27 September 2011

Dolphins of Greece in "To Vima" Greek newspaper

Click here for the on-line article
Check out for the latest media coverage on Dolphins of Greece, following the article that came out recently on Newscientist. This article came out last 25th September in Sunday's special supplement on Science of   "TO BHMA" (In English; "The Tribune"). Read English version below for detail.

I wold like to thank Lalina (the journalist) for her collaboration and for facilitating the English version of the article.

joAn

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(Front Page)
THE SECRET LIFE OF BOTTLENOSE DOLPHINS

A rare manifestation of inconsolable grief of a mother for her newborn, but also the "controlled" farewell to other community members who lost their battle with life, reveal the multifaceted society of dolphins in Amvrakikos. If we don’t take urgent action to save the bay, one thing is certain: all of us will mourn for the dolphins!

Can animals grieve and be aware of death as humans do? If you have a pet you will definitely answer yes. For science though this answer is not obvious. The relationship of animas with death is a 'forbidden' topic for scientific research -largely because of fear of wrongly attributing human characteristics to animals. However, lately, some experts "dare" to approach it. The observation of different reactions of bottlenose dolphins in Amvrakikos to the death of members of their group is now the subject for such a "subversive" study. The biologist in charge of the project is speaking at "To Vima" about this rare experience and the problems faced not only by the dolphins but by the whole Gulf of Amvrakikos.

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(Article)
UNKNOWN ASPECTS OF THE LIFE OF DOLPHINS
by Lalina Fafouti


The newborn dolphin is lying lifeless on the water. Its mother desperately tries to revive it. She lifts it up trying to bring back its breath, touches it with her fins and beak, “calling” at it, but in vain. The little dolphin is dead and she, in despair, seems as if she cannot believe it  -it really looks as if she’s grieving.
The scene is heartbreaking, but you probably will not watch it "live". Biologists who have spent decades at sea have never seen such a thing.

Lament of 48 hours!
Joan Gonzalvo Villegas, marine biologist of the Tethys Research Institute (an Italian non-governmental organization specializing in the study of cetaceans), was “lucky” enough to stand witness to this event though. He "fell" into it during his usual survey in the Gulf of Amvrakikos, and not just once. The next day the mother was still there continuing her desperate efforts and mourns. "It seemed as if she could not accept the fact," says the researcher speaking at "To Vima". "This was especially shocking because it meant that the animal behaved this way for at least 48 hours."
The next year Mr. Gonzalvo witnessed a similar incident. A small bottlenose dolphin, two to three months old, apparently ill, swam with difficulty. The other adult members of its team swam around it constantly trying to help it stay on the surface. After a while  -about 40 minutes- the little dolphin died. "I expected the mother, or at least the adult dolphin that I thought it was the mother because it was swimming closer to it, to react like the animal we saw the year before," says the biologist. However, this did not happen. Once the corpse sank, the other dolphins left immediately from that point.

Like people?
That got him thinking. Do dolphins react differently to death depending on the circumstances -just like people? "In the first case," he says "the mother seemed not able to come to terms with the sudden death of her newborn –as would happen to me or to you if you lost someone close to you suddenly, for example in a car accident. In the second case it was like dolphins somehow knew that the calf was about to die and stayed with it in order to help and keep it company till the end. "
Grief and the sense of death are considered to be exclusively human qualities. The exploration of such properties in animals was long a "taboo" for scientific research  –a "dangerous" issue that only lately some researchers have begun to approach. "The truth is that it is not that well accepted" answers Gonzalvo. "Because it contains a strong subjective element. Such scenes when you see them you feel it in your skin, it is very difficult to evaluate scientifically what is happening. But this is essentially true for every kind of behavioural study in animals. "
Moreover, as explained, the experiences of this kind are relatively rare. "I am of the very few who have seen something like that," he says, "and even if I keep working the same way for the next thirty years I may not see it ever again '. This not only because the laws of probability do not often bring experts in direct contact with scenes of natural death in nature, but also because the appropriate behaviour for a scientist involved in the conservation of species when facing such an event is usually different from the one this particular biologist decided to adopt.

The gain of non-intervention
"Some might ask why, for instance, in the first case I did not immediately take the dead newborn in order to do an autopsy and find out the causes of death," he says. "But as a scientist working for Tethys, where we are trying to be the least intrusive in our research, my priority was to focus more on recording the behaviour of the dolphins. In addition, I wanted to respect the animal, during what to me was a clear indication of some kind of mourning. I felt it was inappropriate for me to intervene. "
If he had intervened, as he notes, he would not have the opportunity to watch what happened or notice the difference in the reactions of the dolphins in the two events. The question of whether animals –or at least social animals like dolphins– have a special sense of death just like humans would not have been born. "Of course this is only an hypothesis," he stresses.
This hypothesis, however, is being examined and he is gathering evidence preparing a broader study not only about dolphins but also about other species. "There are some relevant published scientific papers and for the last couple of years I have been collecting reports from my colleagues and they are quite a few," he says. "Such behaviours are reported not only in cetaceans but also in other highly evolved mammals like chimpanzees or elephants."

Amvrakikos: the last refuge of bottlenose dolphins
The dolphins of Amvrakikos are not special only because they constitute the subject of an original study. In this place of Greece is observed one of the highest densities of bottlenose dolphins in the Mediterranean –a species that has begun to diminish in the Mediterranean waters because of overfishing and pollution. The population of bottlenose dolphins in Amvrakikos remained stable in recent years and the area is a protected wetland –it has been included in the Natura 2000 network and has been declared a national park. However, as Gonzalvo notes, this is not a guarantee for their future.
He brings as an example what happened to the neighbouring Inner Archipelago of the Ionian Sea. This region –which includes Eastern Lefkas, Meganissi and Kalamos and is also integrated to the network Natura 2000– was until recently a "paradise" for the common dolphin (Delphinus delphis) –a species that was once the most widespread in our sea but today its population has shrunk dramatically, and since 2003 it has been declared endangered in the Mediterranean. As a member of Tethys Research Institute, which under international agreements is monitoring the dolphins in these two areas (during the last years with the support of Earthwatch, OceanCare and RAC/SPA), the biologist has "lived" this story from very close.
"Of 150 common dolphins living in the Archipelago in 1996 the population went to 15 in 2006-2007" he says. “The cause according to all evidence is overfishing that led to the depletion of their food. " As he explains, in the area operate relatively few bottom trawlers and purse seiners, but at an intensive rate and aiming mainly epipelagic fish –such as sardines, anchovies and mackerel. "Epipelagic fish are the main food of the common dolphin, but also of tuna and swordfish, two species that have also been greatly reduced in the region."

Rapid environmental degradation
The bottlenose from Amvrakikos have no such problem. On the contrary, they have plenty of food –industrial fishing is prohibited here– and this is a reason why their population is so dense and stable. "But beware," says Gonzavo, "we are talking about a high population density because we have 150 bottlenose dolphins in a particular area. This does not mean they are very abundant. In biological terms, 150 is nothing. And Amvrakikos may not have the problem of overfishing, but there is a severe problem of environmental degradation. "
This sounds paradoxical in a region which consists the largest national park in Greece and is protected by not just one but four different European and international treaties. As the biologist explains, however, the measures designed for the protection of Amvrakikos are incomplete. For example, measures have been taken to protect the fish by prohibiting industrial fisheries. "Only small-scale fisheries are allowed, therefore from an ecological point of view the stocks in Amvrakikos are fully viable," he says. No measures has been taken though to protect the quality of the water.
"The factors that contribute to environmental degradation in Amvrakikos are many", he points out. "The mouth of the bay is too narrow and too shallow. This is the only connection to the open sea, which means that the water circulation inside the gulf is very reduced. " The two major rivers that arrive to Amvrakikos, Louros and Arachthos, as he notes, have a reduced flow because of dams built along them for irrigation and hydroelectric projects. "Furthermore" he adds " apart from the fact that the input of fresh water from the rivers is reduced, their waters are polluted by fertilizers, heavy metals and other polluting elements."

Eutrophication and hypoxia
Another important issue is eutrophication  –the growth of bacteria and algae caused by excessive concentrations of nutrients (such as nitrate and phosphate from fertilizers and detergents that 'fall' in the water) and leads to oxygen depletion. Apart from wastewater, says Gonzalvo, extensive fish farming in the region exacerbates the situation. "The fish farms introduce even more organic material, with food thrown in the water and detritus produced by farmed fish that are crowded in high densities in cages."
The problem of eutrophication and hypoxia, which this implies seems to be growing rapidly in recent decades. "Before 20 years," says the biologist "the University of Patras had conducted a study and found that the waters of Amvrakikos below 40 m depth had almost zero oxygen. They repeated the study two years ago and saw that the water with almost zero oxygen began from 20 meters deep. " This means that 70% of the water of Amvrakikos is dead zone. And the impact is already apparent. Two years ago, the mussels that are grown there were found toxic and unfit for consumption. Officially, the cultivation of mussels, clams and other shellfish –which are the most "sensitive" to water quality– has stopped at the bay.

Direct action by government and citizens
Because of all these problems, although the population of bottlenose dolphins in Amvrakikos is still stable, Gonzalvo in his last presentation at the International Marine Conservation Congress last May suggested that they should be declared endangered. "If something is not done," he says "bottlenose dolphins in Amvrakikos will have the fate of the common dolphins of the Archipelago."
This "something", as he stresses, involves not only measures to be taken by the state. The biologist considers equally important the "education" of the public. In this context, as he notes, Tethys participates in the LIFE-Thalassa project with WWF, MOm  –Hellenic Society for the Study and Protection of the Monk Seal– and the Pelagos Institute of Cetacean Research. The most urgent in his opinion is to change attitudes.
"I understand that Greece is not facing its best moment right now to give priority to protecting the environment," he says. "But what I think is crucial is to change the perception of the Greeks for nature. I am also from the Mediterranean, I am Spanish, I am Catalan, it is not that we are much better –the Mediterranean is not the best example of proper environmental management. But I love Greece deeply; I first came here twelve years ago, and it makes me sad that you have a wonderful country, one of the best in the world, but Greeks do not realize it. They take its beauty for granted and assume it’s going to stay like this no matter what we do and think, that even if we humans do not do things right, if we do not look after them, they’re going to stay as they are. Excuse me but they are not. Greece is not the same Greece that I had discovered a decade ago. And if the degradation continues at this rate Greece will not be the same in the coming years. "
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(Text box)
Protection is sought in the Northern Aegean too

Dolphins are protected in Greece under ACCOBAMS, the treaty signed by the countries of the Mediterranean and the Black Sea for the protection of cetaceans. Giuseppe Notarbartolo di Sci;ara, director of Tethys Research Institute, was president of the Scientific Committee of ACCOBAMS for nearly a decade until last year and has a more "global" view of the situation.
The only dolphins officially monitored by Tethys are currently those in the Amvrakikos Gulf and the Inner Ionian Archipelago. This does not mean that these cetaceans, that seem still to hold in our country while they have been decimated in the major part of the Mediterranean, are not facing problems in other parts of Greece.
"We are deeply concerned about the situation of common dolphins, which the last decade have become very rare in the Mediterranean," says Mr. Notarbartolo di Sciara speaking at "To Vima." "We know that there are common dolphins in the Northern Aegean. We do not know how many, we do not know exactly where they are distributed, where their main habitats are, if there are problems with fishing, we know nothing. "
The information comes from fishermen and biologists who work in fish farms in the region of Kavala. Because the common dolphin has been declared endangered throughout the Mediterranean, whatever populations, albeit small, are worthy of protection. "I think it is very important to see what the situation of common dolphins in the Northern Aegean is", he says. "The Northern Aegean region is a productive area compared to most of the Mediterranean because of the rivers, because of the upwelling and oceanographic processes, and I think we should go there and see what happens."
As he says, the means for improving the conditions of the habitat of the dolphins and –our own environment– are there. Last year he prepared for WWF and MOm a strategy for the conservation of cetaceans at a national level, which is just ... waiting to be adopted. "I hope this is done," he says. "I know that the situation is difficult in Greece, but this is not something that will serve as an economic burden because certainly donors will be found for this purpose. I think it is mainly a matter of political will. "




09 September 2011

Dead sperm whale adrift

On Monday night, I received a phone call from our friend and colleague Alexandros Frantzis from the Pelagos Cetacean Research Institute. He had been contacted by the Lefkas Animal Welfare Society (LAWS) to report to him the presence of a "dead large cetacean floating and wrapped up on fishing gear in the coastal waters of western Lefkada".


On Tuesday 6th, in the afternoon, I joined the friends from LAWS to visit the area, and try to find the dead animal. One hour after leaving the port of Lefkas town we encountered the highly decomposed corpse of a sperm whale floating adrift close to the western coast of Lefkada. What was reported initially as fishing gear resulted to be a long rope (like those using on sailing boats), which might indicate that the animal stranded somewhere else in the area several weeks earlier. That rope might have been used unsuccessfully in an attempt to get rid of the dead whale, which eventually ended up drifting towards Lefkada until it was found on Monday. The advanced state of decomposition of the animal (or what was left of it) and its remote location made impossible to tow it to a beach nearby for a more detailed examination.

joAn

03 September 2011

Best way to wrap-up the month of August



I must confess that every time we do a survey in the area of Kalamos, as we leave from the port of Mytikas, I stare at the island that majestically rises in front of us and I cannot avoid but to get momentarily lost in the memories of the good old days spent in our former field base in the tiny village of Episkopi. However, on wednesday 31st August, just one minute after departure, I was suddenly brought back to the present by our Earthwatch volunteers Yolanda and Eri shouting; dolphins! What a sweet way to wake me up. When I looked at the spot they were pointing at it was immediately clear that it was not going to be a "normal" sighting; more than twenty dolphin silhouettes were smoothly gliding through the glassy waters a few hundred meters ahead of us. The adrenaline shot reached its peak when we realized they were common dolphins. I could not even recall when was the last time I had come across a group of commons that size.

For three hours we followed their zig-zagging movements from Mytikas seafront to Skorpios Island, where we decided to interrupt the sighting due to the increasing density of recreational sailing boats in the area and the risk of our presence attracting their attention towards the dolphins. Our best estimate was that the group included 19 adults, one juvenile, 2 calves and 2 newborns. Exhausted but full of joy and hope we headed back to port with more that 1000 digital images to be processed and abundant behavioural data. Preliminary analysis of the digital images has allowed us to identify, so far, 9 adults, two of them constantly accompanied by their offspring, from our common dolphin catalogue. Four of them had been also seen further south a few days earlier by our colleague Elena Politi; and, according to our historic database, all of them had been firstly identified no later that 1996. Despite the dramatic decline suffered by the species in the area starting on the mid nineties, the fact that we still see some animals occasionally moving into their former wonderland gives us hope and shows the importance of maintaining our present survey effort. One could not ask for a better way to wrap-up the month of August.

joAn

01 September 2011

Dolphins of Greece in NewScientist magazine

The question whether cetaceans understand the concept of death is discussed in NewScientist, based on observations done by Tethys Research Institute in the Amvrakikos Gulf with the collaboration of our Earthwatch volunteers.

I take this opportunity to thank you all for your hard work

joAn

30 August 2011

An unexpected encounter

The text below was written a few days ago by my friend and colleague Elena Politi. Back in 1993, with very little more than her enthusiasm and eagerness to study the dolphins inhabiting the beautiful waters of the eastern Ionian Sea, Elena established our first field base in the island of Kalamos and founded the Ionian Dolphin Project. I invite you all to get a glimpse of Elena's emotions when encountering, ten years after her last sighting, a group of common dolphins. 


She is the person who gave me the opportunity to come to Greece for the first time in 1999, when I was an unexperienced recently graduated student, to get a taste of the Dolphins of Greece experience; more than a decade later I still feel inspired by her passion for the marine environment, her never-ending energy and continuous advice and support. Thank you Elena!

joAn

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An unexpected encounter (by Elena Politi)

The holidays are almost over.  Two weeks with my family around the waters of Kalamos, Ithaca, Kefalonia and Zakynthos onboard our inflatable boat. This morning we leave from Atoko, an imposing conical island that stands majestically between Ithaca and Kastos.
I have not encountered dolphins yet, except for a striped dolphin we encountered by chance on the way back from Zakynthos, which joined momentarily the bow of our boat.
Today the sea is flat. A surreal calm, muffled by the morning mist, characterizes most of summer days’ early hours in this area.

Today I am in search of dolphins. I cannot go home without my annual dose, given that we now see them only on holidays. Last year we saw a group of bottlenose dolphins, old acquaintances of the project, spectacular to say the least, for their jumps and the curiosity shown towards our boat. An attitude very different from what I remembered from my observations done in the good old days. Back then, they were usually reluctant to get closer, always busy while looking for food in the water column, being visible only when surfacing for physiological reasons.

Today I am eager to have an encounter like that one, and I narrow my eyes while standing at the bow, in order to spot even the smallest signs that may indicate the presence of some animal. The sea does not seem as sadly deserted as in recent years. There are schools of fish jumping around and I see a swordfish preying on a school of anchovies, immediately slipping away under the boat. The other day I also saw four tunas chasing their prey while being surrounded by the inevitable shearwaters. I think it's the right day to see dolphins. 


And then, all of a sudden, here they are in the distance: two small black fins, followed by the rounded shape of their back. They seem to be too small to be bottlenose dolphins.... but it is not possible. I cannot believe it. Pragmatically, I must admit, almost superstitiously indeed (shame on a scientist!), I approach them without preconceptions. Mine is a scream of excitement, pure joy: they are common dolphins! And they are numerous, thirteen in all. Three calves, one of which is a newborn, and a couple of juveniles, accompany them. It is a beautiful group of females with their pups who, indolently, swim zigzagging between Meganisi and Kalamos.

How long since I last saw them? I realize with horror that it is exactly ten years. The last time I was eight months pregnant, and we were collecting fragments of tissue from the skin of identified animals for genetic analysis. That was the last time I saw them. Then I left the field work for family reasons and, as the years went by, I read with sadness the data collected by my colleagues, which showed, with scientific coldness and clarity, the slow and inexorable decline of this local population, once so prosperous but now represented only by a few scattered specimens.

Over the years, navigating with my children in these impoverished waters by an insane fishing practice often conducted with illegal methods, without being able to see the unmistakable silhouette of a common dolphin, my thoughts were going back in 1991 when we saw them for the first time from the wheelhouse of the De Gomera (the sailing boat we used back then). An immense group of forty individuals who swam fast porpoising between Lefkas and Meganisi, a narrow channel literally infested with sailboats and motorboats, which felt more like a glimpse of the low Italian Lario (Lake of Como) rather than the typical Hellenic views.There were so many that I had initially thought they were striped dolphins (but what were they doing so close to shore?), and my amazement reached its climax when I realized that they were indeed common dolphins, a species that at that time was already considered a rarity in Italian waters.

For years the situation remained stable. We changed from a sailing to a rubber boat with a more practical research field base located at the exact centre of our study area, at Episkopi on the island of Kalamos. The groups of common dolphins continued to be numerous, at least until 96-97. Their presence was constant, regular and predictable. We could see them from home, from the port, even when we went on foot to fill the tanks of gasoline (yes, in those days we had very little money, a ridiculous boat to say the least and our research was dotted with several breaks of "forced labour"). The common dolphins were our confidence, our pride as researchers. We realized we were dealing with, probably, the only remaining large community of this species in the central Mediterranean. We felt charged with the responsibility to study them deeply, to understand, through them, which were the causes of the species decline in other parts of the Mediterranean, so that in future other similar losses could not occur again.

After 1997, although we would spot them regularly (almost daily), the groups began to be less numerous. Initially, I imagine, none of us had really realized the extent of the process that was taking place. We guessed they probably had a little less fish, but they were always there, as well as other predators that ate their same prey, tuna and swordfish. In a sense, we, who spent eight consecutive hours under the Greek sun to record their movements, behaviour and identity, were almost happy to photoidentify "only" six-ten dolphins at a time rather than a mass of 20-30 animals apparently uncontrollable committed to play hide and seek!

But something was coming up in front of our eyes. The years passed and it started to happen more frequently to scroll through the days without a single sighting of common dolphins. Meanwhile, as I said, I had left the field work and followed from the computer, through endless columns of numbers, the little (big?) drama that was unfolding in that polygon delimited by the Ionian islands. Nowadays, in this area too common dolphins had become a rarity, as happened in Italy fifty years ago. Of the 150 animals living in the area regularly, we could record only a dozen in recent years, which were identified during just two or three sightings in summer months. The sea slowly became a desolate desert. Sightings of tuna, swordfish, schools of anchovies, bonito and yellowtail became also a memory of the past.

For more than a year my colleagues have monitored the main fishing ports in the area. With painstaking patience they have monthly checked the captures landed by the fishing fleet, and quantified it in tonnes per year. The results of their work are incredible. Because of only 21 industrial fishing boats (representing 7% of the entire fleet and counting for 55% of the total biomass removed annually), the whole area has been literally depleted for years of anchovies and sardines, the main prey of common dolphins, tuna and swordfish. In practice, year after year, these boats have taken all (or almost all) what the area could effectively produce in terms of fish, leaving only a few "crumbs" to the other inhabitants of the sea.

The consequence of it is obvious. The common dolphins have just stopped being there, and they have dispersed over a much larger area to look for food resources elsewhere. Leaving aside the eco-biological implications (what happens to these distinctly social animals, for which the group cohesion is as necessary as the food they eat, when they are forced to disperse, disaggregate, thus reducing the quality and quantity of their social interactions as well as, ultimately, their ability to mate?), the result was depressing. To navigate these waters feels now like passing through that countryside parched by the passage of the urban and industrial civilization. Biodiversity has been drastically reduced to a few persistent marine species that feed and grow fat because of nutrients discharged daily by the ever-growing fish farms.

Back to the present hot day, it is therefore understandable my enthusiasm, almost childlike, in having seen such a large a group of common dolphins. This summer, Joan (Gonzalvo, actual responsible of the Ionian Dolphin Project) had spotted them only once, in June, and they were three animals. Today they are more numerous and there are calves.  They’re not sociable (it's true, there are mothers taking care of and concerned about their offspring, who constantly keep me away), they don’t seem to be feeding, but resting. They do not come bow-riding or scouting. Even the juveniles, generally the most fearless and playful, keep their distance from our boat. When a motorboat passes by, their wave-riding across the resulting wake seems vaguely tired and lazy.

But all in all they are here. And there is fish around. And there are other predators. And I really hope that one day these wonderful creatures - most of them friends given that everyone has a name, Pepe, Daphne, Nigel, Max, and a date for each meeting – may be able to return to repopulate the seas of Ionian Greece, to amaze us with their fascinating behaviour. Well, this hope today is a bit more alive than before. There is still a long way to go, to implement effective conservation measures, which for years Tethys and other colleagues have been stubbornly promoting. A little effort is necessary to give the possibility to these dolphins to recover to their original level. But talking about it with young Greeks, who seemed genuinely concerned about the marine environment, I got the feeling that the future can give us hope, a really tough one to die.

p.s. The day after the encounter with the common dolphins, a few miles further south we encountered a group of nine striped dolphins that Joan had seen ten days before in the same area. Two days after, Joan told me that he found again the commons. This time they were 15: the same individuals I had met plus some more. Could all this really be a sign of recovery of the coastal marine ecosystem of Ionian Greece?

18 August 2011

Public awareness initiative in Vonitsa


On the evening of the 16th of August, framed by the beautiful medieval castle of Vonitsa in the town's seafront, Tethys Research Institute held a public presentation on the research activities conducted in the Gulf of Amvrakikos during the last decade aimed at the conservation of its highly resident population of bottlenose dolphins and on preserving the biodiversity of this unique semi-closed ecosystem. The event was attended by a large part of the local community as well as numerous visitors from overseas. The Municipality of Vonitsa provided all the logistic support necessary for the event. The presentation was delivered by Ioannis Giovos, our Greek research assistant from the University of Thessaloniki. After the presentation he responded to the question posed by the audience.

Representatives of some schools of the region attending the event manifested their interest on Tethys personnel organizing similar presentations to their students during Spring 2012, before the beginning of the research season. Since the beginning of this project we have tried to increase awareness among the local communities about the status and value of dolphins in the area. We are trying to raise interest in dolphin conservation and marine ecosystems. The positive reaction received encourages us to continue and shows that we are on the right track.

joAn

17 August 2011

Dolphins of Greece, volunteers 8-15 August


Dear Joan and Ioannis, working with you and the Earthwatch team of volunteers was a wonderful experience.  Everyone was kind and helpful and worked well together.  The dolphins were wonderful!  Thanks for sharing your expertise and being great team leaders.

Lynne (USA)

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How can one not be impressed by Greece? The sun, landscape, company and sea. I can see why your lives have been dedicated to this place and this cause. There has been no room for complaints or disappointment. I am overwhelmed with information and thankful for the experience. Go forth warriors of the sea and spread the word ! I am sure I will be back to scan the horizon once more and look for the undulating rolls of dolphins. Next time though, can we do without the dead sea turtle? Thank you both for the memories.

Kimberley (Canada)

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Thank you so much for the wonderful experience this week has been for me.   As a complete novice to the dolphin world, I am really impressed by how patient you have been in helping me to understand both the work you are doing here and the lives of dolphins.  I look forward to spreading the word about your project when I get home. Keep up the good work.

Barbara (UK )

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I just have to say that I had the time of my life here in Vonitsa and I cannot thank both of you (Joan and Ioannis) enough for the experience. Even though you did not allow me to take back the sea turtle (just joking), the fieldwork, lectures, food, comfort of accommodation… Everything was way above my expectations. Food wise, the Greek salad with that thick olive oil was always great to have, the Italian wine with the proper Italian pasta was amazing, and the musaka and lamb was of course, fantastico!

The conversations and discussions we had at the dining table and balcony made me think so much about all the issues we are facing… On top of reading as many reports as possible and broadening my knowledge, I will make sure to spread the words to friends, relatives, strangers, so that the most ignorant country of marine issues would have the possibility in changing.
Thank you so much once again for everything!!!!

Sho (Japan)

Dolphins of Greece, volunteers 14-21 July


This trip has exceeded my expectations in every way! Joan and Ioannis are a terrific team to work with. Joan is serious and deeply passionate about his research and I cannot help but feel the same enthusiasm. He is a great teacher, all the while quick to smile and keeping a sense of humor about him. I have valued our frequent conversations about life in general – politics, economics, culture, movies, people – as much as I have enjoyed our conversations about cetacean behavior.  Ioannis is the perfect counter-part, an intelligent, even-keeled young man with impeccable integrity.  I will return from this trip far “richer” than when I started thanks to the two of them.  This trip has also succeeded in changing my behavior now that I have learned so much about the global threats to fisheries worldwide, and dolphins in particular. Kudos to you both!  I hope to see you again.


Doug (USA)

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This trip has definitely been a life changing experience. Coming here I had no idea what to expect, besides that I would see dolphins and also do some work. I fell in love with this program. Seeing the dolphins, of course, was amazing, but I loved the lectures that Joan gave us. I loved learning about the dolphins, other sea mammals, and also the problems that the Amvrakikos Gulf faces. I had no idea that there was so many problems with it. This whole program has made me more aware of the problems that the ocean faces. Besides everything that I have learned about the dolphins and the gulf, I have also thoroughly enjoyed getting to know the people that I have been working with. Joan and Ioannis make a great team and are great to work with. They are both very passionate about what they do and that definitely inspires me. I loved hearing about the different cultures of each of us and also experiencing one. I hope that I can come to Vonitsa, Greece again and partake in this amazing endeavour, but if not, it was an experience that I will never forget.

Lauren (USA)


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“Dolphins of Greece” was an amazing and incredible experience but also very intense. Intense not only because of all the very interesting knowledge that Joan and Gionnis instilled us but because of the emotions felt when seeing and working with dolphins. I was at first speechless when seeing the dolphins and throughout the week when Joan was telling us about his experience with them and all the issues that they face in the Gulf and around the world in general, I realised it was time for people to react and spread the word all around…At least I will for sure spread the word all around me and hopefully it will bring more volunteers to that unbelievable project. This experience was also a great opportunity to meet people of different countries, cultures and share our opinions on different aspects of life,and Joan, Ioannis and the other volunteers are the perfect example for it. And I can say that I have never laughed so much in my life! I hope this project will go on as long as possible because the dolphins need us!

Margaux (France)

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Breathtaking, exhilarating, endearing, extremely educational, heartfelt and probably the best thing Greece has to offer!  Vonitsa is so beautiful and quaint.  The team was awesome and fun.  The friendships that were developed here will always have a special bonding that occurred due to this enchanting environment and sharing in witnessing the magnificence of the dolphins.  These beautiful animals of the sea can only make your heart and soul soar with delight.  Joan and Ioannis are such compassionate men who truly are dedicated to the welfare of the ocean and all its inhabitants.  Their dedication is to be admired and applauded.  It is an experience and education that I will never forget and hope to continue to pass on this knowledge through my blog and anyone and everyone who will listen to me!


Jan (USA)

13 August 2011

A "striping" incident in Kalamos


It was the beginning of the week for our new team of Earthwatch volunteers. One hour after leaving Mytikas, we came across a dolphin group on the eastern side Kalamos Island. Initially, we were surprised by the size of the group. They were about 20 individuals swimming quietly in a tight formation; something pretty rare for any of the two dolphin species historically present in the area (short-beaked common dolphins and common bottlenose dolphins). The surprise came when we recognised the beautifully patterned striped dolphins. This was the second sighting for the species in the core of the study area in over 20 years of regular research.

Striped dolphins are known as curious creatures that frequently interact with boats. The sighting lasted two hours and for most of the time we had no less that 5 individuals bow-riding and “checking us out”. The calm crystal-clear waters provided opportunity to observe them occasionally socializing right below us. It was quite a performance fully completed by regular aerial behaviour and breaching on both sides of our inflatable. Three days after this event, we still cannot erase a silly smile from our faces while writing these lines.

An unusual encounter like this highlights the importance of continuing to monitor this former paradise, which used to give us many moments like this but that unfortunately, nowadays are more and more rare. Definitely… striping!

Ioannis & Joan

16 July 2011

Dolphins of Greece VIDEO!!

For those of you who miss it and for those who are considering joining us...
Just have a look at it and... enjoy!!



joAn

14 June 2011

Great start in Kalamos (II)

With our last team of Earthwatch volunteers we spent the first two days surveying the waters surrounding the beautiful island of Kalamos (Inner Ionian Sea Archipelago). The spirits were high after the short-beaked common dolphin sighting we had on our last day with the previous team. This time we did not find common dolphins, but we had an incredible encounter with a group of six botllenose dolphins that were socializing very intensively just a few metres away from our boat. We stayed with them for more than two hours collecting valuable data on their different behaviours while carrying out continuous photoidentification effort and taking back home over 200 photos. Josh, Jet and Ioannis (my brand-new Greek research assistant) did a great job, once back at Vonitsa’s field station, and identified all six group members based on natural marks on their dorsal fins. Four of them were well-know individuals that have been repetitively seen in the area for more than a decade. Particularly active during the sighting was “Similmoon”; a female constantly accompanied by her young, which was first seen as a newborn back in 2008. Last but not least, special mention must be made to the sixth group member, which had never been seen before in the area and has been a new addition to our photo-Id catalogue.

Of about 100 bottlenose dolphins photoidentified in the Inner Ionian Sea Archipelago during the last two decades, about one quarter have shown high levels of site fidelity, while other are transients. The situation is quite different in the Amvrakikos Gulf, our main study area, where about 150 dolphins inhabiting its waters show a high degree of residency despite the increasing degradation of this semi-enclosed ecosystem.

joAn

Dolphins of Greece volunteers, 7-14 June 2011

Understanding that nature is unpredictable, I never expect much from any expedition. Despite the fact that we didn’t see any dolphins in our first day at Kalamos, we witnessed the amazing social interaction (e.g. leaping) of bottlenose dolphins in our second outing near the a local fish farm. Other activities like photo-id matching, watching documentaries and presentations have deepened my understanding of the relationship between marine mammals and human beings. If you want a close encounter with bottlenose dolphins, this expedition is definitely for you!

Jet (USA)

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This expedition is great, Joan  has a great passion for dolphins and the marine environment and it is very easy to see.  This enthusiasm makes the trip much more worthwhile and you can see that he appreciates you being there to help. I would recommend this to anyone interested in anything to do with the marine world. I saw dolphins more days than I didn’t, I saw them socialising, feeding, resting and I even heard them playing. As long as you understand it's not just a holiday and there is science and work to be done, you will have a great time as the balance between the work and experience is very good.

Josh (UK)

06 June 2011

Dolphins of Greece volunteers, 29 May-4June 2011



Wonderful experience.  Each day was different and special.  The first day we saw up to 50-60 total dolphins; a wonderful way to begin.  The second day we saw only 2 but got to stay with them for about 2 hours to see a large variety of behaviors.  The last day was special as we left the Gulf and got the rare opportunity to watch the behavior of 3 common dolphins, which is very rare because this species has almost vanished from its former paradise. This experience was very special for me. I have been on three other cetacean studies and this one had by far the most intimate and longest encounters allowing me to observe a wide diversity of behaviors.  Thank you for a great experience and good luck with the rest of the project.  I will continue to spread the word!

Seena (USA)

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Hola Joan! Thank you for an amazing experience, I think you are doing a very important work and I am glad I got to be a part of it, even for just 8 days. I’m sad to be leaving so soon. I feel like I am at a important point in my life (just graduated from college) and I really have no idea what to do with my future. I think this experience has given me a little direction, mainly confirming that I want to support and promote conservation of the ocean and all the creatures that live in it. It’s so easy in NYC to forget how closely people depend on the ocean to survive and make a living in an area that is suffering directly from the neglect we show towards our oceans. This was a unique and eye-opening experience. It’s so easy to get overwhelmed and depressed when considering what we have done and continue to do to the planet, but to see so many dolphins still in the wild and to see that the scientists who are studying them are hopeful is kind of reassuring. We still have a long way to go so keep up the good work! thanks for letting me be a part of it, I had an incredible time.

Alex (USA)

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Another Earthwatch completed for me, but this one has been especially meaningful due to the dedication, knowledge and skill of you, Joan. Your concern for the future of the dolphins was obvious and rare in our world of self-interest, greed and unconcern for the future of the planet. Fortunately, you, and like individuals, may be able to provide the scientific information and informed leadership to save, not only these marvellous mammals, but also, man himself. I try to be hopeful. The careful planning and detail of the program allowed me to experience a unique interaction with the dolphins. The thrill of observing these animals in their natural environment was exhilarating. The identification of various individuals provided me the opportunity to be more observant of specific characteristics. The informative aspects of the week allowed for in-depth discussions among the participants. In addition, it was great fun. I hope that necessary funding and support continue to come to Vonitsa and your dolphin project; best wishes for the future.

Jerry (USA)

04 June 2011

Great start in Kalamos


Today we had the first survey in the waters surrounding Kalamos Island, a Natura 2000 area also know as Inner Ionian Sea Archipelago. Those of you  familiar with our work in Western Greece already know that this area, a former hotspot for the endangered Mediterranean short-beaked common dolphin, has been heavily impacted by overfishing which has resulted on the collapse of local fish stocks leading to the almost complete disappearance of the species from the area because of prey depletion.

Well, we have good news for you. Today, as we left the port of Mytikas, we came across a group of three common dolphins! We spent two hours monitoring their movements, recording their behavior and doing photoidentification. Two of them resulted to be well-know individuals that were also seen in the area last year; one of them -Max- was identified for the first time in the area in 1994, while the third one had not have enough distinctive marks to allow its identification. We saw them occasionally socializing and doing surface feeding. We could not ask for a better start of the 2011 season in the Kalamos area.

The decision of continuing monitoring the beautiful waters of the Archipelago when we closed our former field base in the Island of Kalamos back in 2008  has proven to be the right decision. Our continued effort has showed that although the population of common dolphins has decreased dramatically, a few animals are still present and they likely roam across a much wider area, occasionally moving into their former wonderland.

joAn

11 May 2011

Dolphins of Greece volunteers, 4-11 May 2011

My thoughts immediately turn to what a difference my life will be from this point forward. Having said that, sharing knowledge on how to make a difference in the lives of other inhabitants of our planet earth. Joan is a pivotal tipping point, his mission to draw attention to the daily lives of these beautiful creatures is one thing, his desire to limit the impact of possible disruptions to our environment, on purpose or by accident are things everyone should consider to be a priority. The research brings you to the door, and the dolphins invite you to come on in and have some fun. Life is good. The closeness of the experience allows eye contact, the chance to smell dolphin breath, and view visual social  interactions. The research facility is very comfortable, and attractive. The city of Vonitsa is not the least bit intimidating, surrounded by beautiful hills, and a fabulous waterfront. My favourite interaction was observing the cooperative efforts by the dolphins, to make bubbles trap the fish and proceed to feast on the prey, unforgettable. Thank you  Joan, Miriam, Lauren, Ellen, Darlene, the best dolphin researchers ever!

Bob (USA)

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Well, this past week has been quite an experience for me.  The amount of information we received was incredible.  I feel I have been living in a tunnel with my lack of specific knowledge about the ocean's overfishing and other concerns.  Being able to take part in this research and observe the dolphins in their natural environment, the companionship of our group, and of course, "Posi" who helped to provide my dog fix while away from my own companions all contributed to the quality of the stay. Earthwatch and Tethys are awesome organizations. I promise to work hard to spread the word to others.  


Joan has an incredible passion for the dolphins and the marine environment which he shares with us very well. Enriching the lives where we live about what I have learned will be my next project when I return home. Thank you all very much Joan, Miriam, Lauren, Ellen and, of course, photographer, Bob for enriching my life.  The laughter will not be forgotten.

Darlene (USA)

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The experience of the week here in Vonitsa was amazing, highlighted by numerous unforgettable dolphin observations. Getting up each morning to the sun shining over the Gulf with a promise of studying such magnificent mammals was exciting and something we looked forward to each day. The weather was fabulous and the dolphins provided a variety of encounters from bow riding to resting to frenzied feeding – we were able to observe their natural behaviours on their terms without disruption. At the end of the transits the trip back to port with the castle as a landmark to guide us never lost its appeal.


Back at the loft learning how to crop, match and identify the dolphins we spotted provided insight into the population and the ongoing research by Joan and his teams. Joan’s presentations in the late afternoon prompted us with numerous questions and provided a global awareness of the fishing industry and the impact of the decisions we make as consumers. His enthusiasm was contagious amongst the team, with us often asking him questions all at once. Outside of the project hours, time spent relaxing at the local cafĂ©, walking around the small town of Vonitsa, discovering the castle, exploring the small island nearby and taking in the shoreline added to the week. Aside from the dolphins sightings the laughter shared at supper will be most fondly remembered.


Special thanks to Joan and Miriam for their hospitality, guidance and for sharing their passion for cetaceans. As a teacher and a biologist, we will take what we have learned and share it with our families, students and colleagues in a small effort to continue the work of conserving the ocean’s precious resources.

Lauren and Ellen (Canada)

09 May 2011

First 10 dolphin sightings in Amvrakikos

Today I had my tenth sighting since I arrived at the Vonitsa field Station of the Dolphins of Greece expedition. As a research assistant I have worked with two groups of Earthwatch volunteers so far. It has been a very rich and profitable experience.  Although I had worked with cetaceans in the wild before, I must say it has been a pretty different approach for me. In Amvrakikos I had the chance to observe dolphin behaviour closer than anywhere else.  During these past 4 weeks we had spectacular sightings where bottlenose dolphins displayed a wide range of behaviours; from surface feeding surrounded by large flocks of seabirds, to socializing and  resting. This new experience has given me the chance to learn new methodologies and apply them in the field. Thanks to Joan, a great teacher,  I made the most of my stay here. The Gulf is most certainly a unique place to learn and study these magnificent creatures in the wild.

I also enjoyed the everyday work with volunteers! They impressed me with their enthusiasm and eagarness to learn by getting actively involved in our research and conservation activities. Under Joan's supervision I showed them how to process digital images taken in the field, record behavioural data during group follows and how to interpret the dolphins activities in the field. Their help is crucial and in many cases I would have been lost without them!

In a couple of days I am heading back to Barcelona but I will be back in Vonitsa in September for another month of field work. Looking forward to it! 


Miriam (Catalonia) - Research Assistant of the Dolphins of Greece expedition

02 May 2011

Dolphins of Greece volunteers, 25 April-2 May 2011

The expedition was everything promoted in the literature and more.  The research is for real and Joan willingly shares his vast knowledge of dolphins.  His enthusiasm for his studies is contagious and by the end of our first outing all participants were won over and eager to share in gathering and processing the data gathered.  Dolphins really are magical beings and seem to exude delight and optimism. Joan runs his expeditions with a perfect balance between making every effort to see that the members enjoy themselves, experience genuine Greek culture, and become more aware of the challenges facing humankind if we wish to see the world’s oceans restored to robust health.


The outings are the centrepiece of the expedition and once at sea, Joan is all business, as any serious researcher should be.  His expectations of the participants are necessarily high, but achievable, since he is seeking clear and accurate information.   We all came away knowing we had made genuine contributions to Joan’s work. Vonitsa itself is a quiet and authentic small Greek town with many nice cafes and bars where you can enjoy a coffee after an outing or something more in the early evening.

Robert (USA)

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This has been a great opportunity to meet new people and spend a week learning about dolphins, fishing, the ecology of oceans, and play a small role in research I would otherwise never have known existed. The dolphin sighting expeditions are far more engaging (and challenging) than any dolphin watching tour. Just going out to look at dolphins would get pretty boring after the second day, but actively scouting, keeping track of different groups, closely watching behaviour, and hearing Joan’s commentary makes each sighting a unique experience. Joan’s passion and knowledge make his lectures and spontaneous Q&A’s enjoyable and more educational than I had expected. Being in the middle of a region struggling with the effects of overfishing and spending time with people who are deeply about that and other ecological/environmental dangers the ocean is facing really does make these issues feel real, important, and solvable. 


I also enjoyed the small group of volunteers. It’s a good way to meet people with a wide variety of backgrounds and a common sense of adventure and interest in environmental and scientific issues. The organization of living quarters, research duties, and meals are well designed to promote a lot of interaction and let people get to know each other. Having volunteers prepare their own dinners in turn is especially enjoyable. 


And lastly the town of Vonitsa and nearby towns are terrific places to spend some quiet time. By coincidence we happened to be here for the festival celebrating the first of May and walked out to the island to watch the dancing and horse “riding”. Without hesitation they shared a large portion of one of their freshly prepared lambs, and we had an excellent lunch.

Rob (USA)

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We walked down to the harbour past orange and lemon trees, past cats waiting hopefully next to a fishing boat.  Vonitsa was sleepy, with a few people drinking coffees and smoking in the seafront bars.  Only the swifts moved quickly, manoeuvring a few inches above the ground or sea to catch insects. 


Out on the sea, everything changed.  We made a sighting thanks to a group of gulls, circling and diving over a group of feeding dolphins.  The water boiled, fins surfaced and flukes thrashed.  Several dolphins were working together to circle and confuse the fish, then feed on them.  The seagulls also took a share, and helped us work out where to look for the next leaping dolphin… two to our right, three straight ahead, one to the left and a few behind us… we were surrounded!  We tried to watch all the action, but inevitably could only see a fraction of what was going on because it happened so quickly.  Gradually the dolphins dispersed, leaving the sea calm again. 


During the week, we were lucky enough to watch dolphins feeding several times, as well as seeing them resting, socialising and travelling together in a group, and we even had one bow ride our boat briefly.  It was a great experience not only to observe them in their natural habitat, but also to learn about them and to take part in research which will help ensure they survive and thrive. 

Roz (UK)

20 April 2011

Back on track!


Dolphins of Greece expedition is back on track! Today we carried out our first survey in the Amvrakikos Gulf. The conditions were perfect; a beautiful sunny day, perfect sea state conditions... but wait... something was missing... onboard we were only two!, myself and Miriam (our new research assistant from Barcelona). Unfortunately, for the first team of the present research season we had no volunteers. Since we have a minimum effort coverage to do per month and there are not so many days left of April, we were forced to go out anyway to make sure that our data was consistent with previous years. It would have been much better to have more observers (earthwachers) onboard, but despite the reduced crew number we managed to collect useful data.

I personally could not wish a better start. We were for close to two hours with a group of 7 adult bottlenose dolphins, which spent most of their time feeding at the surface on a school of sardines, permanently surrounded by a large flock of seagulls that were diving around the dolphins as "Kamikazees" to catch their valuable prey. An old friend was there leading the group; MAX, a well-known dolphin which I named after my youngest nephew ;-), identified for the first time back in 2001. It felt good to be back on track after the Winter's break. Let's hope that no more teams have to be cancelled because of low volunteer recruitment and that from now on we will be able of sharing this amazing experience and much more with all of you.

This is the first post of year 2011. From now on "Dolphins in a bottle" will be bringing you news and experiences from Earthwatch's Dolphins of Greece expedition. Do not forget to check it out regularly for the latest updates. And remember, we need you! so if you are considering to join our project, do not think twice, your can make the difference!

joAn

11 October 2010

Dolphins of Greece volunteers, 2-9 October 2010


I have had a wonderful week, seeing so many different dolphin behaviours and many sea birds including flamingos, cormorants and terns. Marina and Joe have made it special with their enthusiasm and anecdotes of a broad range of experiences in the field. I shall return to work refreshed and with an enhanced understanding of the importance of dolphins in their ecosystem.

Kate (UK)

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It was an amazing week from several points of view – to meet so different and interesting people and to work together in such a wonderful project. I learned a lot about the dolphins, their life and behaviour, about the sea – how big, how great and at the same time how unprotected it is. When you learn something new, that really touches your mind, you start to think in a different way and consequently you change your deeds. Moreover, you try to share this experience with the other people and hopefully can make the surrounding world a little bit better. I also hope that the data we have managed to collect will be helpful for the further scientific work. This week in Vonitsa impressed me a lot and I would like to say thank you very much to Marina and Joe and all the people from our Team.

Eugenia (Russia)

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Thanks to the weather, to a great team, to the dolphins and to Greece. It was a wonderful time and experience I have got. I do not think I would be able to get such an experience anywhere else and I hope I made a tiny contribution to the process of improvement of the environment. Let’s hope that the next teams and generations see how beautiful it is. Dolphins are wonderful creatures and have their right to survive as all the rest creatures in the world. The project was organised on very high professional level, exactly what was required for the effective work and team building exercise. My personal gratitude to Marina and Joe, for their professionalism and kind attention to the team, they were able to create the right atmosphere to give the feeling to every member of the importance of their contribution. The whole team was excellent, and everyone had a chance to use his or her knowledge and experience. I learned a lot, I hope to continue to cooperate with Earthwatch institute to take part in future projects. I wish all the best and every success to Tethys in their difficult and generous task. Thanks again and all the best!

Sergey (Kazakhstan)

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Our week in Vonitza has been amazing. Marina’s enthusiasm for her subject (botany excluded?) and life in general made all the week a joy, not just the dolphin recording and watching. Flamingos, seagulls, schools of small fish boiling the sea waters, exploring islands and local community living, all added to the experience in which watching dolphins bow-riding was the highlight. Joe’s helpful, good-humour and interest in the work encouraged us. He and Marina worked (worked well together to make up the whole brilliant team) with an interesting group of fellow volunteers. Thank you to all who made the week possible.

Judith and George (UK)

05 October 2010

Bug bite


I set out at the beginning of this experience with the aim of broadening my understanding of cetaceans and hoped to use it to gain more of an insight into the field of Cetology. I’ve always held a deep fascination for the sea and all its inhabitants. So, when I was lucky enough to be offered this opportunity to get to know it a little bit better, I was really thrilled.

After almost 8 months of waiting for the time to depart on this journey, I arrived in Vonitsa, like a sponge, ready to absorb as much as I could. I will be the first to admit that I might have glamorized the whole concept of studying dolphins in my head, during the last 8 months. However, Joan was quick to bring my head out of the clouds and put feet back down on the ground. Right from the very beginning I learned that working on a project with volunteers involved three separate but equally important skills. The first being able to help in the data collection whilst conducting surveys and then be able to analyse the photos of every encounter. The second, was being able to communicate and connect with the volunteers in a way that provided them with the means to play their own role in the projects development. The final skill was taking care of the domestic affairs. I was surprised to see the amount of effort that had to go into keeping the day-to-day functioning of the project running smoothly and tried my best to keep it that way. Although, whether I succeeded in that final respect is up to Joan. Still, all this effort paled into insignificance whenever I reflected on how lucky I was to be in a position where encounters with wild dolphins were an almost daily pleasure.

The peak of this joy was on the 18th September, in Kalamos of all places. It was business as usual at the Tethys field base. Arising early with the sunrise, we left bleary-eyed from our base in Vonitsa, in the Amvrakikos Gulf. We drove to the nearby area of Kalamos from where we were to embark on what most of us had resigned ourselves to as a survey without much hope. As we cast off from the Mytikas, Joan the principle investigator (a title given to him, much to his own distaste) drove our small rib into an ethereal mist shrouding the nearby island of Kalamos. A former watery Eden, up until 1997 had a healthy population of 150 common dolphins. Sadly, however, the population suffered a dramatic decline, from about 150 to 15 in just 15 years. This was primarily the result of overfishing, which led to the depletion of their prey. However, a mere ten minutes into our survey, Joan calls out excitedly, “Dolphins, three o’clock, horizon!” We all spin round and gaze expectantly at the area that Joan has steered the boat towards. We stare intently for the next thirty seconds and with no dorsal fin sighted, we thought perhaps Joan had been mistaken. Then, they surfaced again! Black shapes arching majestically out of the water, around 500 metres straight in front of us. Delighted, there was a collective intake of breath as the sheer size of the pod that we had found became apparent. At least 10 individuals were cruising along in front of the boat. However, the best was yet to come. Joan calls out “They’re common dolphins!”. Utterly astonished, we all jumped to our stations, Joan and myself yelling out instructions. Joan’s excitement, infectious. Elated calls from our volunteers began raining in providing us valuable information on dolphin numbers and location with respect to our boat, by putting into practice the well rehearsed procedures, originally taught role-playing on the beach back in Vonitsa and honed during a week spent observing the bottlenose dolphins of the Amvrakikos Gulf. We were lucky enough to remain with them for the next three hours, trying to collect as much data as possible on this important encounter. We watched with delight as they lounged about, just stretching near the surface. The day was topped off by a sighting of a newborn common dolphin, who like any regular kid, was bursting with energy keeping the adults from resting. However, despite the feeling of euphoria on board, the passing-by of two large bottom trawlers, heading to their fishing grounds, provided a sobering reminder that lessons had still not been learnt.

During the journey back to port, the atmosphere onboard the zodiac was palpable. Each member talked animatedly about such and such a sighting that they had had, despite the fact that we had all seen the same. Finally, it was with a feeling of great satisfaction, contentment and pride that we all disembarked from the boat. We drove back to Vonitsa exhausted, but with the knowledge that we had all witnessed something special.

For me personally, this experience was the culmination of three years of hard work in getting to where I hoped to be and sheer good luck that I had been offered this opportunity. I write this with two weeks of this incredible adventure to go and feel incredibly privileged to have had the opportunity to meet such a wide range of people from all over the world; to be able to work with such a beautiful species in their natural environment; and to have been taught so much by Joan and Marina, who, together, offer a staggering amount of knowledge and insight. They have both, each in their own unique and completely different way, conveyed a feeling that will be hard to forget. I fear I have been bitten by the same "bug" and it will be with a heavy heart that I finally leave to return to England, but also a content one, knowing that this experience has been everything that I could have wished it to be.

Joe Treddenick
Research assistant, Coastal Dolphins Greece

28 September 2010

Dolphins of Greece volunteers, 21-28 September 2010


Thanks to the staff (including Posi) for sharing your dolphins with us. I am glad we had a couple of wonderful weather days to witness these special animals and I hope the data collected continues to benefit their health.

Jean (USA)

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Participating in field research has been extremely interesting, with the help of Joan, Joe and especially the dolphins. The week has certainly caused me to re-examine my place in the whole ecosystem, from scuba diving to home aquariums to fishing and multiple other aspects of my daily life that I didn’t think about much in the past. Thanks to all who made this week possible.

Kim (USA)

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The weather didn’t cooperate very well but due to the extraordinary efforts of Joan and Joe we were able to maximize the experience. I appreciated the detailed explanations of the nuts and bolts of marine research. I look forward to reading the forthcoming papers.

Tom (USA)

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This was my opportunity to return to Vonitsa and the dolphins for the second year. I have dreamed of this week for the last 12 months, and memories did not fail. The quiet pace of Vonitsa with the freshest of air, combined with sparkling water and socializing dolphins…  a truly special experience. Thank you, Earthwatch and Tethys. May all our best wishes come true for the creatures of our oceans!

Karin (USA)

20 September 2010

Dolphins of Greece volunteers, 12-19 September 2010


Thanks for the great time in Vonitsa. We had 4 days of dolphin sightings and they were all different and special. The most beautiful day was on Saturday when we saw 10 common dolphins around Kalamos island. That made me very happy and gave me a feeling that there is still hope. To live so close with the other volunteers was a bit scary in the beginning. But I feel that we are a wonderful group and we became close friends. I laughed so much the last week. I am sure that we will keep in touch. I loved being with you all on that trip.
Joan, you are a wonderful (and very handsome) instructor with a lot of knowledge and passion. Thanks for everything. I had a wonderful time. Joe, keep on going. No matter in which direction. Keep on travelling. Thanks for everything.


Vanessa (Germany)

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This was my 28th Earthwatch expedition so I knew it would be another great experience and indeed I was very ,very pleased with the whole project. We had splendid sightings and an amazing turn of good fortune when we were able to study a pod of common dolphins; something which had not been observed here for several years. It was a delight to have a team with volunteers from Switzerland, Germany, Australia and 2 of us from California. The friendship and camaraderie was excellent and I feel we will be keeping in touch. The actual work was VERY interesting, and even when no dolphins were observed we were surrounded by beautiful scenery and splendid weather. Meals were excellent and quite often we succumbed to the temptations of local restaurants. Joan, our team leader, showed incredible knowledge about the dolphins, seeming to be aware of their location and able to predict where they would emerge. He is able to memorise their positions, location, numbers in groups, all in a whirlwind of action at times. Joe, too has a splendid grasp of all the activity . A wonderful opportunity to observe dolphins, create new bonds of friendship , AND … very important… help protect these amazing creatures.

George (USA)

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I want to tell you how much I enjoyed this exciting meeting with the dolphins. When I saw "my first one ever" my heart missed a beat! I will not forget being surrounded by these elegant, wonderful animals. Great to see newborns with their mothers, too! Special thanks go to Joan and Joe. On this team I got more exciting information than on any of my previous 12 Earthwatch expeditions due to Joan and his great knowledge and outstanding love for dolphins. Joe was very helpful and patient. As we were a team with only 5 members, we were very dependent on each other and now, at the end of the project we can say goodbye to real friends who we shall never forget. We had happy days together and laughed a lot but with my poor English I could not fully understand and follow all the jokes. Back home at Zurich with my memories, I will still be close to the project and I hope it will continue with your affection and care for the dolphins. Thanks so much for this wonderful and memorable experience!

Anneliese (Switzerland)

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Vonitsa and it’s dolphins have been all I expected plus more. Seeing the animals in their natural habitat was wonderful. Joan, sharing your knowledge of the dolphins helped me to better understand their nature and not expect what the aquariums show us. Especially exciting was seeing the common dolphins on our last day. Your enthusiasm as well as Joe's let us know how special this sighting was. Joe, you were so helpful and friendly, thank you. Good luck to you in whatever you decide to do. The village has been so friendly, the environment so pretty and the weather collaborated to make it a perfect Earthwatch experience. Of course the team members were one of the top ingredients; we all worked so well together. I will recommend the project to my friends.

Nikki (USA)