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Max Bello and his team in action on the Silver Bank
Max Bello for Mission Blue

Listen: A shocking murder, a marine sanctuary and a superyacht supporting ocean research

12 April 2024 • Written by Lucy Dunn

In this week's Big BOAT Interview podcast, BOAT sat down with Max Bello, international ocean policy expert for marine action group Mission Blue, and Alexei Mikhailov, founder of Bering Yachts about a new marine sanctuary in the Dominican Republic, and the story behind how the project came about.

Protecting the environment is a dangerous occupation in Latin America. Two years ago Environment Minister Orlando Jorge Mera was murdered, shot 13 times in his office by a friend angered by Mera’s refusal to grant him an environmental permit.

"He was a well-respected politician in the Dominican Republic," recalled Max Bello, an international ocean policy expert for marine action group Mission Blue. Bello had been working with Jorge Mera on helping the DR expand its marine protected area (MPA) when he was killed. "He was passionate about the importance of protecting the environment and wouldn’t make exceptions for anyone - not even his friends. It was so sad, I actually had a call scheduled that day with him, but instead got a message from one of his colleagues telling me he’d been murdered."

Silver Bank is the world's largest breeding ground for humpback whales
Max Bello for Mission Blue

Jorge Mera’s death sent shockwaves through the peace-loving Caribbean nation – but if the crime was intended to derail the DR’s commitment to ocean conservation, it had the opposite effect. This week (April 11), Prime Minister Luis Abinader announced the expansion of their MPA. This was part of their commitment to a global ‘30 x 30’ initiative to conserve a minimum of 30 per cent of land and sea for biodiversity by 2030 – the only difference being that the DR, determined to press on in Jorge Mera’s memory, were doing it six years before anyone else in the region.

The new marine sanctuaries are the Beata Ridge, a massive underwater mountain range rich in flora and fauna south of the island and Silver Bank, a remote area in the north and home to the largest humpback whale breeding area in the world. Already designated an MPA (boats already need permits to visit the area and numbers are severely restricted), Silver Bank is now being expanded.

As preparations ramped up before the announcement, Bello led a team of seven scientists, including representatives from the Blue Marine Foundation, SeaLegacy and Blue Nature Alliance to Silver Bank to research and gather footage. As far as expeditions go, this was a routine trip - to research and fact find - bar one small difference: they would be travelling there by luxury superyacht.

Alexei Mikhailov, founder of Bering Yachts

The man behind the yacht was Alexei Mikhailov, founder of Bering Yachts, a boat building company specialising in full-displacement steel exploration yachts. He hosted Bello’s team for the four-day expedition on a fully custom 29-metre Bering B92 yacht called Papillon, lent from the Bering Charter programme.

Born in North-eastern Siberia, Mikhailov has steadily built a name for safe, sturdy and long-range liveaboard explorers which, he said, "have a capability to go to areas where other boats cannot reach." His heavy displacement boats like Papillon are perfect for an expedition like this - "for long range vessels, weight is your ally"- but despite her explorer looks, there is no doubt that she is a luxury yacht underneath. "Compared to our usual external design, Papillon looks more ‘yachty’," Mikhailov continued. "Some might even think she is made from fibreglass, however, with her steel-hull and aluminium-superstructure, she is a rugged explorer."

And Papillon proved her mettle, slicing through over four metre-high waves and battling 25 knot winds for over two days to get to Silver Bank. "When you’re in remote locations the forecasts are not that reliable and you often cannot predict the weather," Mikhailov explained. The project had so many stakeholders involved with people flying in from different locations, "there was no way to postpone it or reschedule."

Papillon proved her mettle, battling high seas to get to Silver Bank

It’s not every day a luxury yacht like this gets involved in such a key scientific project, but Mikhailov likes to think out of the box. Mikhailov and his crew were in the Silver Bank for a reconnaissance trip. He has noticed that some of his customers find it difficult to find the right crew or decide where to travel, and, as a company, Bering Yachts wants to go further than just offering technical solutions. "We want to provide very easy ownership by not only managing and maintaining our boats, but bringing purpose to the boat so that a Bering yacht is in operation most times of the year and the owner can enjoy it."

He came across Yachts For Science, an organisation which aims to connect yacht owners and crew with marine scientists, researchers and content creators. A possible collaboration would open new horizons for yacht owners who want to get off the beaten path. It would also offer an exciting, meaningful, maybe even an educational, twist to charter itineraries for Bering Charter, the shipyard's recently launched program.

"Even before we found Yachts For Science we’d been thinking about changing our way of chartering our boats. For a start, it's easier for people to make a decision when they can charter a room on a boat - so we’ve recently introduced that as a service. Then, if you can give your charter a schedule and a purpose, it's even more attractive."

Silver Bank is two days out to sea but only 10 to 20 metres deep
Max Bello

However, it wasn't all work and no play for the Bering team. While Mikhailov was talking to me from the boat, he was also enjoying the wildlife spectacle: "I'm looking right now at a dancing whale, just a few 100 yards away… it's incredible. It’s such a unique place to be. Very few boats have permits to go there and the area is very protected, so I am really fortunate to be here. It’s not your average whale watching trip where you maybe see one or two - it’s a non-stop show!"

For Bello, the Silver Bank had long been on his bucket list. "It’s like a shallow area in the middle of the ocean… you travel for a day on a vessel and then there's this area, about 10 to 20 metres deep, with very calm waters and clusters of coral that have been growing there for millennia..."

It’s a safe place for majestic humpback whales to mate, give birth and raise their babies in the shallow waters, and then take a trip 2,000 miles north for their feeding grounds. Every year from January to April, as many as 3,000 whales are thought to gather. The team analysed the water for traces of eDNA, which could tell them which species have passed through the area. They also spent time gathering footage and still photography of the wildlife they saw. "We want to show not only to the Dominican Republic people, but also to the world, what is in our seas that needs to be better protected," explained Bello.

Researchers studied the whales' behaviour
Max Bello

For Mikhailov, the trip was enlightening. "We’ve had a marine biologist explain to us about the whales' behaviours and whose voices we're hearing. I’ve learnt that they’re such gentle creatures who can feel you; you can be a few centimetres from them and even though they're 100 times bigger than you, they won’t harm you. Even the babies, they're so careful around the humans."

He is determined to cement his relationship with Yachts For Science so he can deepen his charter offering and help owners have enriched adventures on his yachts. "You know, it's just the chance to learn incredible, very condensed information coming from top scientists and top filmmakers. This is priceless; a totally memorable way to charter."

Bello is extremely grateful for Bering Yachts and Yachts For Science for helping get the project off the ground. "Missions like these are extremely expensive, extremely complicated and to have this platform that actually supports this, it's just incredible."

While it has been a resounding success, for Bello it also had a bittersweet note, with the memory of his colleague Jorge Mera not far from his thoughts. But his contribution won’t be forgotten. To honour the minister, the government decided to rename the Beata Ridge the "Orlando Jorge Mera Beata Ridge."

 "I think he would be proud of what we have achieved," concluded Bello.

The goal of Yachts For Science is to bring together yacht owners and crew with marine scientists, researchers and content creators and provide access to the oceans. It is an initiative of the Ocean Family Foundation, BOAT International, Nekton, EYOS and Arksen. Visit the website to find out more about the current projects in need of support.

Read More/How superyachts can support ocean research

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