As part of our #LetHawaiiHappen charity campaign, we’re proud to be partnering with the Whaleman Foundation. Last week, we spoke with founder Jeff Pantukhoff about the Foundation’s mission, conservation work, and celebrity ambassadors.
Born in St. Louis, Missouri, Jeff Pantukhoff began his life pretty far from the ocean. At the age of 6, Jeff’s family took a trip to California, where Jeff saw the mighty Pacific Ocean for the first time. On the second day of the trip, Jeff took a trip out to Catalina Island, 26 miles off the coast of Southern California. As the boat cut through the water, dolphins began playing off the bow, and Jeff was hooked. With Jacques Cousteau as a childhood hero, Jeff seemed destined for a life tied to the ocean—eventually.
“Sometimes our childhood dreams get buried,” Jeff said during a recent interview. “My dad wanted me to be more practical and suggested I be an engineer and follow in his footsteps, so I went to the University of Missouri and got a dual engineering degree and then sold integrated telecommunications and data systems to Fortune 50 companies for 12 years.”
A change of pace
In March of 1995, Jeff visited San Ignacio Lagoon in Baja California, a gray whale mating and breeding habitat, and was captivated not just by the creatures, but the place itself. “San Ignacio is one of the most beautiful, most pristine places I’ve ever seen—one of those places time has forgotten,” Jeff said.
In San Ignacio, Jeff experienced grey whales up close—mother whales would often bring their calves right up to boats. Jeff got to know the locals, and the importance of protecting the lagoon as a gray whale mating and birthing ground. Upon finding out that the Mitsubishi Corporation was planning to build one of the world’s largest salt plants near the lagoon, Jeff decided he needed to dedicate his life to protecting our oceans and the life within them.
Many of us have dreamed of quitting our jobs to pursue our passions. Jeff did just that. After being denied a leave of absence, Jeff left his telecommunications job to bring whales and mankind together to preserve and protect our world. And so the Whaleman Foundation began its legacy of industry-and perception-changing research and conservation programs.
Upon starting the Foundation, Jeff’s most immediate concern was preserving San Ignacio. He embarked on a 2-year journey to film Gray Magic: The Plight of San Ignacio. In 1998, the film was shown at a UNESCO (United Nations Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) meeting. Tremendously moving, the film was successful in stopping Mitsubishi Corporation from building the plant.
After this success, Jeff dove into conservation work by producing several other films, launching a research program, and pioneering conservation initiatives. Subsequent films including “Orcas in Crisis” explored the plight of the Southern resident orcas who have the dubious distinction of being the most contaminated animals on the planet. “Deadly Sounds in the Deadly World” explored the deadly dangers of ocean noise pollution, including seismic surveys and military active sonars. Through these investigative films, Jeff has proved the power that storytelling has to make change.
While the Whaleman Foundation seeks to support the health of all marine life, Jeff found that whales and dolphins are some of the most relatable—and most captivating—sea life. To this point, Jeff notes that “dolphins and whales are a barometer for everything going wrong in our oceans. They’re like the canary in the coal mine.”
“I don’t think people really understand how much the things we’re doing above land correlate with our oceans. One of our biggest goals is to make that connection.” Jeff said. “Carbon emissions aren’t just affecting our air quality, but life in our oceans. If we keep going at this rate, we’re going to suffer serious consequences.”
The top 7 threats to ocean health, as defined through the Whaleman Foundation’s research, are:
- Climate Change
- Chemical Pollution
- Ocean Noise Pollution
- Loss of Prey Species
- Loss of Habitat
- Ocean Acidification
One of the programs addressing these challenges is an ongoing study in Maui, managed in conjunction with the Hawaiian Islands National Marine Humpback Whale Sanctuary. Launched in 2010, the 10-year program analyzes the health of the entire North Pacific humpback whale population by gathering full-body images of humpback whales, taken both in and out of the water—and overhead using drones.
Over 300,000 dolphins and whales are being killed by entanglement in fishing gear each year, and thus far our study shows that 32% of the North Pacific stock have been entangled at least once. “The more we look, the more we find,” Jeff said.
“With these images, we’re looking for any type of abnormality—scars from prop marks from a collision with a ship, bite marks from sharks or orcas, skin contusions caused by a virus or disease, or signs of entanglement.” Jeff explained. These abnormalities point to environmental and health concerns that affect the whales.
These findings are reported in scientific journals and are shared with fisherman, as well as with international organizations including the International Maritime Organization (IMO), International Whaling Commission (IWC), and the United Nations in an effort to reduce entanglement, ship strikes, and other human-induced mortalities.
As the Whaleman Foundation’s mission seeks to preserve our oceans and marine life for the benefit of mankind, Jeff believes in giving people the chance to experience conservation work first-hand. Eco-tours bring adventurers face-to-face with whales, dolphins, and other marine life, including sharks. During these trips, which occur in three of Jeff’s favorite locales every year, Jeff takes a small group to experience friendly gray whales in the breeding grounds in San Ignacio; to swim with wild dolphins in the Bahamas; and to snorkel with humpback whales in the Caribbean. “I feel like my tours give people a chance to truly experience nature, and most people think of it as a once-in-a-lifetime adventure,” Jeff said of the experiences.
As the only paid employee of the Whaleman Foundation, Jeff works hard to ensure that funds donated to the Foundation go directly to supporting its conservation projects and research efforts like the program in Maui. A dedicated board and group of loyal supporters help amplify and drive the mission of the Whaleman Foundation—including celebrities like Hayden Panettiere, Pierce Brosnan, and Adrian Grenier.
Jeff was introduced to Adrian through a mutual connection, and the two immediately connected over their shared desire to protect and preserve whales, our oceans, and the natural world at large. Adrian, whose Lonely Whale foundation’s film project seeks to find the loneliest whale in the North Pacific, has been a staunch supporter of the Whaleman Foundation, helping to raise money and awareness.
“Some celebrities put their names behind things they’re not really passionate about to try improve their brand,” Jeff said. “Adrian really believes in this cause and shared mission, and it shows.”
In 2017, Adrian will join two supporters for a whale watching trip with Jeff on the Whaleman Foundation’s research vessel based in Southern California, illustrating his desire to educate and inspire, fostering the next generation of Whaleman Foundation and Lonely Whale advocates. There’s one more week to enter for a chance to join Adrian and the Whaleman Foundation on the tour—enter here.
To learn more about the Whaleman Foundation, Eco-tours, and films, visit the website at whaleman.org.