Some individuals approach our boat, and the team becomes very excited as a few begin to bow ride, turning on their sides as they approach to get a better look at us looking at them.
Dolphins of the Ionian Sea
Team 1, Day 7
It is mid-April in Vonitsa, a very quaint village on the southern shore of the Amvrakikos Gulf. We have been surveying the Gulf for five days and have sited dolphins in groups ranging from two to six, but the sea conditions have been quite temperamental. Above sea state 3 it is very difficult to spot emerging dorsal fins with the naked eye. However, today we head out in our NovaMarine RIB at 08.30 hrs to our most easterly transect in glass-like waters with the sun shining over the mountainous landscape.
Seconds after reaching our transect starting point, Silvia Bonizzoni, Research Team Member, shouts "OUT, 11 O'CLOCK!" A dorsal fin has been spotted approximately 100 metres from our boat. The PI, Joan Gonzalvo, takes a GPS reading of the first sighting and then approaches the dolphin spotted. The team gets prepared to start recording data. Marisa, HSBC fellow from Brazil, has the electronic NetPad ready to start inputting dolphin behaviour; Helen, US volunteer, is handed the stopwatch to try and time the longest dolphin dive; her daughter Jena, and I are positioned to spot any other surfacing dolphins and Marcia, another HSBC fellow from Brazil, is ready to log our GPS location every minute.
At closer range we spot many dolphins; "OUT, 3 O'CLOCK - TWO," "OUT, 7 O'CLOCK - FOUR," "OUT 12 O'CLOCK - THREE ADULTS, ONE JUVENILE." We are quickly surrounded by these beautiful creatures and the team tries its best to estimate a total group size, but struggles to stay with our focal group, as the dolphins merge in and out of clusters. We estimate over 30, mostly adults but we also spot some juveniles and calves. Some fins are easily recognisable, with many nicks or clear white markings. Silvia and lead PI, Giovanni Bearzi, have been studying these dolphins for five years and easily recognise some of them as they emerge. Dolphins with very distinctive marks have been given nicknames, such as Pita, who has had the tip of his dorsal fin chopped off, and Elikas (meaning propeller in Greek), who has a large gash behind its dorsal fin from having had an accident with a boat propeller, possibly from bow riding.
The timer rings after five minutes and it is time to start recording the dolphins' behaviour. Some surface feeding is happening, which explains the large flock of seagulls crying above our heads. The gulls often follow the dolphins and therefore can act as good indicators when surveying for cetaceans. Some individuals approach our boat, and the team becomes very excited as a few begin to bow ride, turning on their sides as they approach to get a better look at us looking at them. In the distance, some are leaping great distances out of the water together, and occasionally we see and hear what they call "percussive behaviour," as they flop on their sides against the ocean surface. With so many dolphins it is hard to keep up with all of the interactions and activity.
Throughout the hour of recording behaviour and counting group size, Joan has been busy capturing photo-ids of the dolphins. There is a real art to capturing that perfect picture. The light has to be right, there can't be too many splashes to hide the markings of the fins, and the best shot is when you catch the dolphin leaping with dorsal fin and belly in view, so that you are able to sex the animal later. You can never tell if you have taken the perfect shot until you analyse the photos when you return, so Joan continues to photograph all emerging fins and finishes with 210 images.
We stop the survey at 12.00 hrs and start to return back to base. The next step (after lunch) is to crop all of the photos and try to match them against an existing catalogue of individuals. This can be a time-consuming task, but well worth the effort when you are able to identify a dolphin you saw today.
The day ends with a delectable dish prepared by the Brazilian fellows, as well as some authentic Greek wine and sweets.
We have another early rise tomorrow at 07.00 hrs so everyone heads to bed and falls asleep listening to the friendly local Greek villagers enjoying their small town night life on a Saturday night. It is hard to believe that there is only one more survey day left.
Jen Alger is Program Manager with Earthwatch Europe. She participated on team 1 of Dolphins of Greece (formerly known as Dolphins of the Ionian Sea) in April 2006.