27 December 2008

Dolphins, Photography and Dreams

A recollection

Back in my twenties, when I was moving my first steps as a cetology geek, I was assigned the task of recording cetacean sightings at sea by Giuseppe Notarbartolo di Sciara, who was my thesis co-advisor. ‘Find a boat and report what you see’, he said. Little was known back then - it was 1986 - about the distribution and ecology of whales and dolphins in the Mediterranean Sea. So I managed to embark on board a mid-size oceanographic ship and set out to defy my own seasickness, looking for dorsal fins and flukes from the upper deck of R/V ‘Bannock’, together with my colleague Benedetta Cavalloni.

Our very first cruise brought us to the Sicily Channel, where on the second day at sea I made one of my best sightings ever. A mixed group of nine common dolphins and one bottlenose dolphin came to ride the ship’s bow for a relatively long time. We had seen a school of striped dolphins on the previous day, but that event has faded in my memory. The early mixed Delphinus / Tursiops group, however, was not going to be forgotten.

The large bottlenose dolphin behaved as the leader and immediately positioned himself right in front of the bow, enjoying the pressure wave generated by the fast-moving ship and not allowing any of the smaller common dolphin group members to gain his apparently privileged position.

For some reason I had loaded a roll of black & white film but I soon realized that this wasn’t a good way of capturing such a colourful moment. I quickly got rid of those photos and inserted a roll of colour slides into my Pentax LX all-manual reflex camera.

Then the magic started. The morning light was beautiful and sharp, the dolphins lively and playful. Common dolphins were swimming fast on both sides of the ship, leaping at unison in golden water spry, gliding in the deep-blue water and showing their ochre-coloured flanks and amazing grace. I was absorbed by the difficult task of aiming, focusing and setting appropriate shutter speeds, but fully aware that I was shooting extraordinary photos. My first good photos of any cetacean species in the wild, something I had been dreaming about for years. I was there, eventually, and the beauty of the moment transcended my expectations.

At frame number 36 I was ready to change roll, but my camera kept going. At 38 I started worrying a little, but I had been hand-rolling my film and it wasn’t unusual to get a few additional photos. After frame number 40 I grew really nervous. What the hell was going on there? All the beauty disappeared and a thick fog filled my eyes. I kept shooting like a madman, telling myself that the roll was about to end, but it did not. In my hurry, I had failed to insert the tip of the film deep into the slit of the manual winder drive, and no image could be exposed. The camera had been shooting on idle. I opened the camera back and frantically tried to re-insert the roll, but the sighting was over. All the dolphins had left and even the morning light now looked kind of grey.

Some months later, Benedetta and I were invited to present our work to a public of specialists at the Milan Natural History Museum. These included Giuseppe Notarbartolo di Sciara, the eminent cetacean expert Luigi Cagnolaro and two scientists who had been pioneering field research on cetaceans in the Ligurian Sea: Michela Podestà and Luca Magnaghi. I was proud to be given an opportunity to report on our exploratory cruises and show the photos and data we had been collecting in the central and eastern Mediterranean. Unfortunately, that was my first public presentation and I felt overly nervous and uneasy. I desperately wanted to show that Benedetta and I had done a good job, but I was much too anxious for making a good impression to anyone. At the end of the slide show, after my disappointing talk, someone from the floor asked if we really had sighted common dolphins, particularly in a mixed group. A sighting of this species turned out to be an infrequent record, even back in the mid 80s. Could I project any slide to confirm our identification?

That was a moment of panic. As I was too ingenuous to find a clever excuse, I ended up confessing my technical mistake with stammering words, something that made me feel ridiculous and unfit. I cannot tell whether mouths really curved into ironic smiles and heads started shaking, or it was just my imagination. I felt horrible anyway. I had been unable to document an important sighting. I couldn’t even manage to use my own camera. Did I stand any chance to ever become a cetacean scientist?

Afterwards, Giuseppe asked me to show him the black & white photos and although these were no Bob Talbot’s, the identification of dolphins in the mixed group was unquestionable. At least our credibility was ok, but that whole experience was going to leave a lasting shade... in my dreams.

Since then, I have been regularly dreaming of extraordinary sightings: orcas swimming up a river, hundreds of dusky dolphins socializing in a beautiful sandy lagoon, sperm whales performing spectacular behaviours meters away from my boat. I was there with my camera, all excited for this opportunity to document something special, but unable to take a single photo. Have you ever experienced difficulty to walk or run in a dream, your legs suddenly turned into lead? I had a similar feeling about taking photos of the animals, and it felt painful.

Eventually, after many years, this kind of dreams stopped bothering me. Perhaps I managed to overcome my frustration, or alternative frustrations and nightmares came to replace that particular one. Today I can laugh at my early experience and tell myself that I should have set aside the camera to simply enjoy the wonderful sighting.

Giovanni Bearzi © 2008

17 December 2008

Are bottlenose dolphin daughters smarter or just more diligent than sons?

Back in 1997, researcher Rachel Smolker and colleagues studied bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops sp.) in Shark Bay, Western Australia, and they noticed that some females often carry sponges on the tips of their rostrum.

At that time they suggested that this behaviour was the first example of tool use by dolphins. Sponges might protect the cetacean that is searching for food on the seabed from the spines and stings of animals such as stonefish and stingrays.

Now, researcher Janet Mann found out that while mothers show both their male and female calves how to use sponges, female calves seem to be more interested in this behaviour than males. ‘The daughters seem really keen to do it, they try and try, whereas the sons don’t seem to think it’s a big deal and hang out at the surface waiting for their mothers to come back up’.

Researchers are still not sure why only part of the females' population is involved in this activity and why most of the ‘spongers’ are females. They are also trying to understand if this behaviour may have evolutionary and other benefits.

Silvia Bonizzoni

Photo: Amanda C. Coakes

For more information:
Mann J., Sargeant B.L., Watson-Capps J.J., Gibson Q.A., Heithaus M.R., Connor R.C., Patterson E. 2008. Why Do Dolphins Carry Sponges? PLoS ONE 3(12): e3868. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0003868

Smolker R.A., Richards A., Connor R., Mann J., Berggren P. 1997. Sponge-carrying by Indian Ocean bottlenose dolphins: possible tool-use by a delphinid. Ethology 103: 454–465.


16 December 2008

Urgent action is needed to save Mediterranean common dolphins

A week after representatives of 110 governments met in Rome at the 9th Conference of the Parties of the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS) to discuss better protection for migratory species around the globe, conservationists and scientists call for urgent action to prevent the Mediterranean common dolphin from regional extinction. The issue was addressed during the International Summit on the Mediterranean Environment held in Crete, Greece, last week and organised by Essence Consulting with the support of the Hellenic National Commission for UNESCO and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in the context of the “Year of the Dolphin”.

Greek authorities, conservationists, scientists and representatives of the artisanal fisheries sector met to discuss immediate measures to avoid the complete eradication of common dolphins and other endangered marine mammals. In 2003, Mediterranean common dolphins have been listed as Endangered in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Animals. This species is also listed in the CMS Appendixes I and II and protected by ACCOBAMS, the Agreement on the Conservation of Cetaceans of the Black Sea, Mediterranean Sea and Contiguous Atlantic Area. However, no concrete action has been taken so far to protect these animals. As a result, the conservation status of common dolphins is now more alarming than ever.

According to representatives from OceanCare and WDCS, the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, who participated in the Summit held in Crete, immediate management action can prevent a further decline of Mediterranean common dolphins, but Governments must act before it is too late for a species that - despite its name - is becoming less and less common.

The situation is particularly worrying in Greece, particularly in the waters east of Lefkada and around the island of Kalamos, where common dolphins decreased from 150 to only 15 animals over the past ten years. For this reason, a Call for Action to save the last common dolphins around Kalamos was launched by 13 regional and local NGOs and was endorsed by the Summit in Crete. This species is also declining in the Gulf of Vera, Spain. In the northern Adriatic Sea, common dolphins were abundant until the 1960s, but they have now completely disappeared.

The main factor thought to be causing the decline of common dolphins is reduced availability of their prey caused by excessive fishing pressure. Mortality in fishing gear, particularly driftnets, is another major source of concern. Conservationists and scientists demand concrete management action by the Governments, especially to reduce fishing pressure and enforce existing legislation.

“Scientists and conservationists spend much of their life frantically writing documents and recommendations, but little or nothing happens in the real world. Is paper, and then more paper, all that governments really want from us? When will the time for action come?” declared Giovanni Bearzi, President of the Tethys Research Institute and one of the leading experts of common dolphins.

(Press release by WDCS and OceanCare)

05 December 2008

Stop hunting Faroese pilot whales (they aren't safe for human consumption!)

Every year, photos of the pilot whales slaughter in the Faroe Islands are shown in various web sites to condemn the barbarity of this activity.

Every year Danish and Faroese officers reply by claiming that whaling is part of their culture and a fully sustainable tradition.

While NGOs and private citizens have long been trying to stop this practice, advocating respect for highly-evolved marine mammals, their efforts so far have been unsuccessful. However, now there may be a new reason to stop slaughtering pilot whales.

Faroese chief medical officers have recommended that pilot whales no longer be considered safe for human consumption, simply because their meat and blubber contain too much mercury, PCBs and DDT.

Silvia Bonizzoni and Giovanni Bearzi




Danish officers' reply to a complaint:

Dear Sir
The Danish Foreign Ministry has received your letter where you express your feelings caused by some pictures circulating on the internet depicting selected scenes from the catching of pilot whales in the Faroe Islands. We take note of the fact that a number of people find the above mentioned pictures disturbing. However, before passing any judgment upon whaling in general or the Faroese pilot whale drive fishery in particular one will need to supplement a possibly negative aesthetic first hand impression with considerations of a number of issues such as:
· General principles regarding use of wildlife;
· Biodiversity: the effects of the catch upon the relevant whale stock;
· Principles regarding the sustainable use of ocean resources, including interdependence between marine mammals and fish stocks;
· Animal welfare issues, including comparisons of a whale hunt with other hunts of large mammals in the wild, with the treatment of farmed animals throughout their life cycle, and of animals which are regarded as a nuisance; one might even consider certain kinds of non-food-related violent treatment of large mammals, found in some cultures.
· Ethics of food production in general. Does a meal of pilot whale meat represent more or less cumulated man-made animal pain than dishes normally eaten in one’s own country?
· Ecological questions, notably the ecological footprint of different modes of meat production, including the choice between local and imported food.
· Geographic and nutritional factors, availability of alternative food sources, notably in islands and remote coastal areas, not least in arctic or sub-arctic parts of the world.
· Cultural diversity, and tolerance/intolerance towards people with different food preferences and/or different attitudes towards different animals;
The Faroe Islands have autonomy within the Kingdom of Denmark. The islands are not included in Denmark’s membership of the European Union. Affairs regarding industry, agriculture, the environment, fishing and whaling, are subject to Faroese autonomy. If you want to address the Faroese authorities regarding pilot whaling, the e-mail address of the Foreign Department of the Faroese Government is mfa@mfa.fo; The e-mail address of the Faroese department of Fisheries and Maritime Affairs is fisk@fisk.fo;
If you, before forming your own finite opinion of the subject, or before addressing the relevant authorities, should be interested in acquiring some factual knowledge about whaling in the Faroe Islands, you may turn to the homepage on whaling of the Faroese authorities:

Kind regards,

04 December 2008

A new bottlenose dolphin species?

Two species were already included in the genus Tursiops: the common bottlenose dolphin T. truncatus and the Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphin T. aduncus. Now a third species has been described in the waters off southern Australia.

This dolphin looks like the Indo-Pacific species, but genetically it is very different and according to the authors who published this finding it should be classified as a separate species.

Researchers from the Marine Mammal Research Group of Macquarie University, Sidney, say that this species is quite closely related to the Fraser's dolphin Lagenodelphis hosei, which lives in deep waters mostly in the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

The suggested common name of this ‘newborn’ species would be Southern Australian bottlenose dolphin, but a scientific name can only be given after a formal description.

It remains to be seen whether this species will be formally and unanimously recognized by the scientific community.

Silvia Bonizzoni

Möller L.M., Bilgmann K., Charlton-Robb K., Beheregaray L. 2008. Multi-gene evidence for a new bottlenose dolphin species in southern Australi. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 49(2):674-681.

Photo from Macquarie University

For more information:

02 December 2008

Sousa still struggling

The unique Indo-Pacific humpback dolphin (Sousa chinensis) found in the strait between Taiwan’s western coast and Hong Kong has long been suffering hardship.

The west coast of Taiwan spans a sea of ‘industrial parks’, which have been seen to dump their waste runoff directly into the adjacent coast. Unfortunately, the adjacent coast also houses Sousa sightings. With seafood occupying the majority of the Taiwanese food market, the coastline and the surrounding waters of Taiwan are also filled with a variety of nets including gill nets and large driftnets.

This harsh environment leaves little chance for the declining numbers of these dolphins who are believed to be less than 90 individuals and, thanks to a recent study from Dr. John Wang, are a distinct population from that of Hong Kong.

Local marine biologists, NGOs and international scientists are working hard to help these remarkable mammals to recover but the way seems to be long. Only a few months ago, this dolphin was listed by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) as ‘Critically Endangered’, the most serious category of threat before extinction!

We hope that the endangered declaration will increase pressure on the Taiwanese government to protect the dolphins' habitat. But this is not enough, much more must be done quickly to help stabilize and eventually bring the Sousa population back to stronger numbers.

Shiva Javdan

Photo from csiwhalesalive.org

For more information:
IUCN Red List - Sousa chinensis
Taiwan Sousa blogspot