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In Memoriam: Maris (Biesecker) Sidenstecker

Former U of M student cofounded ‘Save the Whales’ with her 14-year-old daughter in the ’70s.

COURTESY OF SAVE THE WHALES

THANKS TO Maris (Biesecker) Sidenstecker, who studied at the U of M from 1953 to 1954, the expression “Save the Whales” became part of the common vocabulary in the 1970s. The daughter of a traveling salesman, Sidenstucker was born in Minneapolis and grew up in Medicine Lake, Minnesota. She recently died in Monterey County, California, at 87.

After working as a legal secretary and former United Airlines flight attendant, Sidenstecker and her daughter, also named Maris, cofounded the California-based nonprofit in 1975.

“My mom always said, ‘Do something every day,” says the younger Sidenstecker, now the organization’s executive director. “Even just picking up a piece of plastic trash on a walk can save a marine animal.”

The nearly 50-year mother-daughter odyssey began in Los Angeles when Sidenstecker’s daughter, then 14, was inspired to design and print a T-shirt featuring her drawing of a blue whale, framed by the now iconic words. The duo ran a small ad in Rolling Stone magazine to offer the shirt for sale. Sales exploded, and they further spread the word by handing out handmade brochures at festivals and appearing on television.

Neither woman ever claimed to have invented the memorable call to action, but they played a key role in popularizing it and raising consciousness about whales. In the 1970s, commercial hunting threatened the existence of several species. An international ban went into effect in 1986, yet today Iceland, Japan, and Norway continue to allow whale hunting.

Under the Sidensteckers’ leadership, Save the Whales teamed with the Natural Resources Defense Council in 1994. They won a court order that stopped the U.S. Navy and National Marine Fisheries Service from conducting "Ship Shock," a five-year program of underwater detonations that would have harmed marine life.

Working with other environmental groups, Sidenstecker helped prevent the Mitsubishi corporation from expanding its salt mining operation in Mexico’s Baja Peninsula at San Ignacio Lagoon, where migrating grey whales give birth. The elder Sidenstecker also fought to save the endangered vaquita porpoise, which only lives in the Sea of Cortez in Mexico.

The Sidensteckers also created Whales On Wheels, a hands-on program taught by marine biologists that has reached more than 350,000 school children in nine states. After getting confiscated whale bones from government agencies, the elder Sidenstecker used them as teaching tools. 

“My mother was optimistic that future generations would carry on her work,” says her daughter. “She always talked about how when she was a little girl, she ran around in the woods exploring. That solidified her love of nature. When I was a child, my mother took in any stray dog or cat that came to our door. She was very compassionate, especially for animals and the underdog.”


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