02 June 2009
Dolphins of Greece, 21-29 May 2009
Connectedness makes me feel content, gives me hope, drives me to do and be more than I ever might otherwise—and this Earthwatch experience has been all about that, in my mind, giving me so much connection to things I have lost touch with over the years. Idealism about a better future. Curiosity about other ways of life. I see the connections better now between what happens at fisheries and what I eat from the supermarket. I understand a little more what about the connection between articles in magazines, documentaries, and public policy and what goes on behind the scenes in terms of what scientists are doing in the field.
The dedication of the staff is so inspiring. That they are also especially charming and interesting was a bonus, but I see now how that kind of openness and ability to connect with others makes them ideal for the human side of this important work. I’m sure it is a struggle for Joan to make friends with the locals, but he seems to be up to the task. Most importantly, I feel more connected to the effort to help these animals and these ecosystems.
I am now more motivated, better armed with powerful information, to take the message to friends and family and neighbours that we all have to work to solve the problem of over fishing our oceans. We can do something and we have to do something. Now. All my hopeful expectations for this trip were fulfilled. (Well... Joan never once let me drive the boat or shoot with that camera of his.... ☹. And I would not have minded seeing a loggerhead up close....) And none of that which I feared came to pass: It wasn’t too hot, I didn’t get sick on the boat (there was that one agonizing morning when I was afraid to say that I needed to fare il pee pee—hell, I was prepared to jump overboard, but thankfully this wasn’t necessary), the group dynamics were very enjoyable and enriching (I’d forgotten how much I can appreciate the energy of young people!), and we saw LOTS of dolphins doing their thing in the wild.
Personally, I was also very jazzed by the pelicans—they were like parasailers coming in for a landing, their wings are so wide. This experience has opened my eyes. I think of how I take so much for granted—eating fish whenever I want really (and I used to feel so good about that! I mean, it’s not red meat, right?), throwing my clothes in the dryer, jumping into a hot shower without a hesitation—and I am determined now that I can no longer live in this way without at the very least being mindful of my footprint. How can I make a difference, what can I do to be more conservation minded? This experience has given me some answers, some motivation, and for that I am exceedingly grateful. Thank you, Earthwatch and may I live up to my own expectations for myself now when I return to the States.
My first impression on the Zodiac - “Oh, this is what it is like to be a Somali pirate!”, but here we were not chasing boats to hijack, but rather chasing dolphins to understand them, and how they are affected by their habitat and how they adapt to its degradation. The work being done by Joan and the Tethys Research Institute is a beautiful example of how science can provide knowledge about the fascinating creatures with whom we share this globe, but also how that knowledge can be translated to affect public policy regarding the environment and the creatures who live in it. I felt privileged to be able to be a small part of that effort. Because the dolphins live at the top of the food chain (like tuna and swordfish) they can serve as a “bellweather species”, who serve as a proxy for the health of the environment (in addition to being a fascinating to watch).
What impressed me was how Joan and his colleagues have taken the information they acquire and not just turn them into publications to appear in scientific journals, but also use it to try to make a difference for both cetaceans and people alike. Their understanding covers the interrelationship between the dolphins themselves, the dolphins and their environment, and the political and cultural forces that lead to the degradation of the environment in notable. Their efforts at education, not only to the volunteers, but to the local community and to the larger public is impressive. I thought that during this trip I would learn about dolphins, but I learned so much more, especially about the ecosystems of the oceans.
I am a scientist so the process we went through everyday was new but familiar – a protocol and a procedure, different ways of coding data, and then crunching the fine detailed information to get a larger picture. But here the rewards were so tangible - sighting dolphins and being able to track them, seeing mothers with their newborn dolphins (who over the course of one small week learned to dive like an adult), and after days of struggling in which all dolphins fins looked alike, finally beginning to see distinct patterns. All of this added up to the huge satisfaction during the final day of being able to distinguish between two newborn dolphins (who we affectionately named “batboy” for his rakishly sweptback fin and “son of stubby” for his rounded fin, reminiscent of one of the adults).
And then there are the people who make this all happen. Joan has my deep admiration and respect. He clearly is a thorough and thoughtful scientist, who has a larger vision (and plan) for how his systematic scientific endeavors can have an important impact. His good humor, patience (and at times appropriate impatience), ability to communicate, knack for teaching and team building, and overall joy for life and the life of an activist scientist are infectious. And given my experience training graduate students, it was a real treat for me to watch him work with Christina – leading her, guiding her, and challenging her. And it was equally enjoyable to watch Christina as she learned the ropes, becoming more comfortable and familiar with the procedures, and also how she pushed back at Joan, asserting her independent viewpoint when appropriate, and stepping into the role of not just a student, but a partner. I admire her courage because all her mistakes and missteps were pointed out in front of a bunch of relative strangers. To retain such good humor under those conditions takes a special type of person.
And I also feel fortunate to have such good groupmates – Rory, ever so polite and considerate (with really sharp eyes and a really good way of catching the dolphins on video, although sometimes I could not understand everything he said in his thick Irish brogue) and Elah, who willingness to be open to experiences and just “be” in the world seemed a calm antidote to the chaos on board when the dolpins arrived – because they made the trip all the more special. I have learned so much in these past 9 days, and I am already thinking of the ways that I might build on what I have experienced to try and make a difference.
I was looking forward to being the first volunteer to participate in the program twice, but i was beat to the punch by the very lovely volunteer, Elah, whose entry is next. This experience has truly been one to remember. This is only my first session here and I already feel as if I’ve learned enough to change my views on the way I live my life. Although I’ve never been much of a fish eater (as the other volunteers have learned from barely being able to swallow what I’m sure was delectable shrimp made by Joan) I wouldn’t soon become one. After watching many documentaries on overfishing and discussing with Joan and my fellow volunteers of the current state of our oceans, I realize that we are responsible for changing how we manage our day to day lives regarding what we consume.
I’ve had an overall fantastic experience and am glad that I get to be here for another nine days. I would also like to mention Joan. Obviously without him a program like this could never exist. It’s with enthusiams and passion that he conducts his work and manages his volunteers. I’m deeply envious that he gets to wake up every morning and do what he loves and that he is able to share his experiences with the volunteers in the hopes that they retain and pass his message along.
Before I get into the specifics of what I’ve learned during the past two session, I would just like to start off by saying that this has been a truly amazing experience. Aside from being able to go out and see dolphins every day (albeit, every day save one) there were quite a few bonuses. Never having been to this part of the country before, the volunteers were able to take in the stunning scenery with fresh eyes as well as appreciate the beautiful sight that is a newborn swimmings alongside it’s mother and a few dedicated protectors.
However, I was pleasantly surprised that as a volunteer I wasn’t solely along for the ride. I felt as if I was helping to conduct valuable research rather than being made to do useless busy work and paying for it. Instead I was granted an experience that I will be talking, if not bragging about, for years to come. Although I specifically chose this program because it was in Greece and specialized in dolphins, during my first session there were two Earthwatch employees here as well. One who chose this project because she is a marine biologist, and the other who was randomly assigned to this program. Just after one day, it became quite obvious that the latter had gotten just as into it as me; a life long, die-hard dolphin fan.
Aside from going out on the inflatable each day, we were granted a significant amount of free time which, for me was mainly devoted to napping. However, I was pleasantly surprised by all the other little activities made available to us by this quaint town. Aside from sleeping, I had the option of taking walks to mini island, grabbing a beer or coffee with the other volunteers or just plain lazing about on the beach. I got a wicked nice tan if I do say so myself. Aside from that I would like to say that this situation is quite neat. The other volunteers, Marie, Laura and Rory and Christina, Joan’s research assistant, are amazingly nice and are here for the same reason I am; to learn about dolphins in their natural habitat and the threats the oceans face (Joan can answer any question posed to him), and just enjoy my time doing something I love in a fantastic environment.
I also want to throw out there that in the past twenty days (for me), I’ve eaten some of the best food in my life. As well as experienced the best coffee. After each little excursion, as I’m sure others have been privee to, we stopped for coffee at the same restaurant where Joan knows everyone and had the fabulous cafe freddo. And no offense to the dolphins as they are majestic creatures, but the coffee, I believe is a note worth ending on.