Dr Els Vermeulen BSc, MSc, PhD
Co-Founder & Scientific Director
Born in Antwerp –Belgium, I have had an interest in marine mammal conservation for as long as I can remember. Pursuant upon this life-long passion, I obtained in 2003 a Master Degree in Biological Science from the Free University of Brussels and a PhD degree in 2014 from the University of Liège. The final dissertation of my MSc concerned the behaviour and ecology of southern right whales, for which I travelled to Argentina. What was meant to be a short fieldtrip became a life-changer. I was so impressed by the beauty of this country, and by the many marine conservation issues, that it confirmed for me an even more sincere devotion to these matters. I decided to emigrate to Argentina and set up a national conservation program for coastal marine mammals. At the age of 22, I co-founded the Marybio Foundation, an independent NGO that I directed for the next 6 years.
As president and lead researcher, I was responsible for the functioning of the NGO. My specific tasks included the set-up of research projects, directing field work, data analysis, writing scientific papers, obtaining funding, supervision of collaborators and students, administration and marketing, political involvement and educational projects.
My research focus in Argentina concerned southern right whales and bottlenose dolphins. As was reflected in my PhD, my core research expertise lies in animal behaviour, ecology and population biology. My main areas of interest are in the field of conservation biology, and include population structures and dynamics, ethology, and ecology. With the use of science, I aim to understand the causal factors affecting marine mammal conservation in order to aid in enhancing conservation management strategies.
Although being primarily a scientist, I strongly believe in a multidisciplinary approach to face the challenges within marine conservation. Therefore community involvement also is of high priority for me. Additionally, I believe collaboration with governments and decision-makers is of vital importance within conservation. Due to this interest and expertise, I became part of the Belgian delegation at the International Whaling Commission in 2011, and of the IUCN Cetacean specialist group in 2018.
Because of this multidisciplinary approach, I have gained an increasing understanding of the lack of connections and networking among the different stakeholders within nature conservation (scientists, governments, general public, funding bodies, etc.). This awareness gave rise to the idea to co-found Whalefish. With Whalefish, I aim to continue to increase the public awareness and educational outreach related to the marine environment, and to improving networking possibilities, as I strongly believe that it is not only important “what” we know, but also “who” we know!
Currently, I reside in South Africa and am the Research Manager and post-doctoral research fellow of the Mammal Research Institute Whale Unit of the University of Pretoria (South Africa). At the same time I am principal investigator at the the South African NGO Sea Search. The cetacean community around southern Africa is one of the richest in the world with at least 51 of 86 species of whale or dolphins known to occur there. My goal is to use my expertise to collaborate in the national marine conservation efforts, specifically on the southern right whale, South Africa’s most emblematic marine mammal.