Having a Whale of a Time ...

Thursday, 07 November 2019

Veterinary student Kim Hildebrandt is the winner of the European Rolex Scholarship of the Our World-Underwater Scholarship Society and has just finished a secondment at the world’s first Beluga Whale Sanctuary. Here we share her story about an amazing two-week placement in Iceland.


The SEA LIFE TRUST Beluga Whale Sanctuary recently welcomed a special visitor to work with the beluga whales Little Grey and Little White and to help with one of the busiest puffling seasons which the remote island of Heimaey, of the Southern coast of Iceland, has ever seen!


Kim Hildebrandt, a veterinary student from Germany, was one of the lucky winners of the coveted Rolex Diving Scholarship, which allows its winners to travel, visit and work on marine and diving projects around the world. Funded by world renowned watch-makers Rolex, the European Rolex Scholarship of the Our World-Underwater Scholarship Society helps to develop the careers of young people who are talented, passionate divers with a strong academic record and a deep seated desire to build a career in the marine industry.  Each year, three scholarships are awarded, one in the USA, one in Australasia, and one in Europe.


Kim, who is a third-year student from the University of Veterinary Medicine in Hanover, has a deep interest in marine mammals and hopes to get involved in the field of wildlife and conservation medicine with a focus on rescue and rehabilitation of aquatic animals. Kim was fascinated by the beluga project and recognised that, as a world-first project, this was going to be a unique experience.  


The Rolex scholarship gave her the opportunity to join the inspiring project and when Kim got in touch with the sanctuary via SEA LIFE Trust (SLT) partner Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC), to ask if part of her scholarship could be a trip to work at the SEA LIFE TRUST Beluga Whale Sanctuary, the sanctuary team were delighted to agree.  


Kim believes that the successful transfer of Little Grey and Little White, achieved by SLT and WDC, as well as the intensive preparation and training with the whales beforehand, are extraordinary. Kim herself has previously undertaken Marine Mammal Rescue Training (Stranding response) in New Zealand.


Whilst at the sanctuary Kim participated in a number of veterinary checks of Little Grey and Little White as well as health checks and care team preparation sessions.


Kim said: “When I first heard about the SEA LIFE TRUST Beluga Whale Sanctuary as the world´s first project to bring captive beluga whales back into a more natural environment, it sounded like a very promising learning opportunity for me as a veterinary medicine student with a special interest in marine mammal rehabilitation. I was therefore very happy when I was invited to spend two weeks at the sanctuaries centre in Iceland and even happier when I found out it coincided with the island’s puffling season, which I was able to help with. “


She continued: “To experience first-hand the great rehabilitation and acclimation work that has been (and still is) put in by the Beluga Care Team to prepare Little White and Little Grey for their final move into the outdoor ocean sanctuary next spring, was a very valuable experience. I helped in the preparation of the whales for routine medical checks, which are vital for a stress-free interaction between veterinarian and the belugas in case an assessment is needed in the future. “


“The Puffling Patrol Program, on the other hand, is a very impressive collaborative rescue program, which has traditionally been run by the community itself. For several years, it has given invaluable insight into the abundance and health of the local puffin population by providing the chance to collect long-term data of growth and development of the rescued pufflings. “


Kim concluded “All in all, I really enjoyed my stay at the SEA LIFE TRUST Beluga Whale Sanctuary and puffin rescue centre. I have been welcomed by all staff in a very warm and open way, I have learned a lot from every one of them, and I was able to contribute to the centre´s work hands-on. I take with me new knowledge and skills and hope to return to the centre in the future. Thank you so much to the SEA LIFE Trust and marine charity Whale and Dolphin Conservation for making this experience possible for me!


Andy Bool. Head of the SEA LIFE Trust added:

“We have loved hosting Kim and introducing her to the activities which take place in running a sanctuary. Kim has been incredibly helpful as we only have a small staff team of ten (six of which are dedicated to Little Grey and Little White). Kim’s insight and hands-on approach meant she was an invaluable part of the team and helped greatly with the whale’s health assessments and our puffling season which has seen up to 800 puffling chicks being brought to our Puffin Rescue Centre every day (over 7,600 were seen across the whole season)!


Bool concluded: “We hope Kim’s placement with the sanctuary will have inspired her for her future career and help highlight that this sanctuary project demonstrates that captive belugas can be relocated from sea parks and other traditional captive facilities so they can be brought into a more natural, wild environments. Our hope is it will emphasise that there is an alternative future for these amazingly intelligent creatures.”


Kim will be returning to the SEA LIFE Trust Beluga Sanctuary in early 2020 with a follow-up research project with WDC.