La Rochelle, France (7 jours/7)

Our history

At the origin: a naturalist passion

The PELAGIS Observatory is a Joint Unit of the CNRS and La Rochelle University, in partnership with the Ministry in charge of ecology. It results from the merger in 2011 of the monitoring activities of mammal and seabird populations carried out for nearly 50 years in La Rochelle by the Centre de Recherche sur les Mammifères Marins (CRMM) and in Chizé by the CEBC (Centre d’Etude Biologique de Chizé, CNRS / La Rochelle University).

This observatory is part of the history of natural sciences in La Rochelle. The interest of scientists in the wonders of nature in the 18th century led to the creation of cabinets of curiosities in several European cities. In La Rochelle, the cabinet of Clément Lafaille (which can be visited at the Natural History Museum) is the beginning of a long tradition of La Rochelle naturalists. By bequeathing his collection to the City of La Rochelle, Lafaille initiated the creation of the La Rochelle Museum in 1791. Regular bequests in archaeology, mineralogy, zoology and botany followed, making this provincial museum one of the most important in France.

In 1961, a new curator was appointed at the head of the Museum’s collections: Dr Raymond Duguy. A doctor and great naturalist, he arrived in La Rochelle and discovered the sea. Fascinated by snakes and curious about life, he became interested in the coastline and marine mammals during a mass stranding of pilot whales on the island of Yeu in 1963. He then identified the strandings as a wonderful opportunity to study these animals. He then began to set up a network of observers to record strandings along the Atlantic coasts. The National Stranding Network was officially created in 1972 by an agreement between the Museum of Natural History in La Rochelle and the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, and it still exists today.

At the same time, Raymond Duguy created the Oceanographic Museum in La Rochelle (1972) to develop collections and research on the marine world and share this knowledge with the public. He hired technicians and, in the 1980s, supervised the first thesis students working on the reproduction and feeding of marine mammals. At the time, these fields were little studied in France and the Centre de Recherche sur les Mammifères Marins (CRMM) was a pioneer.

In 1992, Dr. Duguy retired. Anne Collet succeeded him until 2000. The CRMM lives thanks to subsidies from the City, which has just created its university (1993). In 1996, the city encouraged the CRMM to get closer to the University and to diversify these sources of funding. This will be done in 2001 with a new director, Vincent Ridoux, who thanks to European projects, the support of the Ministry in charge of the environment and collaborations with the University of La Rochelle opens a new era for the association created by Raymond Duguy.

The CRMM has been part of the University of La Rochelle since 2004 and the quality of its collections allows the development of research activities on marine mammals in the newly created framework of LIENSs, an interdisciplinary laboratory dedicated to the study of the coastline (Littoral, Environnement et Sociétés ). In 2011, the CRMM will evolve once again. It becomes a Joint Service Unit under the dual supervision of the CNRS and La Rochelle University.

It is now called the PELAGIS Observatory and takes its present form. The Observatory is in charge of monitoring the state of marine mammal populations and, more broadly, the marine megafauna in order to support, in particular, the implementation of public conservation policies on these species.

The world is changing and the need to protect the oceans is becoming more pressing in civil society. European legislation on the conservation of marine mammals (Habitats, Fauna and Flora Directive; Marine Strategy Framework Directive), international agreements (International Whaling Commission; Convention on Migratory Species), the creation of the Marine Protected Areas Agency and then of the French Biodiversity Office, require data, analyses and reports on the state of marine biodiversity, a role that the Pelagis Observatory has taken on for marine mammals.

Since January 2014, the PELAGIS Observatory, together with the ‘marine predators’ team of the CEBC, forms a centre of competence of international importance for the ecology and conservation of marine predators thanks to a close collaboration between observatory, research and expertise actions.

Thus, describing, understanding and predicting the effects of environmental changes on these heritage species enables both fundamental research to be conducted and societal demands concerning the preservation of marine biodiversity to be met. Dr Duguy would be pleased with the progress made.