MAUI DOLPHINS

While on a family trip to New Zealand in 2012, Brigitte Harbers discovered a troubling fact: there were only 55 Maui Dolphins left in the world, and the number was only getting smaller. Within a few days, she sat down with her mother (and Harbers Foundation founder) Renee, and uttered the words every parent both hopes to hear — and fears hearing — from an 11-year-old: “Mom, we have to do something.”

Remarkably, that “something” evolved into a three-year project that reinvigorated conservation efforts for the Maui Dolphin, while providing stakeholders with lasting tools to spread the word about why their efforts are so important.

One of the biggest initial problems among Maui Dolphin researchers and activists was consistency. In order to draw up the kinds of species-saving conservation plans so desperately needed, researchers require up-to-date data on how many Maui Dolphins are still alive, and where they live during any given year. But until we got involved, there simply hadn’t been enough funding to make that happen on any regular basis.

So, we partnered with research scientists at Oregon State University and Auckland University, providing them the boats, lodging, and camera equipment required to document the population over three years. (Brigitte remained actively involved throughout the process, and by single-handedly sorting through thousands of images of dorsal fins, she was able to identify multiple unique Maui Dolphins for the first time.) All that data contributed to redrawing the New Zealand Department of Conservation’s Threat Management Plan for 2018, which dramatically strengthened protections for the Maui Dolphin.

However, one of our biggest and most surprising contributions was rooted in our background as visual storytellers. We became the first organization to ever film the Maui Dolphins using drones, which did two incredible things.

First, it expanded the scope and accuracy of the count far beyond what was previously possible from the back of a boat — and, in 2021, the New Zealand government unveiled an updated conservation plan that now relies heavily on drones in the very same way we pioneered five years earlier.

Second, it generated hours of stunning footage, which served as the foundations for both governmental and grassroots activism. We produced several films for the New Zealand Department of Conservation that were used to drive awareness among both the country’s top politicians and everyday citizens, many of which never actually seen a Maui Dolphin before. But even more exciting for us, the footage itself helped the next generation of conservationists reach new audiences. We were proud to freely license it to Young Ocean Explorers, a television show hosted by teenager Riley Hathaway and her father, which aims to get more young people involved in protecting the underwater world.