A career helping whales and dolphins with Catarina Fonseca

Catarina Fonseca is the Researcher and Volunteer Coordinator for AIMM – Associação para Investigação do Meio Marinho / Marine Environment Research Association – in Portugal. Here she tells Conservation Careers her watery story…


Why do you work in conservation?

Since I was a child I’ve dreamed about working with dolphins. I started studying Biology after reading quite a bit about cetaceans’ ecology and behaviour, and hoped that volunteering would guide me into a career researching the kind of topics I was reading about. However, when I got my first volunteer placement working with wild dolphins, I connected more with the threats these animals faced in increasingly human-disturbed seas. Conservation became the natural way to go: I couldn’t just study the animals I loved and not try to do something to help them.

What does AIMM do?

AIMM seeks to fill a cetacean knowledge gap that exists in Portugal, especially in the south coast of the mainland, by studying the occurrence, distribution, behaviour and social composition of cetacean species in the area.

We also work in partnership with local dolphin-watching operators to help them follow the best practice guidelines that already exist, and mitigate the effects this growing industry can have on local cetacean populations.


What opportunities do you offer at AIMM for people to get involved?

At AIMM we believe in the development of a new generation of researchers so we have an internship programme running during the whole field season (from May to October). This programme is great for people who are starting out and want to learn how it all works, or those who seek more hours at sea to build their experience. I benefited directly from this programme, because I started out as an intern and ended up staying to the current day.

For the first time this year we also recruit research assistants to help us better carry out our work, and everything indicates that this will continue in the future.

Our core team works almost exclusively on a voluntary basis and we work hard to develop a complete and holistic project. However, we are all biologists so we’re always open to people from other areas of expertise who want to collaborate with us on a voluntary/part time basis.

What’s your job at AIMM?

I am the internship programme coordinator and a research and administrative assistant. I am the only person working full-time at AIMM at the moment so I help with all the work that needs to be done. During the winter my work mostly involves helping the board members with some administration tasks, and during the field season I conduct and supervise fieldwork at our station in Algarve with the interns and other research assistants.


What’s the best part of your job?

The absolute best is to be able to go out on the boats every day and spend some time with the dolphins. It is never boring because in every sighting there is always something different. These animals never cease to amaze me.

I also like very much that I get to do so much in the association and get the opportunity to try different things that push my limits. There is a lesson to be learned every day.

What’s the worst part of your job?

I suppose the part I like the least is the political side of my position. When working with different companies that are competitors there is a lot of politics involved and is not really about science anymore. But because people are as much part of the solution as they are part of the problem, politics are a fundamental part of conservation in the 21st century, and so I learn a lot from dealing with such companies.

What key steps in your conservation career you have taken?

Starting to work with AIMM was definitely important. It started out more as research but it’s turning a lot more into conservation in the past years.

Nevertheless, I would say the most decisive step in my conservation career was doing the masters in Conservation Science at Imperial College London. It really opened my horizons and taught me a lot about the work and techniques being used in conservation around the world.

What advice would you give someone wishing to follow in your footsteps?

Persevere and don’t give up. It is a hard discipline to start out and establish yourself in, because there are a lot of people trying to get into marine mammal research and conservation, but it is possible.

I find you need to be in the right place at the right time so there is a bit of luck involved but it’s mainly hard work. You need to look for opportunities and don’t be afraid to approach people and take chances. It’s scary sometimes to go somewhere you don’t know to do things you’ve never done before but you’ll learn new skills and make contacts that sooner or later will be very valuable.

Also try to keep in the loop of what is happening. Go to conferences and seminars to know what work is being done, where and by whom. It’s usually not as scary as it seems and is very useful.

What’s your favourite song?

Depends a lot of the day. I’ve been listening to Imagine Dragons a lot but one of my favourites is “Desde que o samba é samba” sang by Caetano Veloso.

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