Michel André, a researcher ready to listen to the whales

Committed. Michel André is a committed researcher. While others defend chimpanzees, elephants or sharks, Michel is the advocate-researcher for cetaceans. A passion that traces back to when he was 11 years old: a television documentary on communication between dolphins made him switch from his chosen career path of veterinarian. Not too far off!

As no training existed to become a professional marine bioacoustician, he paved his own path. He didn’t take the set menu but rather chose à la carte: courses in biotechnology engineering at the INSA Toulouse (France, National Institute of Applied Sciences, Institut national des sciences appliqués), a masters in biochemistry and one in animal physiology at Paul Sabatier University, allways in the “pink city”, the natural one for a Toulouse native.

Armed with his degrees, in 1988 he headed to California as an assistant researcher, to study the sonar system of four dolphins in captivity. Four years later, he left the Pacific and crossed the Atlantic again to reach his destination in the Canaries, at the School of Veterinary Medicine at the Las Palmas University. Objective: understand the origin of collisions between sperm whales and ships and the impact on whale populations.

“At the time, we didn’t know that these collisions resulted in hearing problems in the cetaceans, and were the consequence of sonar pollution in the ocean,” recalls Michel André. He had initially come to the Canaries on a two-year contract and ultimately stayed for twelve. For the greatest delight of his wife, who comes from Spain, and his two daughters.

In 2003, he created the Laboratory of Bioacoustic applications (LAB, Laboratoire d'Applications Bioacoustiques) and took his entire team of biologists, mathematicians and engineers to the Polytechnic University of Catalonia, in Barcelona. A larger laboratory, with greater means and more projects. He collaborated with engineers from ENSIETA (Brest, France), with beluga whale researchers in Canada, Italian geophysicians from the European ESONET network; and even with an African orator in an attempt to decode the communication between sperm whales.

Far from being a scientist lost in theory and focused on publications, Michel André heads an international campaign to raise awareness about and encourage solutions to the sonar pollution of our planet’s waters. Always ready to listen to the complaints of whales that surface from the depths of the oceans, he developed an antenna to limit the cause of their collisions with ships - an application which received the Rolex Spirit of Enterprise prize in 2002.

Nevertheless, he is delighted to remove his “communicator” cap to go out to sea on research missions. What is his greatest memory? There are so many… “When I navigate at night while all the others are sleeping and I have the headset on, I hear the whales swimming around the boat… You feel really small but so alive. It’s an incomparable sensation.” A feeling of fullness in the middle of the vast ocean.

Last spring of 2009, Michel André embarked aboard the Antinéa foundation’s sailing ship to establish the world’s first acoustic cartography of the oceans and record “20,000 sounds under the sea.” Thus, he pursues his profession, passion and life – listening to whales.

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