Earthwatch Interview: Marina Costa
Marina Costa is lead scientist on new Earthwatch expedition Red Sea Dolphin Project.
Marina is a postgraduate student at the University of St Andrews School of Biology in Scotland. She also holds the post of Senior Marine Biologist and Consultant for the Hurghada Environmental Protection and Conservation Association (HEPCA). Here she shares with us some of the secrets of the Red Sea, and her passion for dolphins, coral reefs...and molluscs!
(Left) Marina Costa and (Right) dolphins of the Red Sea
Q. You’ve worked on two other Earthwatch cetacean projects: one in Greece, and one in Scotland’s Moray Firth. Have you always been interested in whales and dolphins?
A. No! I have been very interested in the sea since I was very young – I had a sailing and motor boat license so I was at sea all the time – but I wasn’t at all interested in dolphins. I was more interested in molluscs, and tiny invertebrates.
I remember one particular research expedition during my university degree, when I was studying micro-molluscs living in the sea-grass bed. I was underwater, collecting micro-molluscs with a kind of vacuum cleaner that uses compressed air to suck the creatures from the leaves of plants. We were 20m deep, facing the leaves, making a huge quantity of bubbles with the instruments, and suddenly I saw this shadow. I just thought “Oh it’s cloudy”, so I moved my face out from the leaves, and a huge animal was watching us. It was a bottlenose dolphin, who was probably attracted by the bubbles. He had just come to see what was going on. I wasn’t concentrating and I just saw this smiling face and for a moment it scared me! I remember thinking “Why do people love this animal?” I just wanted it to go away! I never thought that I would end up studying them!
Q. So what made you change your mind?
A. It happened by chance that I started to work with Tethys Institute, (who Earthwatch partner with in Greece,) and with dolphins. I was not really in love with dolphins until I met my first short-beaked common dolphin in the Mediterranean Sea. I was studying dolphins in the area, and suddenly I saw this one animal - one of the most beautiful animals I have ever seen - with a yellow patch on its side, and dark grey on its back. I just thought “Wow - this is so rare in the Mediterranean Sea.” I started to think, “Why are these animals disappearing? They were so common in the past and now they are not anymore.” It’s amazing that an animal can disappear in just a few years in a place like the Mediterranean Sea. So that was really the first time I said, “OK I want to know more about dolphins,” and I started to study them with more interest. This love started to grow and now they are my life’s work!
Q. Your new project is located in the Red Sea. Why did you choose to work in this location?
A. I started working in the Red Sea in 2005. It is really one of the most incredible seas on our planet. It contains some of the world’s most important coastal and marine environments. The variety of the reefs that there are, and the complexity in particular, is unmatched on Earth. You just have to put your face in the water to see it! The diversity of coral you can find is for example greater than in all the Indian Ocean. The Indian Ocean is about 170 times bigger than the Red Sea, yet the biodiversity in the Red Sea is something like 10% higher.
Q. What do we know about cetaceans in the Red Sea?
A. There is a real lack of knowledge about the Red Sea. We don’t know how many species it supports for example. It’s really important that we now start to carry out research in the area to find out what species are present, and to determine which kind of problems these animals face due to human activity. The problem is, these species can disappear – it’s happening for the common dolphin in the Mediterranean Sea - before we even realize that they are endangered. Not having any kind of basic scientific data about the presence of cetaceans is really hampering the possibility to implement any kind of policy or management of the area that maybe could save the lives of these animals.
Q. Could there be anything unique about the cetaceans in the Red Sea?
A. Because the Red Sea is one of the warmest seas in the world, and very salty, it’s likely that the animals that are present there could be completely different from the genetic point of view. So they could be different sub-species, not described in literature yet. One of the most important things we want to do is to collect samples to identify the genetic pool of these animals. If they are different, we can determine the particular kinds of protection they need. We already have examples where wildlife populations have disappeared, and only afterwards have we figured out that they were different from the rest of their species – not externally different, but genetically different from another population – and so it’s a huge loss for biological diversity and humanity.
Q. The Red Sea is also a popular spot for tourists. Does this have an impact on the environment?
A. It can, yes. One of the most common species of dolphin in the Red Sea is the spinner dolphin, and some populations of this species have particular habits. In this area, they spend their nights fishing, so during the day they need to rest. When dolphins rest, they shut down their echo sonar – which helps them stay alert to predators, such as sharks. Some spinner dolphins enter shallow lagoons to rest in safety.
In Egypt we have identified three of these sleeping areas. Of course, these areas attract people who want to swim with dolphins. So the dolphins tend to leave and rest outside where there are more dangers and where they are vulnerable to attack by sharks. The dolphins remember that this is a place that is not suitable for them anymore so slowly they can abandon the area and never come back. It is really important that boats that use these areas for tourism allow the animals to spend time resting without being disturbed.
Q. How else do humans affect the Red Sea environment?
A. Nothing is known about the status of the off-shore reefs in these waters. As part of our research, we go snorkeling around the reef and look for indications of how the reef is being impacted by humans for instance if the coral is broken, or if there are signs of fishing lines, or nets.
We aim to map the areas that dolphins are using most, and recommend a kind of marine protected area, so that the activities of humans are allowed, but controlled. It’s important to remember that humans are part of the environment. We cannot always close areas off just for animals, because there may be people who live in the area, and these people have the right to use their natural resources, and the right to fish. We want to create a system that is sustainable for the future. It’s very important to factor in the human component to our plans.
Q. Why is it important to carry out this research now?
A. The Egyptian organization, the Hurghada Environmental Protection and Conservation Association (HEPCA) began to assess in 1992 how to protect corals from dive boats which were anchoring on, and destroying coral. HEPCA started a mooring system allowing the boats to anchor in a safe place. This is now the biggest system of mooring in the world. HEPCA then began to look at all the environmental problems related to diving, and then realized there was a complete lack of information about the Red Sea environment, and started authorizing research projects, of which ours is one.
With this project we have the opportunity to demonstrate that expeditions where people can get actively involved in research, are a valid alternative to mass tourism. They are also important for the country’s income, because mass tourism is not bringing wealth to the country. It is just covering the cost, and in exchange you have huge destruction of the environment. Tourists often go away leaving the country poorer in terms of resources. With this project we demonstrate that environmental volunteer projects are going to work and going to have a double effect – bringing an income to the country, and at the same time protecting the environment. It helps us to understand the most important resources, protect them, monitor them, and make recommendations to policy makers.
Q. What kind of policies are you aiming to influence?
A. Our study encompasses two protected areas. One is very young, called Wadi Gimal National Park and the other one is Elba Protected Area, which was identified just on paper, and the boundary of this area is not based on scientific research. There was no real enforcement, no monitoring, no research, no management. Our aim is to collect really basic information about the abundance, distribution and habitat preference of animals in the area, and then try to identify which parts are more important. This will help the government to focus on smaller areas in a way that will mean that the whole environment surrounding the Protected Area can benefit from its presence. Humans can also benefit from this because often locations that are close to a Marine Protected Area have more fish available, so it will be a good asset for the people living nearby.
Q. What kind of wildlife can a volunteer expect to see?
A. How much time do you have?! Of course they will see the cetaceans, such as spinner dolphins and bottlenose dolphins, but then of course there will be the seabirds, turtles, and we cannot forget the coral. When they take a mask, jump in the water and put their face underwater, they will be hit by the beauty. They can see almost any form of life existing in the water, because it is really full of everything – molluscs and many other kinds of invertebrates, shellfish, algae...
Q. What are you most excited about for this project?
A. The most amazing thing is that some parts we are working in are previously unexplored. Also, when you see a fin, or an animal jump, you approach it and you don’t know what you are going to discover. Every time we encounter a bird, or dolphin, or shark, we have the same feeling of excitement that we had when we were children opening our Christmas gifts! There is a moment in which everybody is so excited. To me, that feeling is the most amazing thing.
- The Red Sea began to develop in the Eocene, 20-30 million years ago, and is one of the youngest oceanic zones on Earth.
- The Red Sea is bordered by seven different countries (Egypt, Sudan, Eritrea, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Israel).
- The average depth of the Red Sea is 524m, with a maximum depth of around 3000m. About 25% of the Red Sea is less than 50m deep and only about 15% is over 1000m deep.
- In 1869, the completion of the Suez Canal linked the Mediterranean and Red Sea at Egypt, making the country a strategic crossroads.
- More than 1200 species of fish have been recorded in the Red Sea. Around 10% of these are endemic to the Red Sea.
- The Spinner Dolphin (Stenella longirostris) is known for its ability to acrobatically leap out the water and spin on its tail.
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