INGRID VISSER
Marine biologist
1966

World-leading expert in Orca whales and animal welfare advocate

Dr Ingrid Visser was studying at the Leigh Marine Laboratory, north of Auckland, when someone shouted something that would come to define the rest of her life.

"Orca", came the call, and Visser set off with her mask, snorkel and fins for a transformative personal encounter with the ocean animals.

"It gelled in my mind that this was what I wanted to be doing," Visser, 52, once recalled.

Her long association with orca may have even stretched back further, to the childhood years she spent sailing the oceans on her parents' ketch.

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The marine biologist would go on to found the Orca Research Trust, write several books and publish research that detailed orca in New Zealand waters for the first time and helped classify their conservation status as "nationally critical".

She was the first person in the world to discover that orca fed on stingrays.

Today, there remain only a few hundred orca in New Zealand and Visser has named many of them - something she's sometimes drawn flak for.

If there's an orca sighting reported on the news, it's typical that our only orca specialist will front up for the cameras.

While New Zealand orca made more approaches to humans than anywhere else in the world, that friendly behaviour sadly led to a high number of orca strandings and the subsequent rescues.

"There's lots of intimate human contact - and it's traumatic for those involved," Visser recalled previously.

"The empathy people have towards stranded whales manifests itself in such a way that the animals can understand that people are trying to help them.

"It's like someone at car accident who doesn't speak English. Humans are a soothing voice and an arm.''

Away from our shores, Northland-based Visser once worked with the team that released Keiko - star of the Free Willy movies - and co-founded an effort to liberate wild orca Morgan from a Spanish theme park.

Everything she earns goes back into her trust, which is run as a not-for-profit charity.
As she says: "It's my life and what I do.''