A biologists looks through binoculars.
Photo by Wild Orca.

When Wild Orca’s Science and Research Director, Dr. Deborah Giles, first read “From science only to science for conservation: a personal journey” by research scientist Bernd Würsig, she knew she was reading something that would remain with her forever. In this 2020 article, Würsig publicly acknowledged that as scientists, it’s not enough to “do science for the sake of science” and learn everything we can about the natural world; the moral imperative is to use that knowledge to advocate for change to save and preserve nature.

In 2021 when the Wild Orca founders sought to distill the beliefs and values that would guide the organization’s work into the future, we knew this moral imperative would be our driving force. We vowed that we would not just put our research findings on a shelf but would place them in the hands of those with authority to make change happen to prevent the extinction of the Southern Resident killer whales.

A personal journey

Würsig’s professional career started at the dawn of a new era of our relationship with whales and dolphins. Before the 1970s, researchers knew very little about the lives of these wild cetaceans nor the devastating impacts of human activities on their populations, such as commercial whaling, dolphin bycatch in tuna fisheries, or capturing killer whales for marine park shows.

In 1972, the U.S. Congress enacted the Marine Mammal Protection Act, kickstarting an era of recovery and prompting new research, including a population census of the Southern Resident killer whales. Initially, this study was just to inform government policy on the ‘sustainability’ of forcibly removing calves from their families for captivity. At this time, there was no understanding of their unique fishing culture or tight-knit family social structures.

Researchers soon discovered that such social marine mammals “show immense variability of behaviors and complex ways,” indicative of intelligence. Yet, as Würsig noted, despite this, “researchers largely stayed focused on their research, with little attention to using knowledge to increase ecosystem and animal health.”

Although new research often had significant conservation value, as Würsig acknowledged—including in his own work—scientists presented these as a mere footnote in scientific literature. He now believes that “we scientists must no longer dither with opinions on environmental problems and urgent needs for action; we must proclaim them intelligently, forcefully, and as broadly as possible.”

"Science informs science, but also informs our needs to change habits."

Würsig’s awakening led him to realize that researchers should not concentrate on saving a single species but should, in fact, “save as many aspects as absolutely possible of all nature.” He pleads, “be not just a researcher, but a conservation biologist in all quests and actions.”

Yet, as Würsig noted, many researchers still want to “learn more,” even during a 6th mass extinction when time is short. “We need to take our knowledge of animals and ecosystems,” he urges, “and not necessarily gather ever more data, but to use it to assess their status and how to help.”

Help comes from scientists advocating for change—top-down and bottom-up: with researchers speaking directly to policymakers and via public outreach to galvanize support at the grassroots level. Würsig believes “Scientists should indeed be a part of careful advocacy and activism.”

While this is second nature to Giles as a conservation biologist, many today still shun this approach of mixing research with advocacy. Würsig notes, “we need to step out of our ‘ivory towers’ of peer-reviewed papers and reports accessible only to fellow scientists and engender activism within the science community that makes our results and opinions directly accessible to all.”

This describes Wild Orca to our core—making science accessible and actionable to save the Southern Resident killer whales from extinction.

Read: From science only to science for conservation: a personal journey