29 May 2009

What is a dolphin group?

That group-living animals mainly exist in groups is pretty straightforward. What is less straightforward is how to define what constitutes a group, particularly for elusive and socially intelligent creatures like bottlenose dolphins.

In areas of high dolphin densities - like the Amvrakikos Gulf - it is common to see plenty of dolphins spread around the boat at various distances. Should all of these individuals be categorised as a single group, even though it is virtually impossible to count those further away? Or should you set a radial boundary with your boat as a reference point and only regard those individuals that move within that circle as a group? Or maybe solely count those animals engaged in the same behaviour? And surely, shouldn’t there be a standardised methodology of how to define a group across research sites? These are some of the questions I am trying to clarify and answer in the context of my Master thesis here in the Amvrakikos Gulf.

Each day that Joan, the volunteers and I venture out in the Gulf I count the dolphins according to different group definitions. The immediate aim is to analyse the discrepancy in group size estimates that they might yield, as well as determine which definition is most appropriate for the Amvrakikos Gulf. The overarching objective is also to bring attention to the conservation and ecological (etc.) importance of using a standardised group size definition, and come up with a suggestion of what such a methodology might entail.

Theoretically it might seem like an easy job, but the field is a different empirical matter. After two weeks of field work, my experience is this - in nature, things are often more intricate and complex than what they appear at first glance, and on philosophical days I’m inclined to agree with Socrates ‘all I know is that I know nothing‘. But, to me that’s also the charm about research - it’s challenging and requires complete immersion of all your faculties. And of course, the curiosity involved in not being able to predict where an experiment might take you.

Christina Geijer

25 May 2009

Challenging counts

Two consecutive days of observing dolphins ‘families’, with all age classes represented, has left me even more intrigued by the intricacies of social organisation among these intelligent animals. Flanked by what we presume to be their mothers, siblings and ‘babysitters’, Joan, myself and the team of volunteers enjoyed a couple of magic hours in the company of four cute newborns.

Always curious, the dolphins allowed us to approach them, making life easier for Joan, who in total took around 350 photographs for subsequent identification.

It seemed like the whole dolphin population living in the Amvrakikos Gulf came out to play during these days and we must have seen over 30 animals spread around the boat, plus many more in sight.

As a research assistant and Master student doing my thesis in collaboration with Tethys I’ve really managed to time my field work right. But, with an aim to count dolphins according to different group definitions, my first two days of data collection were hmmm... somewhat challenging... but wonderful for sure!!

Christina Geijer

22 May 2009

Life goes on for "super-mama"

Today we saw a very special friend. I was happy to see a female bottlenose dolphin very well know to us. Her photoidentification code in our catalogue is 03046, but since July 2007 I keep referring to her as “super-mama” (super-mom). During the 3rd and 4th of July 2007 we observed her mourning a dead newborn, likely her own offspring.

Our last encounter was on December 2008. This morning we saw her in close association with another newborn. There were three other newborns/calves in that group. Next sightings will confirm whether or not she is the actual mother of the newborn she was swimming with.

We will keep you updated!


18 May 2009

Dolphins of Greece volunteers, 11-19 May 2009

Nine days in the office, or in the field on the Amvrakikos Gulf, Greece? I know which I prefer! As Earthwatch staff, we are here to experience what a project is like from a volunteer’s perspective, and remind ourselves why we do what we do.

Elah, our fellow volunteer, is an avid dolphin lover, with a passion that shines through. Despite our different backgrounds, after the first day at sea, we are all infatuated.

Our first sighting had started following a single dolphin, and ended with a big group. They were socialising, diving and feeding, and demonstrated some amazing aerial displays. They are hungry and feeding on fish that they drive to the surface, and the surrounding seabirds are making the most of the opportunity for an easy dinner.

Each day has given us sightings like this, but the best had to be when we found two newborn dolphins, just a few days old, porpoising alongside their mothers, their foetal creases still visible. We felt so privileged to see them. This goes for the adults too, who have let us into their secret lives – we will all miss Max, Gindra, Koboloi and the rest - whose fin markings we have got to know quite well.

But it is not just dolphin research. To quote Elah, “I’m participating in a program that is actually going toward something useful, with a scientist who knows the answer to any question posed on his subject”. We have also enjoyed the friendliness of the local people, our post-survey cafĂ© freddos, the beautiful surroundings, comfortable house and great food.

All in all, it has been an absolutely fantastic experience!

Emma (Earthwatch Engagement Officer), Debbie (Earthwatch Research Officer), and Elah (dolphin addict).

17 May 2009

Earthwatchers in the field

Our second team of volunteers is about to end and tomorrow will be our last day at sea. This time our team relied on the participation of two members of the Earthwatch Institute, who have been given the opportunity of seeing how things work in the field.

Emma, from the Engagement Department, working with several corporate partners and giving support to staff throughout their fielding process, and Debbie, working at the Research Department on the developing of the Oceans research programme.

It is always good to get a chance to spend time with our Earthwatch colleagues and get to know them more personally, since our communication occurs mostly through e-mail.

They both have shown great interest in our research and have worked very hard both onboard and at the field station, where they have dedicated extensive time to identifying dolphins spotted during the morning. Great work girls!

It wouldn't be fair not to also mention Elah, our third volunteer this week. She has put as much dedication as our Earthwatchers and luckily enough she will stay here during the next team, too.

Those of you are willing to hear their version of the experience at the Dolphins of Greece expedition will have to wait until tomorrow!


13 May 2009

First newborns of the season!

Today we saw the first newborns of the 2009 research season in the Amvrakikos Gulf.

What initially started as a sighting of a single individual quickly evolved into one that will stay in our retinas for quite a while.

After about half an hour with this new group, we were amazed to see two newborns approaching our boat up to a few metres.

Aina, our Catalan research assistant, was especially happy. Finally, today, on her last day in Amvrakikos until next September, she was the one who spotted the group!

As I write these lines, Aina is on her way back to Barcelona. I am sure that she still has a smile on her face while recalling the images of this morning.

Newborns are always good news. Their immature way of swimming, surfacing with their chins up besides their mothers, and their foetal creases on both sides giving them a zebra-like appearance, filled us with joy and optimism.


11 May 2009

Lily Grace

Gen and Chris Johnson from earthOCEAN, friends and collaborators of Tethys, are happy to announce that…

On Saturday May 9, at 7 am, Lily Grace Johnson was born.

Lily weighed 8.4 pounds (about 3.8 kg) and her birth ‘only’ took six hours. Lily is healthy and happy.

Mum Gen is fine and she will soon get back home with Lily. Dad Chris is busy downloading all his digital stuff, and he admitted that “… yes, I have been going crazy taking pictures of her ;-)”

Congratulations to Gen and Chris!

We wish to Lily a spectacular life full of joy, happiness and health.

Silvia Bonizzoni

09 May 2009

Dolphins of Greece volunteers, 1-9 May 2009

A truly great experience...

Amazing PI, asssistant, dolphin sightings, location, food, weather and team.
Always seeing and learning something new. Spacious airy, clean living, working, eating, socialising and sleeping accommodaton. Different Greek foods – love the lamb, pies, Greek salad, shrimps and moussaka.

Vonitsa – a delightful small very real Greek town – loved the fishing harbour and fishernen – good restaurants for coffee & dinner.

Dolphins – saw so many frenzied and belly-up feeding, porpoising, diving, swimming, socialising – such magical sightings.

Team mates – Mark on his Blog, Richard – a star on the Netpad, Aina learning fast herself and teaching us – Joan firm but fun leadership, with well-balanced, busy and varied days and of course, Posei his well fed and loved dog. Michael and I participated fully too making our contribution, albeit very small, to this most worthwhile research.

A special mention of our PI, Joan who shows such humanity and integrity, great knowledge and love of dolphins and the local community and all with a twinkle in his eye and a smile on his face. Keep up this amazing work. Thank you for this experience!

Jill, UK


My first experience of Earthwatch was a project in the Bahamas – Dolphins and Whales of Abaco Island which was an excellent start to a future in voluntary conservation ten years ago. Since then I have found that from time to time working in conservation has a moment when things don’t feel as positive as they should. Setbacks occur and it’s time to recharge the battery. This is my 5th project with Earthwatch now and it has been an excellent way of rekindling the enthusiasm for conservation locally. This effect is due to Joan – who through his own dedication and untiring commitment to ‘getting the message across’ is a great example of someone who seems to be able to be undaunted in his positive approach to the education of the community and us as volunteers. So I will go back to the UK with not only wonderful sightings of dolphins in my memory but a refreshed ‘act locally’ hat on, and try to be a better communicator when promoting my own bit of conservation. Thanks Joan and Aina for giving our team so much of your time and help in understanding the bigger picture.

Michael, UK


"Sit down, Reshard", "Don’t look out to Sea, Reshard!", "Look out at 12:00 to 3:00, Reshard!" These were just a few of the many directions Joan directed at me as we bounced along in the Gulf in search of the dolphins. This was all before the dolphins were sighted. But, once the dolphins were sighted the words were quickly forgotten and the action came fast and furious. One of us would manned the Netpad, another timed the dives, the others would help spot and count the number of dolphins. We were truly kept busy for the next two or three hours. Our time out on the gulf passed quickly.

Joan was our team leader. He was assisted by Aina. They were very good to work with. They were patient and very informative. I must admit, I needed a little extra help from time to time, especially while using the dreaded Netpad. They both showed great patience at these times. They heard the word oops often!
Our volunteers were Michael and Jill from England, Mark from New Hamshire, and myself, Richard from Kent, Washington. We came together because we all shared a common interest in dolphins and the environment. Being here in Vonitsa this past week was one of the High Points of my life. I am sure Jill, Michael, and Mark would agree with that statement. I believe we share a common concern with the condition of our modern world. There are things about this world we would like to change.

After being here for a week I see hope. Being a teacher I will return and share with my students many of the things we did and witnessed. Perhaps in this small way we can make a difference.
If asked, "Would you go on this trip again?" my response would (will) be, "You Betcha! I would do it in a second!" And perhaps I will!

Richard, USA


Thank you for a truly remarkable experience. We have seen lots of dolphins doing amazing things. I would like to thank Earthwatch and the Kelly family for their generous gift that made this experience possible for myself and my students. I would especially like to thank Joan and Aina for making this such a positive learning experience. This has re-charged my batteries and my students have greatly benefited as well. I wish Joan, Aina and the dolphin project the best of luck and success preserving these amazing animals.

Mark, USA

08 May 2009

Encounter with a dead sea turtle

This morning, while surveying the waters of the Gulf in search for dolphins, a dead loggerhead sea turtle Caretta caretta was found floating adrift.

Examination of the corpse was carried out by our team from the research boat. Decomposition was not advanced, indicating that death had probably occurred less than 24 hours before.

It was a female with a carapace length of 70 cm. who presented clear signs of by-catch in a trammel net. There was a piece of net protruding from the beak and entangled around the turtle's head.

Loggerhead turtles are a common sight in the Amvrakikos Gulf. Since Tethys started to work in this area back in year 2001, over 300 sightings of this species have been recorded. However, this is the first time we have found a dead animal with signs of by-catch in a fishing net.


07 May 2009

Life in the field video conference

Yesterday afternoon, through video conferencing, I had the privilege of sharing 45 minutes with students of the Pentucket Middle School in West Newbury, Massachusetts, USA.

They showed great interest in the dolphin research and conservation work carried out by Tethys in the context of the Dolphins of Greece expedition. Certainly, Mark (one of our current Earthwatch volunteers and their teacher of Earth Sciences) managed to awake their curiosity.

Events like this one help me keep in mind that research is just one instrument for conservation. The contribution of devoted educators willing to convey a strong conservation message to future generations is another.


05 May 2009

Amvrakikos Gulf: new photo-identification data

The research project ‘Dolphins of Greece’, conducted by Tethys in the Amvrakikos Gulf, has recently completed the analysis of photo-identification data pertinent to the whole 2008.

A total of 3,818 selected digital photos, obtained from January to December during sightings along survey transects that cover the whole gulf, allowed to photo-identify 115 individual bottlenose dolphins.

Most of these recognizable individuals are well-known and were already present in the catalogue started in 2001 , but four of them are new animals never seen before.

Ten of the 115 dolphins were sighted together with immature individuals (newborns, calves or juveniles) and this looks like a promising sign for this highly-resident population that lives in a semi-closed eutrophic gulf.

Photographs included a number of non-identifiable animals, i.e. individuals carrying no distinctive marks on their dorsal fins. These, as well as all the subadult classes, should be added to the number of animals sighted in 2008. So, at present, it appears that the total number of animals seen in the Gulf last year is consistent with the population estimate of 150 made in previous years (Bearzi et al. 2008).

Ongoing monitoring will allow researchers to gain insight into the ecology and trends of this unique bottlenose dolphin community.

Silvia Bonizzoni

For more information:
Bearzi G., Agazzi S., Bonizzoni S., Costa M., Azzellino A. 2008. Dolphins in a bottle: abundance, residency patterns and conservation of bottlenose dolphins Tursiops truncatus in the semi-closed eutrophic Amvrakikos Gulf, Greece. Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems 18(2):130-146.

03 May 2009

It feels good meeting old friends

On board, Jill, Michael, Richard and Mark (Earthwatch volunteers), Aina (our Catalan research assistant participating in the project in the context of her MSc thesis) and myself. Two days at sea and we had our first two sightings of the year.

In both cases, the dolphins were found after less than half an hour of navigation. Yesterday our survey was briefly interrupted by an encounter with two dalmatian pelicans. The first dolphin to appear at the horizon was “Helikas”, a highly marked adult with a big notch behind his dorsal fin, probably the result of an unfortunate encounter with a speedboat. As we approached him another two dolphins joined performing a series of leaps. Again, these were well known to us because of the distinctive marks on their dorsal fins, “Koboloi” and “Max”. It feels good to meet these good old friends again.

One of our enthusiast volunteers, Mark Worrall, is participating in the project in the context of Earthwatch’s Life From The Field Programme. I will now switch keyboard with him.


I am a participant of an Earthwatch fellowship grant funded by the generous support of the Kelly family from Massachusetts. I am an eight-grade Earth Science teacher at Pentucket Middle School in West Newbury, Ma, USA. It is an honor and privilege to be studying these amazing animals in Greece. To observe these animals breaching and feeding in the wild is an awe-inspiring experience that I get to share with my students. I hope to contribute to the preservation of these animals and their habitat.


Visit Mark’s blog