a wildlife research / conservation group for a five week period.
Of course, my first choice was a river dolphin research group.
However, much to my complete surprise, there were absolutely no active projects trying to conserve river dolphins in Asia (where the majority of river dolphins occur) – not one!
So even though I would have paid my own ticket and living costs, there was just no project I could help with.
After a month or so, Randy Reeves (one of the ‘superstars’ of my childhood), who had undertaken the most work on river dolphins in Asia put me into contact with Sarita Kendell who works on the Amazon River Dolphin.
Finally after many emails she agreed to take me on, if I could learn Spanish in two months …. so my Spanish courses started and I was determined to finally see the Amazon River dolphin that I had seen in my little blue book six years previously.
After a month, with my Spanish unfortunately still not up to scratch, I then received an email from Dr. Tom Jefferson, who had a research project in Hong Kong.

He was starting a research project on coastal dolphins, in Hong Kong, and needed a research assistant for five weeks.
It was a hard choice at the time to leave the river dolphin project, but one that set the scene for the rest of my career.
I went for five weeks – departing with cans of food in my backpack because I didn’t have enough money to live in Hong Kong for five weeks – and I ended up staying for two and a half years, and never went back to New Zealand.
I learnt all I could initially hope to know about cetacean research from Dr. Tom Jefferson, and it was because of his support that I began my first independent project on Irrawaddy dolphins in Borneo, in 1998, and then in the same year went to my first marine mammal conference in Monaco France.
Also because of Tom, I became interested in cetacean taxonomy – in particular measuring dolphins’ skulls and skeletons to establish if differences exist between populations.
My first big “OE” was through Asia and Europe (about 30 countries in all), where I spent all my time in dusty museums measuring Irrawaddy dolphin skulls – some people go to Paris to see the Eiffel Tower, I passed by the tower, eagerly on my way to the museum.
Thanks to that trip I established a lot of contacts in Asia and then began research projects on Irrawaddy dolphins in Thailand (Songkhla Lake), Philippines (Malampaya Sound) and India (Chilika Lake).
It was again primarily thanks to Tom that I was offered a place on some US government surveys in the Eastern Tropical Pacific Ocean – these surveys were six months duration.

These large scale surveys used huge ocean-going boats that departed from San Diego and travelled for six months to places such as Hawaii, Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama and Peru – we even had a five day ’emergency’ stop in the Galapagos.
These surveys have been one of the highlights of my life and I met a wide range of wonderful people, dedicated to cetacean conservation.
RV: When did you first become interested in studying the Irrawaddy River dolphins in the Mekong River in Cambodia? What was it about them that particularly interested you?
IB: I had developed an interest in Irrawaddy dolphins since 1997 when I began to plan my work in Borneo.
However, obviously river populations were of particular interest to me.
I had read of the Mekong population in the literature, but during the late 1990s Cambodia was a very unsafe country – particularly to be researching dolphins down the river.
I wanted to start a PhD, but my research permits to work in Borneo were to be delayed by a year.
The day I heard this, I also received an email from a man in Cambodia saying he had seen dolphins in the river.
The next day I had packed up my house in Malaysia and was booked on a flight to Cambodia.
The reason I decided to study this population was that virtually nothing was known about the Mekong River population.
It was believed the populations were small and declining – but no-one was doing anything about it.