29 June 2009

Dolphins of Greece volunteers, 21-29 June 2009

Ok, so some of us get a bit confused about 9 o’clock vs. 3 o’clock, 8 o’clock vs. 2 o’clock, but we yell it out with great enthusiasm! My favorites from our group were the “Over there, by the bird!” and “Look, by the blue buoy!” Fortunately, Joan (almost always) kept a sense of humor about our novice ways.

It was an incredible week and I am sad to see it come to an end — even two days of rain couldn’t dampen our spirits or our opportunities to experience the amazing bottlenose dolphins of the gulf. To see newborns and juveniles and their protective moms was beyond description. My favorite “moment” (of many wonderful moments) was to sit quietly amongst a large group of dolphins, to listen to their breathing, to the unique sounds they make as they feed, and to hear and see how they communicate and coordinate with one another. Nothing can compare; it was an almost mystical experience that I wished could continue for hours.

I have learned much not only about the dolphins, but also about the complex interrelationships between fishing practices, pollution, fish farms, and the survival of the many species in our oceans. Thank you, Joan, for being such a great teacher and for your passion. The work Tethys and Earthwatch are doing will make such a difference. Thanks also for the opportunity to be a very small part of your efforts. I highly recommend this trip to anyone with interest in dolphins and our oceans!

Lynda, USA

Just to have the opportunity to be on the water in this gorgeous location is a pure pleasure, but this total experience exceeded my expectations in all regards. To be surrounded by feeding dolphins while seagulls circled overhead and terns dive-bombed for fish was a magical experience I will never forget.

I leave this trip with an increased respect for both the research and the researcher—how Joan could drive the boat while answering questions and at the same time manage to photograph all those animals was awesome. We now know how difficult it can be to identify an individual dolphin, but then Joan made it look so easy. When he could instantly identify a totally unmarked dorsal fin as the juvenile offspring of “Gindra” it made me realize how well he knows the 150 dolphins of Amvrakikos Gulf. And the sea turtles on the last day were amazing!

The video selection was a good thing. Never before have I considered what the fish eat that I consume. More “food for thought...”

Five people who had never previously met managed to form a good team. I thought I would die when I realized we would actually need to PLAN the meals as well as cook and clean, but that, too, turned out to really contribute to working as a group. Finally, Posi was much appreciated, because every once in a while you really need to pet a dog!

Karin, USA


I thought I had made a mistake to come to Vonitsa after I filled out the enrollment forms. I felt I was joining a boot camp, but my experience in Vonitsa turned out to be pleasant and exciting.

I learned a great deal about the research done with the dolphins and turtles. The videos shown were informative and mind awakening. I learned more than I had expected and I am glad I came.
Joan is very serious with the training and research, which is very important for the type of work done. I am confident and trust that my contribution was for a great cause and effort.

I understand the results of this research are made public to the Vonitsa’s community. It is critical to bring awareness to and get people involved in the project, so they feel part of this effort (it is their town), bring possible solutions, and make the project successful. Thank you to ALL of you for doing this job and for bringing awareness of this wonderful world of the dolphins.

Lilia, USA

21 June 2009

All good things must come to an end

Isn’t it strange how six weeks sometimes feel like a small eternity? That’s at least the impression I have as my time here in Amvrakikos Gulf is drawing to an end. Once immersed in the pleasant routine of combined field and analytic work, everything else fades away and you feel like you have been here forever. Although a cliché, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that this experience has paved the road for a new chapter in my life.

Professionally, I have learnt and developed tremendously, and have no doubt that this is my ‘path in life’ (to throw in another cliché). Personally, I have had a lot of fun and enjoyed every day out at sea. ‘Conservationally’, I hope that my work will make some kind of contribution to cetacean research.

On my last day we also made a second survey of the site of Kalamos, and the comparison with Amvrakikos is rather striking. This place looks like a paradise, but is unfortunately a paradise in decline, for dolphin-lovers at least. Listening to Joan describing the situation of 10 years ago, it is difficult to believe that hardly any cetaceans or marine mega fauna remain.

Being able to follow your beliefs and passions as part of your work is a privileged few are entitled. I thus feel doubly grateful for having had the opportunity to work with Tethys as a research assistant. A special thanks is due to Joan and Giovanni, whose guidance and support have made my time here not only possible but also challenging and exciting. Bon courage for next week Joan!

Christina Geijer

19 June 2009

Dolphins of Greece volunteers, 11-19 June 2009

I want to thank Earthwatch and Joan for a remarkable experience. Participating in your project has been an opportunity to visit a beautiful country and to contribute, even on a small scale, to a study that impacts our lifetime and future lifetimes. I am leaving the project with more knowledge than I had when I arrived, and I appreciate this. Once again, thank you, Joan, for sharing your knowledge with us newcomers and for appreciating that volunteers provide extra eyes and hands for your research. Best wishes to you and Tethys as you continue your efforts.

Joyce, USA


My heart is full. This has been a wonderful experience. Being on the gulf and being able to observe the dolphins engaging in their natural behavior is a treasure that I will carry with me and share with others. I am also grateful for the opportunity to learn how to recognize the individuals and to crop photos, match and catalogue those individuals. I believe in and agree with what you are doing. Keep up the good work. I also have to mention that I was very grateful to have Posi to come “home” to each day. “Be the change you wish to see in the world”. We must learn to live by these words if we hope to see a positive difference in the state of our Earth. Being a part of projects like these gives us insight into how our every day choices has a definite impact on all aspects of life, and living beings. Thank you again for the opportunity to help make a positive difference. Efkharisto poli!

Arlene, USA


Life Changing trip... The lightbulb is certainly on now thanks to this Earthwatch project I had the opportunity to volunteer on. We learned so much! My mind was like a sponge drinking in all that Joan had to teach us during our time here. The documentaries after the computer work were very educational and I will never buy food the same way ever again. Had never seen a fish farm before coming here. The experience of the symbiotic relationship of the seagulls and the dolphins was beautiful. The town and the people of Vonitsa were wonderful. I had a great time with my team members. The learning curve with the computer work was very slight and therefore a fun experience in recognizing the individual animals by their fin. Great Trip! Would highly recommend an Earthwatch group to others. I plan on another project for next year... maybe whales? I am looking forward to the links Joan said he will send to us so we can continue our education and that of our family and friends about these beautiful mammals.

Patty, USA

15 June 2009

Andrea Catherwood visits the Dolphins of Greece expedition

What an incredible experience. Looking out across the Ionian sea at such a idyllic Greek postcard perfect scene it isn’t hard to believe there are dolphins here, but I was still unprepared for the huge thrill of observing them at such close quarters as they feed, socialise and occasionally perform aerobatics.

I feel totally immersed in another world both on water and at the field station where we live. I admit to taking a nerdish delight in learning to crop and match the photos of dolphin fins that are used to identify the dolphins we see each day and that help with the research being done to try and protect these vulnerable animals. It’s a long time since I absorbed such a lot of new information and enjoyed myself so much at the same time.

The chance to live and work with a scientist as knowledgeable and charismatic as Joan Gonzalvo is a real privilege. His passion for marine mammals and protecting their habitat is infectious. The arguments against pollution and overfishing that are ruining this precious environment are overwhelming. I hope that through the work of Earthwatch and their partner organisations the dolphins will survive here in the Amvrakikos Gulf and elsewhere, but that depends on real action to reverse current unsustainable levels of commercial fishing which have, for example, decimated the nearby dolphin population at Kalamos by robbing them of their food.

I don’t want to show the photographs of this amazing trip to my children when they’re older and say ‘Did you know that back in the olden days there used to be dolphins in the Mediterrenean.’

Andrea Catherwood is a British broadcaster and journalist writing a travel article for the Independent on Sunday newspaper.

11 June 2009

First survey of the year in Kalamos

On June 8th, we carried out the first survey of the year in the area of Kalamos. It felt good to navigate these waters, where I had my first dolphin sighting ten years ago, after four years without personally doing any survey in this area.

However, no dolphins were spotted across more than 3 hours of survey under good sea state conditions. This was no surprise, considering the negative dolphin population trends that we have been describing over the years.

During the survey, countless anecdotes about the numerous sightings I had in these crystal-clear waters came to mind. It is hard to believe that an area that was so full of marine life just a decade ago has become such a desert. Surveying the area of Kalamos will help us keep in mind that bottlenose dolphin abundance in the Amvrakikos Gulf cannot be given for granted. Dolphins can and sometimes do decline in relatively short periods of time, and we must ensure that those we are studying in the Gulf won’t face the kind of anthropogenic impact that affected the area of Kalamos, former common dolphin paradise.


10 June 2009

Dolphins of Greece volunteers, 1-9 June 2009

I’m not much of a writer but after being here for almost three weeks I feel like I have so much to say. The problem is to gather the words to say how I feel.

It has been so amazing the whole experience… it has just been out of this world for me. I have learned so much from my two groups but especially from Joan and Christina. Joan has a talent like I have never seen before. The way he spots the dolphins, tracks them and monitors their every movement (with the help of his excellent volunteers). Christina is always eager to learn. During her spare time she even likes to write every one's recipes down so she can experiment herself.

I wish I were staying for another three weeks so I could keep having new experiences with the dolphins, with the new groups and with Christina and Joan. I would like to know more about overfishing and how it is affecting these amazing creatures in our ocean although Joan did an excellent job of explaining. Even after just the first week I felt like going outside and screaming my lungs out at all those fishermen who are destroying the marine life and natural habitats with their intrusive fishing gears and to all the greedy ones who just will not stop until everything is gone...

It is very nice here in the Gulf of Amvrakikos. We saw dolphins every day except one. But that could soon change; on our last day we went to Kalamos and we did not see one dolphin. There the water is crystal clear compared with Amvrakikos but their decline there was due to over fishing and Tethys researchers actually witnessed it. It is really sad to see such an amazing animal disappear as if it was never there… Luckly bottom trawlers and purse seiners are not allowed in the Gulf of Amvrakikos or who knows what the situation would be...

I’m glad I could help out on this course and will definitely be interested in doing another course like this one in the future. When I’ll get home I am going to spread the word about pollution, overfishing and the effects they have on our ecosystems. I would like to thank Joan and Christina for this wonderful and amazing experience that has really opened my eyes to a lot of things.

Rory, Ireland


I booked this expedition way back in November 2008 for something to look forward to in 2009. Also, I had attended a couple of Earthwatch lectures prior to deciding which expedition to participate on (including the lecture on this expedition a few months earlier). As the date got closer, I got more nervous as I had no idea what to expect...what kind of people would I be living with for over a week, would I see any dolphins and would I mess up any of the data that would be collected for the research?... I am glad to say that I was put in a varied group of people from different backgrounds and with different experiences.

I think it is fair to say that we all got on and will have fond memories and stories to share with friends and family back home (however, though we all respected each other, I would have preferred more privacy in the living quarters but that’s the prude and ‘Sloanie’ in me) but it does not compare to (or take away) the exhilirating feeling of being in Joan’s Zodiac at quite high speed looking, finding and observing the dolphins. That is, by far, the best part of the expedition and I don’t think there is anything in my life that could ruin those moments. Plus, I think I did OK with the science bit.

The next challenge for me is how to apply what I have learnt from this trip into my day-to-day living when I return to reality.
Finally, I have a lot of respect for Joan with his dedication to his work. It can’t be easy for him to have all these strangers turning up almost week-by-week but I think it is fair to say that those who have chosen to participate on this trip value the underlying reason for his work.

Khadiza, UK

This was my first experience of an Earthwatch project and my first experience of doing anything like this. I wasn’t sure what would be expected of me, or how capable I would be of performing the required tasks. I’m pleased to say that Joan and Christina were very thorough and patient in their instruction and I soon felt like I was providing useful work for the project. It was sometimes difficult to remain focused in the boat, due to the beauty of the animals we were observing and Joan had to bring me back to earth with comments such as: “Exactly where is WOW” and “Over There! We will dump someone Over There!”

After the initial culture shock for some of us at the sleeping arrangements, the accommodation proved comfortable and we soon fell into a (mainly) harmonious existence. The communal cooking and meals were fun and it was also enjoyable to visit some of the local restaurants.
I was constantly impressed by the commitment and professionalism of all those that work on this project, full or long term, I’m not sure I could handle it.

Just from what I have described to her on the phone, my wife has already expressed a strong interest in joining the project next year.

Jeff, UK (Greek resident)

06 June 2009

Thanks for a wonderful day

On board Joan (PI), Christina (research assistant), Khadiza, Jeff, Rory, Jenny and myself (Luca). As usual, we took the research boat at 8 am, after several hours surveying the waters of the Amvrakikos Gulf the crew was a little bit depressed, because we had not spotted any dolphins and the sun was hammering.

With the patience that characterizes me, I was the first to ask to go back to the shore.
Fortunately Joan and Christina convinced us, with biologist tricks, to carry on for another half hour. Hence, a lot happened... Jenny was the first one to spot a dolphin fin with the help of Jeff. Immediately, we all started to see dolphins swimming, splashing and surface feeding on what was likely a large school of sardines. They were everywhere and occasionally at just few meters from our boat. It was an amazing feeling seeing these splendid creatures all around us… but more was yet to come!

As a Sicilian free-diver coming from the school of the several times world champion Pellizzari, Apnea Academy, I often visit the islands of Linosa and Lampedusa. They are two sanctuaries for sea turtles, my favourite sea animal.
Especially in Linosa I always visit the “hospital” of sea turtles, treating animals by-caught in fish nets or injured as consequence of big boats going far too fast or with too little “brain”. However, it is very rare to see them swimming in nature nowadays. Well, yesterday Joan spotted one sea turtle, and we were all able to observe this fantastic animal, of at least 80 cm of carapace, swimming and resting at the surface. What a fantastic surprise! Truly an example of the immense beauty of nature.

In the Gulf, the visibility underwater is very reduced (just a few metres), which made our encounter even more unique. As a free diver in these last 15 years I have seen the inhabitants of the sea getting ill and progressively disappear. That’s why this encounter was so magic, you can presume that because of saying this I’m a radical ecologist, but this is not the case.

As a matter of fact before being a free diver, I am a spearfisher “a nasty boy in the mind of ecologist”, who for 20 years has been fishing around the coast of Sicily, south Italy and Greece. Telling you the truth the underwater world has no secrets for me, sad but true every time I go fishing now the chances to see and take a fish are increasingly more remote. It seems that the sea is progressively getting empty and very fast. This is why I chose to come over here and give my small contribution in terms of money and work to Earthwatch and Tethys. Not much, but something.

Well, not much more to say. Thanks for a wonderful day. I want to thank also this bunch of people I found here. Jeff with his English humour, Rory with his eternal support, Jenny and her stories on bird watching, Khadiza and her photoidentification skills and Christina for remembering me that feminism is not dead. You all made my life better, this 10 days here will remain in my memory. Last but not least, Joan, thanks to you also, even if you drive the boat as Schumacher in his best days.

Luca, Italy

01 June 2009

Dolphins of Greece volunteers, 21-29 May 2009

Connectedness makes me feel content, gives me hope, drives me to do and be more than I ever might otherwise—and this Earthwatch experience has been all about that, in my mind, giving me so much connection to things I have lost touch with over the years. Idealism about a better future. Curiosity about other ways of life. I see the connections better now between what happens at fisheries and what I eat from the supermarket. I understand a little more what about the connection between articles in magazines, documentaries, and public policy and what goes on behind the scenes in terms of what scientists are doing in the field.

The dedication of the staff is so inspiring. That they are also especially charming and interesting was a bonus, but I see now how that kind of openness and ability to connect with others makes them ideal for the human side of this important work. I’m sure it is a struggle for Joan to make friends with the locals, but he seems to be up to the task. Most importantly, I feel more connected to the effort to help these animals and these ecosystems.

I am now more motivated, better armed with powerful information, to take the message to friends and family and neighbours that we all have to work to solve the problem of over fishing our oceans. We can do something and we have to do something. Now.
All my hopeful expectations for this trip were fulfilled. (Well...Joan never once let me drive the boat or shoot with that camera of his.... ☹. And I would not have minded seeing a loggerhead up close....) And none of that which I feared came to pass: It wasn’t too hot, I didn’t get sick on the boat (there was that one agonizing morning when I was afraid to say that I needed to fare il pee pee—hell, I was prepared to jump overboard, but thankfully this wasn’t necessary), the group dynamics were very enjoyable and enriching (I’d forgotten how much I can appreciate the energy of young people!), and we saw LOTS of dolphins doing their thing in the wild.

Personally, I was also very jazzed by the pelicans—they were like parasailers coming in for a landing, their wings are so wide.
This experience has opened my eyes. I think of how I take so much for granted—eating fish whenever I want really (and I used to feel so good about that! I mean, it’s not red meat, right?), throwing my clothes in the dryer, jumping into a hot shower without a hesitation—and I am determined now that I can no longer live in this way without at the very least being mindful of my footprint. How can I make a difference, what can I do to be more conservation minded? This experience has given me some answers, some motivation, and for that I am exceedingly grateful. Thank you, Earthwatch and may I live up to my own expectations for myself now when I return to the States.

Laura, USA

My first impression on the Zodiac - “Oh, this is what it is like to be a Somali pirate!”, but here we were not chasing boats to hijack, but rather chasing dolphins to understand them, and how they are affected by their habitat and how they adapt to its degradation. The work being done by Joan and the Tethys Institute is a beautiful example of how science can provide knowledge about the fascinating creatures with whom we share this globe, but also how that knowledge can be translated to affect public policy regarding the environment and the creatures who live in it. I felt privileged to be able to be a small part of that effort. Because the dolphins live at the top of the food chain (like tuna and swordfish) they can serve as a “bellweather species”, who serve as a proxy for the health of the environment (in addition to being a fascinating to watch).

What impressed me was how Joan and his colleagues have taken the information they acquire and not just turn them into publications to appear in scientific journals, but also use it to try to make a difference for both cetaceans and people alike. Their understanding covers the interrelationship between the dolphins themselves, the dolphins and their environment, and the political and cultural forces that lead to the degradation of the environment in notable. Their efforts at education, not only to the volunteers, but to the local community and to the larger public is impressive. I thought that during this trip I would learn about dolphins, but I learned so much more, especially about the ecosystems of the oceans.

I am a scientist so the process we went through everyday was new but familiar – a protocol and a procedure, different ways of coding data, and then crunching the fine detailed information to get a larger picture. But here the rewards were so tangible - sighting dolphins and being able to track them, seeing mothers with their newborn dolphins (who over the course of one small week learned to dive like an adult), and after days of struggling in which all dolphins fins looked alike, finally beginning to see distinct patterns. All of this added up to the huge satisfaction during the final day of being able to distinguish between two newborn dolphins (who we affectionately named “batboy” for his rakishly sweptback fin and “son of stubby” for his rounded fin, reminiscent of one of the adults).

And then there are the people who make this all happen. Joan has my deep admiration and respect. He clearly is a thorough and thoughtful scientist, who has a larger vision (and plan) for how his systematic scientific endeavors can have an important impact. His good humor, patience (and at times appropriate impatience), ability to communicate, knack for teaching and team building, and overall joy for life and the life of an activist scientist are infectious. And given my experience training graduate students, it was a real treat for me to watch him work with Christina – leading her, guiding her, and challenging her. And it was equally enjoyable to watch Christina as she learned the ropes, becoming more comfortable and familiar with the procedures, and also how she pushed back at Joan, asserting her independent viewpoint when appropriate, and stepping into the role of not just a student, but a partner. I admire her courage because all her mistakes and missteps were pointed out in front of a bunch of relative strangers. To retain such good humor under those conditions takes a special type of person.

And I also feel fortunate to have such good groupmates – Rory, ever so polite and considerate (with really sharp eyes and a really good way of catching the dolphins on video, although sometimes I could not understand everything he said in his thick Irish brogue) and Elah, who willingness to be open to experiences and just “be” in the world seemed a calm antidote to the chaos on board when the dolpins arrived – because they made the trip all the more special.
I have learned so much in these past 9 days, and I am already thinking of the ways that I might build on what I have experienced to try and make a difference.

Marie, USA


I was looking forward to being the first volunteer to participate in the program twice, but i was beat to the punch by the very lovely volunteer, Elah, whose entry is next. This experience has truly been one to remember. This is only my first session here and I already feel as if I’ve learned enough to change my views on the way I live my life. Although I’ve never been much of a fish eater (as the other volunteers have learned from barely being able to swallow what I’m sure was delectable shrimp made by Joan) I wouldn’t soon become one. After watching many documentaries on overfishing and discussing with Joan and my fellow volunteers of the current state of our oceans, I realize that we are responsible for changing how we manage our day to day lives regarding what we consume.

I’ve had an overall fantastic experience and am glad that I get to be here for another nine days.
I would also like to mention Joan. Obviously without him a program like this could never exist. It’s with enthusiams and passion that he conducts his work and manages his volunteers. I’m deeply envious that he gets to wake up every morning and do what he loves and that he is able to share his experiences with the volunteers in the hopes that they retain and pass his message along.

Rory, Ireland


Before I get into the specifics of what I’ve learned during the past two session, I would just like to start off by saying that this has been a truly amazing experience. Aside from being able to go out and see dolphins every day (albeit, every day save one) there were quite a few bonuses. Never having been to this part of the country before, the volunteers were able to take in the stunning scenery with fresh eyes as well as appreciate the beautiful sight that is a newborn swimmings alongside it’s mother and a few dedicated protectors.

However, I was pleasantly surprised that as a volunteer I wasn’t solely along for the ride. I felt as if I was helping to conduct valuable research rather than being made to do useless busy work and paying for it. Instead I was granted an experience that I will be talking, if not bragging about, for years to come.
Although I specifically chose this program because it was in Greece and specialized in dolphins, during my first session there were two Earthwatch employees here as well. One who chose this project because she is a marine biologist, and the other who was randomly assigned to this program. Just after one day, it became quite obvious that the latter had gotten just as into it as me; a life long, die-hard dolphin fan.

Aside from going out on the inflatable each day, we were granted a significant amount of free time which, for me was mainly devoted to napping. However, I was pleasantly surprised by all the other little activities made available to us by this quaint town. Aside from sleeping, I had the option of taking walks to mini island, grabbing a beer or coffee with the other volunteers or just plain lazing about on the beach. I got a wicked nice tan if I do say so myself. Aside from that I would like to say that this situation is quite neat. The other volunteers, Marie, Laura and Rory and Christina, Joan’s research assistant, are amazingly nice and are here for the same reason I am; to learn about dolphins in their natural habitat and the threats the oceans face (Joan can answer any question posed to him), and just enjoy my time doing something I love in a fantastic environment.

I also want to throw out there that in the past twenty days (for me), I’ve eaten some of the best food in my life. As well as experienced the best coffee. After each little excursion, as I’m sure others have been privee to, we stopped for coffee at the same restaurant where Joan knows everyone and had the fabulous cafe freddo. And no offense to the dolphins as they are majestic creatures, but the coffee, I believe is a note worth ending on.

Elah, USA