As we follow our team at whale camp in Argentina studying the southern right whales, we’re reminded that it was on this beach that two young backpackers looking for adventure met the scientist who would change their lives.
In September of 1987 Iain Kerr was traveling around Argentina with Canadian buddy John Atkinson and French entrepreneur and environmental activist Jean Paul Fortom-Gouin. Jean Paul had told them about a “whale camp” in Patagonia he had heard of where whales swam just off the beach and the famous whale biologist Roger Payne lived in a primitive camp (Roger pictured above from Among Giants: A Life with Whales by Flip Nicklin). The trouble was finding it. With nothing but endless dirt tracks and no sign posts they had to drive around aimlessly in the hope they would run into it. On one lane they chanced upon a group of men holding bloody knives, all turning to check out these strangers. Being only a few years after the Falklands War, they decided to quickly make their exit. It turned out to be an estancia or sheep farm where the men were castrating the sheep.
Eventually they found the right turn and the camp, but no Roger Payne. Seeing no reason to leave this idyllic place, they set up their tents on the beach and enjoyed the view of the right whale mothers and calves. When Roger eventually showed up he may have been dismayed to find he was expected to entertain uninvited guests, so instead he put them to work. The fact that he was familiar with Jean Paul’s anti-whaling work with Greenpeace helped to break the ice (Jean Paul, previously known as “The Phantom,” pictured right chasing Australia’s last whaling fleet in 1977).
Iain Kerr was another story. A thirty-year-old free-spirited sailor and adventurer (pictured left on his sailboat), with no knowledge of the world-renowned biologist, he had no reason to do anything but speak his mind, so after observing him at work he told Roger exactly what he thought of his research methods and how he could improve them. Roger said something to the effect of, “If you think you can do better, go right ahead.” And so began a partnership that would continue for the next twenty-seven years.
John Atkinson also felt the pull of the place, the animals, and the man, and eventually found himself as the aerial photographer for the Right Whale Program for over twenty years, having just completed this year’s survey (pictured right, center). Being a full-time writer he has captured his love of the place in his novel The Old Man and the Whale.