26 January 2008
by Genevieve Johnson - earthOCEAN
As part of the series "Whales of the Mediterranean Sea", Chris and I are in Vonitsa, Greece to film bottlenose dolphins in the Amvrakikos Gulf. Giovanni Bearzi is President of the Tethys Research Institute in Italy and has studied coastal dolphins in the western Mediterranean for two decades.
It is early August and we are scheduled to meet Giovanni and researchers Joan Gonzalvo and Silvia Bonizzoni, at the dock at 7am. Giovanni and Joan run the Earthwatch program - "Dolphins of Greece".
Joan and the Earthwatch volunteers jump into one zodiac, Giovanni, Silvia, Chris and I, into another. As we head out into the Gulf, the sea surface is flat, and the town glows behind us in that golden light that makes sunrises worth waking up for.
We are looking for common bottlenose dolphins, a population that scientists from the have studied for several years. Amvrakikos supports a resident population of about 150 animals, the highest known density in the Mediterranean Sea. Bottlenose dolphins used to be regular inhabitants of most coastal areas in the Med, but human pressures have caused populations to decline and fracture. Fortunately, this is not the case in Amvrakikos, and the dolphins appear to thrive in the shallow, protected waters of this semi-enclosed basin. All we have to do now is find them!
Dolphins are unpredictable creatures and the gulf is about 400 square kilometers. The researchers usually encounter smaller groups, and we only had two days out on the water. This is not a lot of time when looking for fast moving, free ranging marine mammals; especially if you want to film them. Also, the weather can frequently be uncooperative. Wind is the enemy of all cetacean researchers and a sea surface with white caps can obscure even the closest animals. But Joan and Giovanni know the area well, and have a hunch about where the dolphins might be. If we find them early we will beat the wind that apparently blows up daily by midday. We scan the sea surface for dorsal fins and the two zodiacs separate to broaden our search area.
It doesn't take long to spot the first group of animals. We turn the bow in their direction and the dolphins slowly materialize. First just a handful, then 20, then 30. Within minutes we are in the midst of 50 dolphins, one-third of the population in the Gulf. We can't' believe our luck. Joan, Giovanni and Silvia are excited, so we now this is special, apparently, the best sighting of the season so far.
This was the last of 9 days on the water for the Earthwatch volunteers. They work side-by-side with the researchers, collecting data and taking photographs. These digital images allow the researchers to identify individual animals. Spending so many days with the dolphins means Giovanni, Joan and Silvia recognize many of the dolphins on sight, especially those with scars, nicks or scratches on their dorsal fins.
Meanwhile, with plenty of dolphins to go around, we concentrated on filming. The dolphins are very active and include adults, juveniles and calves. Some groups are feeding; others leap into the air or laze at the surface. Others are curious and approach us for a free ride under the bow. The water displaced by the boat when underway creates a pressure wave that pushes the dolphins with very little effort on their part. We have watched dolphins bow ride the heads of large whales. It is probably where they learned the skill, long before boats became a permanent fixture in their world.
Chris leans over the bow to film the dolphins. The surface is like glass and the dolphins roll and gambol, turning side on to look up at the boat. The rest of us watch as the dolphins and Chris's camera lense take a long, and very close look at one another.
For the next three hours, the outside world doesn't seem to exist. It is just the dolphins and us, together in the Gulf, and we are all exuberant.
The research team is pleased with the data collected. Of course, we are thrilled with the footage we have taken. Joan decides it is time to leave the dolphins and head back to Vonitsa for lunch, before the Earthwatch team begins downloading and collating data in the afternoon.
We reluctantly leave the dolphins; some of them taking advantage of their last bow riding opportunity for the day. We head back to port past several small islets, and swarms of seabirds. In addition to bottlenose dolphins, the gulf is also a haven for loggerhead sea turtles and birdlife, and contains some of Europe's most significant wetlands.
We arrive back in town at midday and tie up the zodiacs. We step from the world of the dolphins back onto dry land and the welcoming Greek atmosphere that permeates the now busy village.
It is always thrilling to visit areas where local wildlife still is flourishing. It's rejuvenating and reassuring to know that such places still exist, especially in the densely populated Mediterranean. Most importantly, it reminds us that we cannot afford to lose such places, or take them for granted. Instead, we can play our part in protecting the precious areas that remain. The first step is to get out there and experience these magnificent and charismatic animals in their own environment. That is when we truly understand why it's all worth protecting.
© Genevieve Johnson / earthOCEAN