Dolphins of Greece
Vonitsa is a tranquil, traditional village nestled within sun-drenched mountains on the stunning Amvrakikos Gulf, a virtually closed basin in Western Greece. It is home to around 150 bottlenose dolphins. Once abundant in Mediterranean waters, these extraordinary mammals were recently listed as vulnerable by the IUCN (World Conservation Union) and are now considered a species of special interest for conservation under the European Union's Habitats Directive. Threatened by pollution, tourism, fishing and intensive fish farming, they are at best facing an uncertain future.
It's 8am and our team prepares to leave the house from where we can see the water. "Great, it looks oily", says Joan, the Principal Investigator. He refers of course to the ‘sea state' and thankfully not to some kind of spillage. An ‘oily' surface is considered ‘sea state zero', and provides ideal conditions in which to conduct our research. Only today, we're hoping to complete a transect or pre-defined route in the Ionian Sea at the mouth of the gulf. "Hopefully we can avoid the Westerly" - a strong wind which creates swell once outside the gulf and can make sightings difficult.
Having already surveyed the eastern gulf from our NovaMarine RIB for two days it's fair to say that we've been incredibly privileged. We have observed bottlenose dolphins feeding and socialising at close quarters, collecting invaluable data which will be used to assess behaviour, population dynamics, habitat use and movement patterns, identify threats and provide management action aimed at the conservation of these special creatures.
Outside the gulf, we're not having half as much luck. Joan explains that in the 12 months since starting this open waters transect, the team haven't had one sighting and that he's almost conditioned himself to deal with that. "It's frustrating in May or June but you imagine being out here all winter!" A true insight as to the commitment and selflessness required in this line of work.
The concentration is intense, almost eerie, and then the silence is shattered by our French research-assistant, Malvina. "OUT AT NINE... 200 METRES!" I can't see anything and Joan himself is in disbelief. We wait... "OUT AT ELEVEN... 150 METRES!" she yells. Everybody scrambles. Joan records our location using GPS and assembles his camera with precision speed. "OUT AT TWELVE... 100 METRES!" Three, four, no five dorsal fins break the surface. The excitement is tangible. The dolphins, currently just 50m from the bow where I'm sitting are now the ‘focal group'. I take the NetPad handheld computer from Malvina and she starts the stopwatch. She'll be timing the longest dive and I'll be recording behaviour at five minute intervals. The estimate is that we have around eight or nine individuals but within minutes we count approximately 20 adults, two juveniles and one calf.
Joan's camera is working overtime as the dolphins surface, capturing the dorsal fin that is unique to each individual and critical in matching these ‘new guys' to the existing catalogue. Seagulls and rare Shearwaters indicate that something is afoot and we record their presence. It's feeding time and the birds are exploiting the situation as our focal group work together using echolocation and drive a shoal of sardines to the surface. Dolphins come closer, some now bow riding, some demonstrating their aerial prowess and others communicating with so-called percussive behaviour as they leap belly-up and slap themselves on the surface of the water. We take temperature and visibility measurements, even collecting floating fish scales for analysis and continue to record our GPS location every minute. All data is of equally high value and is therefore logged.
The principal objective of this project is to understand how the local dolphin community interacts with its environment and how human activities - particularly fisheries and pollution - may affect its conservation status. Later, cropping and matching analysis of nearly 200 photographs back at the house signifies that not only was this morning a first sighting in this location but that the large group we had spent hours observing were previously unknown to researchers. Implications for the ongoing study are obviously huge and suffice to say, we are all extremely thrilled with the contribution we've made.
Together, it must be our mission to continue this work. To respect age-old cultures and traditions yet influence, encourage and assist local communities in conserving the integrity and diversity of their unique ecosystem. In the Amvrakikos Gulf, bottlenose dolphins, as well as the locally abundant loggerhead sea turtles, are consistently held responsible for inflicting damage to fishing gear, thus causing significant loss to local fishermen. Dolphin and sea turtle attacks are claimed to have increased in the last decade but there is no compensation mechanism in place. With your help we can achieve an increased understanding of trophodynamics in the Gulf and allow promotion of meaningful and sustained conservation strategies with regard to problems such as prey depletion and ecosystem disruption by unsustainable human practices.
by Ian Allison