Thursday, 10 April 2014

ECS Award - The Pod Father: Nick Tregenza

I had the great privilege of  unveiling (and delievring the accolade for) the winner of this year's European Cetacean Society Mandy McMath Conservation award and below is pretty much what I said:


Please can I have my Viking and Amazon warrior guards to the doors because this one may bolt, and this may get scary!

Student helpers – no one is to leave the room! You can let people in but no one leaves for the next few minutes.

Monsieur le Président, Mesdames et Messieurs, Ladies and Gentlemen, are you ready for this?
You have been rehearsing your applause very well these last few days ahead of this award and let me remind you that this an award given by peers for a lifetime of achievement in the field of marine mammal conservation.

[Image of Mandy McMath on Bardsey Island.]



Some of you did not know Mandy McMath after whom this award is named. She was a remarkable woman – a champion of marine mammal conservation who left behind her a legacy which includes the marine protected areas that line the Welsh coastline, and a generation of appreciative colleagues (both young and old) some of whom sit in this room. I am personally very sorry that she was not here to see some of the work that she had supported over a long number of years on Welsh Risso’s dolphins come to be published in the last few months

Her enthusiasm for marine mammals found her in many places including out in boats with Peter Evans looking for big grey dolphins under grey skies and on similarly grey seas and similarly sitting on cliffs staring out to sea looking for them with the likes of me. She was a lady of indomitable spirit and enthusiasm for her work; Mandy loved her garden, her dog, bright young people (who she was always keen to help along the way – you know who you are) life in general and sitting watching her beloved seals.

She also had a great and irrelevant sense of humour and was a pithy observer on the events of the day.
In that spirit, I start this accolade with a short review of the months that have passed since we gave Erich Hoyt the award at the last meeting. (And Eruch sends his apologies for not being able to be here today.)
[Image of Erich]

And surely amongst the major highlights of the last year  was these was the re-popularising of the old English dance step the twerk by the fine young American recording artiste Miley Cyrus [image of Miley}.
The word ‘twerk comes from the original Cornish ‘twerky-bum’ meaning to dance with abandon and sometimes used as a greeting – as in ‘How are’ e – me ol’ twerky-bum’.

Now, the English have been twerking for many hundreds of years – usually, of course, in the privacy of their own homes - but I am sure following the fine and modest example set by young Miley, Peter Evans , Andrew Wright and the gentleman dance troop otherwise known as BDMLR have all been rehearsing their twerking  for this evening’s social event.

Also deeply relevant to us and in the news over the last year (and moving to the sphere of animal acoustics) we have all eventually discovered what the fox says
… because, as you all know, if the

Dog goes woof, cat goes meow.
Bird goes tweet, and mouse goes squeak.
Cow goes moo. Frog goes croak, and the elephant goes toot.
Ducks say quack and fish go blub, and the seal goes ..... OW OW OW.
But there's one sound that no one knows...

WHAT DOES THE FOX SAY? 

Do you know what the fox says?

Apparently it is

Ring-ding-ding-ding-dingeringeding!
Gering-ding-ding-ding-dingeringeding!
Gering-ding-ding-ding-dingeringeding!

I am sure that you wil agree with me that this is a significant finding. [These are the lyrics from the hugely successful ‘What does the fox say’electronic dance song by Norwegian comedy duo Ylvis which was also the top-trending video on You Tube in 2013.]

2013 also saw the birth of Quinn Lilly Eisfeld-Pierantonio [picture] – who I am sure you will agree made several profound interventions during our conference, most notable when her father was speaking and I am sure that I heard her say – we all know sperm whale are big papa….


Applause for Quin's good behaviour
Incidentally, her husband-to-be, Prince George (the future king of Britain), was born just a few days later.
There were also other lesser developments such as the fantastic winter Olympics where that nice Mr Putin enjoyed hosting all those other countries so much that he decided to keep one. (This is much funnier if you do not come from a country with a boundary with Rusia.)

Now moving (arguably more sensibly) to the Mandy McMath conservation award recipient for 2014: there was a time in our not too distant history when there were no biologists, no natural historians – indeed the study of animals would have been looked on as something perverse – and the first great investigators of the natural world were not trained specialists. Georg Wilhelm Steller, for example, who went on expedition on the St. Peter, in 1741, under the command of Vitus Bering. was officially the ship’s mineralogist (a respectable revenue-associated position) but in practice he was also importantly its doctor, minister, and naturalist.

Steller identified many new species, and many species still bear his name including of course Stellar’s Sea Cow [picture] which shortly after its delicious discovery was eaten into extinction. [This is perhaps the first time Miley Cyrus and Stellar’s Sea Cow have appeared on the same slide].

Similarly, there were many famous British surgeon-naturalists, including  Richard Owen  and Frank Buckland and the naval surgeons Sir John Richardson and Thomas Huxley [images of all four].


Earlier British surgeon-naturalists
These gentlemen were trained in human anatomy and would have dismembered many bodies – based on the not unreasonable premise that if you can take it apart there is an improved chance you might be able to put it back together.

So how was it that these ancient saw-bones came to illuminate the field of animal biology and I think the answer may have been boredom. These large-brained individuals eventually realised that there were only so many parts of the human body that could be amputated, only so many orifices that could be peered into, and they sought stimulation n the dissection and analyses of the natural world.
Anyone in the room feeling nervous yet?

Sitting among us is a modern surgeon-naturalist – a person who has diagnosed some of the key challenges of modern marine mammal science and conservation with his clinician’s brain and developed practical cost-effective answers that have certainly changed the face of marine mammal science across the planet.

Our surgeon-naturalist practiced human medicine for almost thirty years but I suspect that his scarily capacious and capricious brain ached for more stimulation that just peering into the same old orifices.
For many in the marine mammal sphere he first came to our attention through a unique study of the memory his patients – he surveyed them for their dolphin memories - data which underpinned our understanding of the demise and recovery of the bottlenose dolphin on the Cornish coastline.

Recognising the importance of the bycatch he also moved to set up a remarkable and unusual relationship with local fishermen that has allowed practical work on bycatch mitigation to go ahead resulting most recently in the develop of a practical and robust device that we all celebrate as the banana pinger.
And here I pause to put this in some context –

In cetacean conservation, cetacean bycatch is widely recognised as the big threat and I have lost track of the meetings that I have sat through where the need to engage with fishermen has been stressed by governments or other participants (sometimes as if they just invented it themselves). Yet very few actual engagements have been achieved with them.

Finally, and most famously, our winner this year of the award diagnosed the need to develop a remote method to survey cetacean at sea that did not cost too much – a method that he continues to refine and improve – in doing this, he warped his huge brain to understand the highly technical sphere of marine acoustics and modifying the earlier work of IFAW scientists , he launched into the world a series of odd tube-like missiles. These devices - anchored in a variety of weird and wonderful ways - have come to adorn the sea bed from the poles to the equator. Their importance has been underlined at this conference have been repeated referred to at this year’s conference including their massive and successful deployment in the Sambah project.

Many of us have used them – many of us have also lost the bloody things!

These devices (the C and the T PODS) also gave their self-effacing inventor and chief mechanic the excuse to stop peering into orifices and to move to full-time to marine research. No longer would the GP on-call be found standing on the shore loading observers into fishing boats with one hand and administering aspirins with the other.  These marine missiles and passive listening devices have also earned him his famous and disturbing nick-name – many of us now know him as
THE POD –FATHER
[Evil music]

Did this notorious Cornish genius move to a life of crime to fuel his marine habit supported by the notorious Chelonia gang; did he hold up innocent passing NGOs demanding support?  Not exactly – given the importance of all that he has achieved perhaps he should have.

Ladies and gentlemen – prepare now  to make considerable and prolonged noise to call the POD FATHER the stage – door guards and student helpers block the escape routes  - students prepare to whistle and hoot your appreciation for the ECS’s own surgeon-naturalist; a man who recently described himself to me as ‘just a nerd in a cave’,  a man whose devices changed the way we view the seas and simultaneously created a new form of marine debris;  a man so modest that he may never forgive us - the great Cornish Twerker himself –

Dr Nick Tregenza, THE POD FATHER!


Standing ovation
ECS President, Thierry Jauniaux (left), presents the award

Dr Nick Tregenza - the Podfather

The ECS award


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