Jeff Paffet talks us through his expedition on Dolphins of Greece.
After an overnight stay in Athens, I make the short flight to Preveza, where I meet up with a fellow volunteer who’s driven from Italy to join the expedition.
We soon arrive at Vonitsa, on the gulf of Amvrakikos, which the expedition briefing describes as a sleepy Greek village. I live in a sleepy Greek village and this feels like a small town to me, but everything’s relative.
We meet up with Joan and the other team members at the appointed time and proceed to the project building, just a couple of minutes walk from the sea. The accommodation is basic but comfortable and much as I expected.
After some much appreciated free time to make ourselves comfortable, Christina, the research assistant, familiarises us with the hand held computer we will be using to log data while at sea. Then, after a stroll around Vonitsa to orient us, Joan and Christina cook us a great meal of pasta, washed down with some of Joan’s stash of Puglian rosé.
We rise bright and early at 6:30am and have breakfast. The weather’s not looking great, but Joan says we should be able to get out in the boat. We go down to the harbour. The sea is a bit rough, so we wait in a friendly café for about an hour while it calms.
We all clamber onto the boat, take our allotted places and leave the harbour. Amazingly within about 10 minutes we contact our first dolphins. It’s hard at first to make a disciplined call of “dolphins 30 metres at 3 o’clock” rather than “WOW” or “Over there!”, but with various threats from Joan of being thrown overboard, we soon learn.
After a rest in the afternoon, Christina starts to instruct us in the techniques of cropping the photos Joan has selected from the day; to clearly see the distinctive dorsal fins, then identifying individual animals and finally matching them to the existing database.
In the evening two of the team members cook the meal and we have a lively discussion around the table.
The weather looks better today and we make an earlier start. We soon contact a group of dolphins and stay with them for about an hour. It’s really fascinating to study dolphins over a period of time, as they feed and socialise. I think we’re starting to know the ropes now and I hope we’re being a help rather than a hindrance in the boat.
In the afternoon we do more work on the computers, then have another volunteer cooked meal before bed.
Things seem to be moving slowly on the boat for the first couple of hours and we all get a bit disconsolate. Then suddenly, everything changes. We sight dolphins and make contact with a large group. This is really great - the sea is good and we’re right in amongst them, watching them feeding. As if this isn’t enough a sea turtle swims calmly right past our boat.
We get back late and Joan gets gyros pita for lunch. Rory, our youngest member at 19, manages to eat 3 of these delicious Greek fast-food specialities! I guess the sea air can make you hungry.
In the evening we go out to a local taverna and have a great meal of meze, meat and fish. I’m pleased to see that the ouzo drinkers are drinking ouzo from Plomari on my island, Lesvos.
Our best day for spotting dolphins. I feel like we’ve seen all 150 dolphins in the gulf today, including a couple of newborn, which is particularly exciting. I also manage to get my own camera out and attempt a few shots of the dolphins; not as easy as it seems.
When we finish, Joan has to take the boat out of the water and transport it to the coast opposite the island of Kalamos, where we will be surveying tomorrow.
Of course when you see a lot of dolphins and Joan takes lots of good photographs, you know there’s a lot of work on the computers in the afternoon!
We get up very early as we want to be on the road by 7:00. Joan warns us that the chances of sighting dolphins around Kalamos are slim. Although there was a good population there until a few years ago, overfishing has unfortunately led to a collapse.
Buoyed up by the fantastic sightings of yesterday, we hope for sightings. Joan has not been here for 5 years and I know he has very mixed feelings about this return. Unfortunately our optimism does not pay off and all we see is a solitary, undersized swordfish.
For our last evening we go to another taverna, where they have cooked delicious lamb and potatoes especially for us.
Time to head home and I leave very early to catch the 6:20 bus to Athens. 6:20 comes and goes and the bus just sits in the bus station. At 6:30 somebody comes out of the office and hammers on the side of the bus, to wake the driver who has overslept in the vehicle!
Goodbye Vonitsa and the Dolphins of Greece, I hope to return and I hope Joan and the dolphins will all still be there.