We were lucky to catch up with Stefan Dr Harzen recently and have shared our conversation below.
Stefan, thanks for joining us, excited to have you contributing your stories and insights. Risk taking is something we’re really interested in and we’d love to hear the story of a risk you’ve taken.
I grew up in Germany, and when I was in high school, I contemplated three career paths: brain surgeon, commercial pilot, and marine mammal scientist studying wild dolphins. While all three were fascinating and promising, it was the adventures Jacque Cousteau and Hans Hass portrayed in their films about the underwater world that made me decide to pursue a life of studying dolphins.
Not surprisingly, that did not seem like a wise choice to my parents who were born in the early 1930s, had experienced WWII and the very challenging years of poverty and hunger that followed. They believed that pursuing a career for which jobs were readily available was of tantamount importance; first, to ensure I could provide for my own future family, and secondly, so I would have a pension once I reached retirement age. They figured, there is still plenty of time then to do everything else.
These were very compelling arguments because there absolutely no jobs at all for a dolphin scientist in Germany at the time.
My mind set however, was different. I did not want to wait but follow my passion right then and there. I was longing for the adventures that could come from studying wild dolphins: traveling and living in foreign climes, learning new languages, and meeting new people.
The path I chose was littered with great risks, but we all see what we want to see, and being just 19 years old, I simply did not know what I did not know.
And so, I went off to attend the University of Bielefeld in Germany, got to travel to the many countries in Europe and the U.S. while still an undergraduate, and then started my own research project in Portugal. My work on the social organization and habitat use of the last local resident bottlenose dolphin population in the country led first to my Master’s, and then to my Ph.D.
Financing all this was the greatest challenge and quickly realized that fundraising is a prerequisite to being a free-lanced dolphin scientist. I was fortunate to have some mentors who raised and donated most of the money, and a bank in Germany that would provide small loans which I would pay back working nightshift in a publishing and printing company.
In a strange twist of fate, I also landed a job with AutoEuropa, a joint venture of Volkswagen and Ford Automotive, who refused to donate any funds but offered me a job to analyze their solid waste management system instead.
Little did I know that this assignment would jumpstart a second career as an environmental consultant and advisor, which would take me to manufacturing facilities in Brazil and led me to become an Adjunct Professors with the Environmental MBA program at Florida Atlantic University years later.
Once I arrived in Florida, I founded The Taras Oceanographic Foundation, a 501-c-3 charitable organization to pursue my dolphin conservation research career, and Blue Dolphin Research and Consulting, Inc. to continue to consult and advice businesses and their leaders on sustainability issues and how to prepare for the future.
And more recently, I created Palm Beach Jupiter Dolphin Tours so people of all walks of live have an opportunity to experience conservation research in action and be a dolphin scientist for a day.
Looking back on my life, it is clear I chose a very risky path. As Charles Luckman said, success is that old ABC: ability, breaks and courage. I would add ‘perseverance’ which, in my case, comes from the passion I bring to everything I do, and a never-ending curiosity and desire to learn things I do not know or have not done yet.
Awesome – so before we get into the rest of our questions, can you briefly introduce yourself to our readers.
I run three businesses that are all related to each other: The Taras Oceanographic Foundation, Blue Dolphin Research and Consulting, and Palm Beach Jupiter Dolphin Tours.
The Taras Oceanographic Foundation
I co-founded the Foundation with my wife in 1998 to pursue our dolphin conservation research (aka Palm Beach Dolphin Project) and deliver a couple of edu-tainment programs aimed at increasing awareness about the threats dolphins and the oceans face, and educating the next generation of dolphin and ocean enthusiasts and stewards:
Palm Beach Dolphin Project
Working under National Marine Fisheries Service permit, we explore the life history, behavior, habitat use, social lives, and communication of wild dolphins. In addition to gathering critical baseline data, we shed light on how the health of these top predators, and the conditions of the natural resources they depend upon, directly and indirectly, impact our own health and well-being.
This project offers wonderful opportunities for young aspiring scientists to take their first steps exploring dolphin and ocean science.
Meet the Scientist Lecture Series
This program promotes the pursuit of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics and encourages communication between scientists and residents of the communities in which they live and work.
All lectures are open to the public and free.
Oceans of Notes Concert Series
Our long-running concert series connects the experience of live music performances with educating the public about our important dolphin and ocean conservation work. Science and music are closely related. It is the interaction of sounds, tempo, and pitch that creates music, just as facts and knowledge, combined with imagination and conjecture produces new scientific discoveries.
All concerts are open to the public and tickets priced at levels that are affordable across all household incomes.
Ocean Sentinels Club
Our Ocean Sentinels Club is proof that conservation can be fun, rewarding, and effective. The Club unites and empowers citizens to advocate for the conservation of dolphins and the marine environment across Palm Beach County, and beyond.
We offer student, individual member, and corporate memberships
Blue Dolphin Research and Consulting, Inc.
Realizing that as scientists we do have a responsibility to help translate scientific knowledge into practical solutions, I created the company in 1997 with the mission to provide our clients with detailed and accurate science-based information that enables them to make informed and sensible decisions.
Our multi-disciplinary expertise includes GIS-based spatial and environmental analysis, green technology, resilience, and sustainability. Among other things, we perform baseline environmental assessments and environmental and spatial analysis of terrestrial, wetland and marine habitats, assist with real estate, tourism and land use planning and design, create natural resources management tools such as beach and coastal management plans, and assess green technology applications.
Specifically, we assist our clients with GIS tools and high accurate maps to identify opportunities and restraints of land use and (tourist) development projects, the identification, analysis and application of green technologies and resilience-enhancing design solutions, including the solid waste management sector, and the development, implementation and reporting of sustainable business practices.
With projects becoming increasingly more complex and multidisciplinary, the importance of research in setting new benchmarks and delivering better performance outcomes for all stakeholders is also intensifying. We help convert research knowledge into designs without restraining the creative process whilst producing better, measurable design outcomes.
Palm Beach Jupiter Dolphin Tours
Having studied dolphins for more than three decades and having delivered thousands of lectures and presentations along the way, I have come to recognize that nothing is as profound in changing people’s attitudes and behaviors that a personal encounter with wild dolphins.
And so, in 2017 I launched Palm Beach Jupiter Dolphin Tours to provide people of all walks of live with the opportunity to watch wild dolphins up close.
Our unique tours are wind-in-your-hair-style adventures following wild dolphins along our shores. Authentic, recreational, fun, engaging and informative, our personalized tours will create memorable and transformative experiences. During our dolphin tours we collect important scientific information about our local dolphin population, providing you with the unique opportunity to experience conservation research in action and be an active participant as a Citizen Conservation Scientist.
Our bona-fide dolphin scientists and certified dolphin naturalists will interpret dolphin and wildlife sightings, while our licensed captain will maneuver the boat for prime viewing. Together, they will answer all your questions and share what they know, including some personal stories.
We are climate conscious, dedicated to sustainability principles, and proud of delivering carbon neutral dolphin tours. We are committed to dolphin and ocean conservation and the net revenues are used to finance the important work of the Taras Oceanographic Foundation. Over time, I hope to grow the tour business to a point where it can fully fund the general operation of the Foundation, significantly reducing the resources currently spent on fundraising.
Can you tell us about a time you’ve had to pivot?
When I was studying dolphins in Portugal as part of my Ph.D., raising money to fund the research was part of my responsibility. One large potential donor was a joint venture of Volkswagen and Ford Automotive, called AutoEuropa, led by two Directors: one German, one American.
While the German was willing to make a substantial contribution, his American counterpart was not. After months of going back and forth, the German Director suggested I conduct a solid waste management project for him with the guarantee of a very nice pay that would help fund my dolphin research. It was obviously something he could decide on his own.
It was a first time anyone I was confronted with such a choice, and it required a pivot from being a fundraising scientist to an environmental consultant. At the end it did not take me long to decide. I took the job, both Directors loved it, it helped pay for my research in Portugal, and launched a second career as a consultant and advisor, which I have maintained in parallel to my dolphin conservation research for more than 30 years now.
Can you tell us the story behind how you met your business partner?
As scientists we attend national and international conferences, and we learn from others and initiate collaborative projects. As a result, I found myself as a guest on a large catamaran in the Bahamas studying wild Atlantic spotted dolphins with a colleague. The 10-day trip ended with a dinner, and it was there that I first my wife and partner Barbara J Brunnick, who was about to start her work as a research assistant with my colleague. We met again several months later at the Society of Marine Mammalogy conference in Galveston, Texas. The rest is, as they say, history.
She came to visit me at my research site in Portugal a few months later, we started to collaborate and support each’s others work and she is the reason that I eventually left Portugal and moved to the US. We got married in 1998 and together founded the Taras Oceanographic Foundation in the same year. We have been working together ever since.
Along the way, we wrote two books and many articles, and delivered countless speeches and presentations. We have been working on environmental issues, generated a new generation of maps that is changing how we see the world, and continue to help designers and planners to create better communities and tourism destinations.
We became Fellows of the world-renowned Explorers Club in New York and served as the co-leaders of an Explorers Club Flag Expedition in the Caribbean, creating a new generation of coral reef maps. In recognition, we were included in the pages of ‘Adventurous Dreams, Adventurous Lives’, together with 120 other outstanding individuals of the Club, including Apollo astronaut Buzz Aldrin and balloonists Bertrand Piccard, representing a Who’s Who of international exploration.
- Website: www.taras.org
- Instagram: tarasfoundation
- Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/stefan.e.harzen/
- Linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/in/drstefanharzen/
- Twitter: tarasfoundation
- Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCb9tUWc1ASKBGXq1Mh_iMpQ?view_as=subscriber
- Other: www.palmbeachdolphintours.com https://www.facebook.com/The-Taras-Oceanographic-Foundation-176195255092 https://www.facebook.com/palmbeachproject https://www.facebook.com/PalmBeachJupiterDolphinTours
Drs. Stefan Harzen & Barbara Brunnick, Taras Oceanographic Foundation