Dedicated researchers perform vital work to safeguard sperm whales
In many ways, Li Songhai is the direct opposite of Captain Ahab, the vengeful captain in Herman Melville's novel Moby Dick.
Unlike Ahab, who was obsessed with hunting a giant white sperm whale, Li is outgoing, optimistic and dedicated to studying and protecting these creatures in the South China Sea.
A researcher at the Chinese Academy of Sciences' Institute of Deep-sea Science and Engineering, Li leads one of the nation's deep-sea marine mammal research teams. He said the team comprises about 20 people who are "physically, mentally and spiritually tested" by the harsh conditions for oceanic expeditions in the South China Sea.
Li's team has found that there is a good chance that the South China Sea is a nursing ground for the endangered sperm whale－the largest toothed whale in the world, which can grow to more than 15 meters in length.
The team's findings were published in April in the journal Deep Sea Research Part I: Oceanographic Research Papers, the first time it had featured a study by Chinese scientists on marine mammals.
Li said: "These expeditions are not for the fainthearted. The weather is unpredictable, the ocean unforgiving, and it is difficult to eat or sleep in our small boat due to constant seasickness.
"When the weather is good, we stand for hours on deck with our cameras and binoculars, looking for signs of sperm whales and other marine creatures."
For Li, the biggest obstacle is not the hardships at sea, but the 1 million yuan ($148,930) needed for every deep-sea expedition. Each year, his team needs to find such budgets before the ideal "expedition window" of April to August closes. Conditions in winter are too perilous for such exploration.
Despite the challenges posed by the weather, a limited budget and a lack of equipment, Li said he is happy in his work.
"We are among only a small number of people performing this type of research in China. If we were to give up, our country wouldn't know what incredible creatures exist in the depths of the South China Sea. As a Chinese scientist, I cannot accept this," he said.
Studying sperm whales and other mammals in the South China Sea is of great scientific, ecological and strategic significance for China's conservation, management and development of deep-sea biological resources in the region, Li said.