29 July 2009

Dolphins of Greece volunteers, 21-29 May 2009

I thought the lack of sleep was going to be a major problem when I arrived to find we would be awake at 7am each day, but with the atmosphere of the other volunteers, Susie and Joan the sleep was soon forgotten… until the beautiful siesta in the afternoon. Waking up to the thought of your day being spent identifying dolphins and their behaviour, as well as the odd sea turtles (they are so cute!), was amazing. It was a dream I have always wanted to fulfil. You almost get to know the animals through the cropping and matching activities in the afternoon and feel as though you are helping them directly by conducting a part of the data collection for scientific research. I had never seen a dolphin before, not even at a zoo, so the size was what struck me, as well as the cheeky grin on their face. The evening lectures were really interesting and I learnt so much, which was helpful to supplement the work we completed on the field. The video on overfishing, even though I had seen it previously, has a strong message and impressed me once again. Susie and Joan were so nice! And made us feel like friends straight away which was helpful as the first day was really daunting. I spent the previous night in hotel Vonitsa whih was unbelievably friendly but also quite lonely because I have never travelled alone before but, once we all met and went back to the field station I felt completely at ease. Joan cracked jokes almost instantly which allowed us to speak freely and Susie was so incredibly supportive. Thank you so much for giving me this opportunity it was totally lifechanging and made me even more passionate about conservation and how you should never give up!

Anabelle, U.K.


This was certainly the most unique experience I have had in my life. As an environmental lawyer, it felt amazing to work so close to the nature as well as to learn about dolphins and other marine mammals. Being at the sea in the morning and seeing so many dolphins was great! In addition, helping with the cropping and matching made me feel like if I was part of this project. The presentations and films were very enriching and for sure will contribute to a better development of my profession as well as for my personal evolution. Besides these most obvious things, this expedition turned to be much more than I expected in many ways. The house is extremely cosy and Joan and Susie made us feel at home all the time! We have had so much fun at lunch and dinner! They are very special people! The team was very nice and of course, Posi is so cute! To sum up, everything was great! Thank you so much Joan and Susie! I will miss these days!

Patricia, Brasil


The scenery, the atmosphere and the people were all wonderful. Joan and Susie were both very helpful and great fun. We were made to feel right at home from the very beginning. The lectures were very informative and interesting. We learned a lot about the dolphins and other marine mammals. The dolphin sightings were amazing! We got to see a large group feeding very close to our boat and the dolphins really put on a great show for us. They are so cute. We were extra lucky and saw about 16 dolphins in Kalamos on the first day in that area where, unfortunately, it is rather normal not to see any dolphins at all. We helped Susie and Joan with the cropping and matching and it was a great feeling to be able to help in this way. The heat was quite intense for us Canadians but we learned to do "siesta" in the afternoon after the first couple of days. The food was amazing. Everybody had a turn at making the evening meals so we all had input in what we ate. We feel we had a very good group of ladies, and Joan and we were all able to work very well together and good fun. This was the greatest experience in our lifetime. Thank you to Joan and Susie for making this such a wonderful experience.

Jenna and Kim, Canada

27 July 2009

First sighting of the year in Kalamos

Finally! Today, just after 15 minutes of navigation around the transparent waters of Kalamos we had our first sighting of the year. It was my seventh time surveying the area this year and I already had come to terms with the fact that a sighting, given the low dolphin density in these waters, was quite unlikely.

When my colleague Susie called out! I couldn’t believe it. My perplexity however, lasted only three seconds; the time it took me to turn around and spot the familiar silhouettes of the dolphin’s dorsal fins smoothly cutting the sea surface. As we approached them we confirmed that they were bottlenose dolphins. We spent over three hours photoidentifying the 16 dolphins of the group and recording their behaviour with the invaluable help of our five Earthwatch volunteers (Anabelle, Kim, Jenna, Lilly and Patricia). I cannot think of a better spot for the dolphins to pop up and make my day. Right in front of the beautiful village of Episkopi, where we had our field base for over 15 years and where, with no doubt, I have had some of the best moments of my life.

Because of my exclusive dedication to the research in the Amvrakikos Gulf for the past years, my last sighting in Kalamos was in 2004. Today, being around that group of dolphins felt special. Since I switched on the camera to get started with the photo-id, many memories kept coming to my mind: my first sighting (in a nearby location, 11 years ago); the first day I grabbed the camera with shaky hands after Giovanni (Bearzi) handed it to me and, with his sweet voice, said “Joan, six dolphins: photoidentify them all - you have half an hour”; the first research season in which me and my fratello Stefano (Agazzi) were in charge of the research and logistics on our own; and many hours spent in the company of these wonderful creatures…No doubt, I would not be the same person without all these experiences on my shoulders

The good old days of common and bottlenose dolphins being a regular sight around Kalamos are gone. However, allow me to be naïve and insufflate some optimism and hope. Today’s sighting also means that there is still a chance of things getting better in Kalamos. Today’s sighting was no mirage.


23 July 2009

A sighting, which was different from others

Back in 2007, I remember coming to the Amvrakikos Gulf with no previous experience. Thanks to the several months spent in the field, I am now more adept, but I still have to learn how to stand up on my own after a fall. While working in different study areas with my colleagues, I’ve got many chances of broadening my skills. Advise from my teachers Giovanni, Stefano and Joan allowed me to improve myself, but then the time arrives when one must fly away from the nest.

This time arrived earlier than I thought when Joan asked me to run a boat survey on my own. I felt fortunate to finally get such a nice opportunity and although my knees were shaking a bit, I felt joy.

On that morning, the Amvrakikos Gulf was completely flat so the circumstances were ideal. I decided to head towards the northwestern part of the Gulf. Everyone on board was eagerly scanning the sea surface until… out at 11! When the dolphins surfaced in the distance, my heart started to beat fiercely. But as we got closer I had become more focused on my several tasks, and oblivious of my initial excitement.

When I realized that there was a calf in the group, a smile appeared on my face. It is always a nice moment to see a tiny life following her mother with its clumsy surfacings. The dolphins, including the mother-calf pair, approached a fish farm. This was unexpected, because calves normally do not get close to the cages. At that moment, I realised that I wasn’t just an observer but I could understand what was going on and share this knowledge with my group of volunteers.

It was amazing to see things from another perspective compared to the sightings when I was acting as a research assistant, and someone else was in charge. Things that only a year ago appeared so overwhelmingly difficult, like driving the boat, taking good photos, recording the behaviour and directing people on board, all at once, now unfolded smoothly, and this gave me even more confidence and pleasure.

I still have a lot to learn in this field, but at least I could enjoy the feeling of being a leader for one day and experiencing how it feels to be responsible for a group of people on board, for all the data collection and for Joan’s ‘baby’, the inflatable.

In the end, everybody survived the first sighting with me. One volunteer, Jane, had a particularly good experience and her feelings came to surface after we moored the boat, back at the port, when I saw tears of joy in her eyes. Guys - it was a great experience for me, too! Thank you for being such a good team!

Zsuzsanna Pereszlényi

19 July 2009

Dolphins of Greece volunteers, 11-19 July 2009

What an incredible opportunity it has been to participate in Earthwatch’s Dolphins of Greece expedition. After a few excruciatingly hot days in Athens, I travelled to the indescribable town of Vonitsa, which pictures will not do justice to reflect its true beauty. The past eight days have been filled with memories, fun times, and educational opportunities that will stay with me for a lifetime. I feel so fortunate to have worked with a team of amazing volunteers - Avril, Allegra, Jane, and Matt. Also, as an educator myself, I have truly appreciated Joan and Susie’s (each unique) teaching styles which have allowed us all to learn so much about not only dolphins and Greece, but also a wide range of issues critical to the preservation of our Earth’s valuable resources.

Courtney, USA


Sea turtles
Dolphins, dolphins, dolphins
Feeding frenzy
Sightings galore

Avril, Australia


What can I say? This has been one of the most memorable experiences I have ever had and I enjoyed every bit of it, from the amazing dolphins to the unbearable heat! Vonitsa is a beautiful place and the introduction to it couldn’t have been better! I’ve learnt so much in a week, it’s incredible! I definitely won’t forget the dolphins bowriding our boat! I never thought I’d get to see them so close, let alone watch them feeding and swimming only a few meters away from us! Thanks for all the laughter and amazing moments. This expedition definitely showed me that it’s worth fighting for these beautiful animals!

Allegra, Switzerland


Vonitsa, Vonitsa. Oh how I will miss you. With your dolpins, gyro pitas and half-liter Heinekens, this is an experience that will never be forgotten. The heat rash and lack of modern room cooling practices will not be missed, however. Being my second Earthwatch trip, I came with some level of expectation and my stay here exceeded them all. This expedition would not have been so enjoyable if there were any other individuals in charge besides Joan and Susie. They're the greatest! Best of luck to the entire Tethys team and the wonderful work they are doing here.

Matt, USA


Dolphins of Greece,
Dolphins of Greece,
Oh how I will miss you.
You have surpassed the expectations that I have come with, and leave me to take a fresh new heart and eye for the world that surrounds me.
The land that you reside comes anew with the species that we have to help preserve.
Dolphins of Greece, your eye, your breath, your percussive and aerial behaviour never fails to awe me.
The beauty of the way that you travel and the way that you feed will always stay close to my heart.
I take with me the fond memories of you.
For the children of our future, I promise to educate about you.
Your protectors, amongst the many, Joan, Susie, Tethys, Earthwatch and many more will continue to care and watch over you.
Joan and Susie, thank you for teaching us about this species.
The new found knowledge that you have bestowed unto me will continue through my students.
The intelligence that you have shared will continue to spread through me.
My heart smiles as I leave Vonitsa.

Jane, USA

11 July 2009

Where to Begin to Make Change

Coming to Vonitsa as a research assistant happened naturally for me. The Mediterranean Sea and its beautiful coasts, is a region very close to my heart, and I immediately knew that I had to be a part of the Ionian Dolphin Project.

It was late evening when I arrived in Vonitsa. I managed to block out the lively music from the packed tavernas and focus on the lectures and terms racing through my mind. I reviewed the highlighted papers that were rolled up under my arm and I was certain that I was prepared for my first time working in the field, and my first time with any cetaceans in the wild.

My first sighting of a group of bottlenose dolphins came sooner than I had expected. Alongside the Earthwatch volunteers, on our first trip towards the center of the Amvrakikos Gulf, two adults stretched on the surface and peered out in our direction before an entire group of dolphins came into sight and began to forage. I felt the adrenaline immediately, and of course my mind went blank. Thank you Joan, for always getting me back on track.

As a Biology student you become overwhelmingly aware of the accumulating threats facing marine mammals and their sensitive habitats. As most of these threats occur on a global scale, they are often difficult to grasp and they only become a constant reminder that you are just one individual. Ultimately, it becomes all too easy to get lost in your studies and to lose sight of your way and where to begin to make change.

In the short time I’ve spent in Vonitsa I’ve learned more than I could have prepared myself for. I feel like I’ve grown more as a Biologist during these ten days than in my five years at the University. Thank you to the Earthwatch volunteers for sharing their time, from the dedication in the field to the painful belly laughs over dinner.
On my last day out in the Gulf we sighted two calves with their mothers foraging by their sides. It is with these experiences, when science becomes something tangible, something that you can share with others, that all the lectures, the stress, and the long nights finally make sense again, and you remember that this is how one person can begin to make a change.

Iva (Canada/Serbia)

10 July 2009

Dolphins of Greece volunteers, 1-9 July 2009

After a long trip I am usually ready to return home, but working with Joan and Iva and the dolphins has been such a wonderful experience that I wish it could go on for a few more days.

Our group was very impressed with Joan’s abilities, especially to take photo’s while driving the boat with one foot, while giving directions to us volunteers on where to keep our eyes. “Shout louder please Sophie, I can’t hear you”.
Joan, your knowledge, dedication, and patience is admirable. I will take your message back to my students to inspire them, and challenge them to take better care of our planet so that dolphins and every other creature (humans too!) can enjoy a beautiful healthy planet.

Many thanks to Iva for teaching me how to use the netpad and all her help with the photo cropping, grouping and matching. Without your help we’d still be working on the first batch of photos.

Maureen (USA)


For 9 days, I was living in my childhood fantasy that I would have a dolphin as my pet and have a bathtub big enough for it. Here in Vonitsa, I have a beautiful “bathtub” big enough to hold more than 150 amazing dolphins, lots of sea turtles and different kinds of fishes. When the dolphins were surrounding us, we could hear them breathing so peacefully. I almost jumped out of the boat to swim with them. (Sorry Joan, I know you said they’re wild animals just like tigers and lions. Swimming with them is unpredictable)

The day we did our last survey at Amvrakikos Gulf, I saw a group of 5 dolphins in the afternoon from the beach. They were about only 200m away which supposedly to be the closest sighting “ever”! We took it as a gesture of saying goodbye to us.

This is my first Earthwatch expedition and I enjoyed every second of it. Joan is an experienced marine biologist with great knowledge and enthusiasm. He is also a REAL guy and you feel like yourself around him. All of our group members liked him a lot and probably went home with lots of precious “quotes” from him. (Some might not be approperiate for kids)
Thanks Joan, Iva, Marcia, Maureen, Sophie and Bo for this wonderful experience in my life!

Nan (USA)


I visited Greece many years ago as a tourist and always wanted to return as something more. This expedition and Earthwatch have provided me with that opportunity. Joan is a magnificent research scientist doing and sharing so much more than merely his knowledge. He is implementing a program to hopefully change the fate of the dolphins he studies.

Iva’s patience and kind expertise (even as she learns ) is inspirational.
Thank you for this wonderful opportunity. The sea, the dolphins, the village and all of the knowledge that you imparted are appreciated and will be shared many times over with friends and associates. Hopefully a greater impact will be made as a result of all of your efforts!

Marcia (USA)


When I arrived I had never seen a dolphin outside an aquarium. Now, a week later, I have a mental catalogue of cetacean friends. Tip for new photo-matchers: mnemonics help! “Wedge” and “Kissy Lips” were much easier (and more fun!) to spot than “A2” and “A14”. I enjoyed the simple, slow life of a (pampered, wannabe) marine biologist. I ate delicious food. I breathed clean air. I learned a lot. I laughed a lot! Thanks, Joan, for showing us your version of what life can be when it’s not about “stuff”.

Bo (USA)

PS – Some useful Greek phrases:
KaliMERa! – Don’t forget your sun screen!

TeKANete? – Have you stepped on an urchin yet today?

PolikaLA! – Not yet!
YASSas! – Save the dolphins!


This has been a “brilliantly lovely” introduction to Greece, I'm so glad I came on this project. I feel like I've learnt so much in just a short space of time. Despite not being able to differentiate between 3 o'clock and 9 o'clock in the pressure of the moment, not yelling loud enough, and getting the distances all wrong, I hope I've helped in a small way (and not frustrated Joan too much!).

Congrats to Joan for all his hard work and dedication, its very impressive and inspiring. Congrats also to Iva, a top notch assistant! I will leave this place with many special memories – from “floating potatoes”, to “blip” the dolphin, to yummy greek salad (with cucumbers), to the “totally awesome” moment when a dolphin was bowriding right next to me!!!

Since I'm studying science at university I just want to mention how encouraging it was to see that the work done was carefully considered so as to be scientifically sound, and therefore valuable to the wider scientific community. Keep up the good work Joan et al ☺

Thanks for all the laughter, but also for showing one person can make a difference in the world. All the best to my lovely team of Nan & Bo, Marcia, and Maureen.

Sophie (UK)

07 July 2009

What do dolphins in Greece have to do with whales in Maine?

What do dolphins in Greece have to do with whales in Maine? We wanted to know so we went to Greece to find out! As teachers in Expeditionary Learning schools, we qualified to apply for a grant from Fund for Teachers and received a fellowship to work with Earthwatch Institute.

For 10 days last Summer we worked with Tethys Research Institute as volunteers on the Dolphins of Greece expedition.
We learned so much about dolphins and how they are identified and even got to know some of them by name. We found out what marine mammals need in order to survive and what conservation efforts exist or are being proposed in order to protect them. We learned about the methods scientists use to observe and record data in the field and turn that data into long term studies that demonstrate how people play a vital role in the survival of species. We also learned that all species are equally fascinating and equally important and that they are all interconnected. All species are threatened by pollution, loss of habitat and over fishing; and all species play a vital role in the delicate balance of nature.

As teachers we needed to take all that we had learned and transform it into an expedition for children that focused on the relevant content and skills they needed to learn at their grade level. And, as teachers of English as a second language, we needed to find a way to present information and concepts in a comprehensible manner. In addition to learning lots of information about individual species and forces at work within the ocean ecosystem, we wanted students to develop a spirit of curiosity and adventure. We wrote grants to buy materials and pay for field experiences. We went to teacher workshops and developed relationships with local experts. We met with other school personnel to get feedback and refine our plans. We named our expedition: The Sea and Me and began in the spring of ’09. Our guiding questions were: 1- Why should people care about the oceans? 2- Who lives in Casco Bay, Maine? Finally, 3- Is the Casco Bay ecosystem endangered?

With the students, we conducted experiments, watched You Tube videos, observed plankton, and took many trips to the shore to observe and record data. Through an L.L. Bean grant we were able to take our 2 classes on a 5 hour whale watch 20 miles out from Portland Harbor. Even though the trip was long and arduous (including lots of throwing up) everyone loved it! For days afterward students came to school asking when we were going in the boat again.

We developed a list of plants and animals that live here in Maine’s coastal waters and began researching their characteristics, place in the food web and threats to their survival. We looked at local sources of pollution and other threats to the animals such as overfishing and gear entanglement and read about laws created to protect them. We worked with local artists, authors and experts in the field. After researching and learning to care about the animals, the students created a final product in order to share what they had learned with others. The Middle School students created a book containing vital information about each species. The first and second grade class created a board game that illustrates the connections between plants, animals and people.

Our culminating event was a presentation of the final products to other classes of students at the East End Community School. In all, we created 10 sets of books and games to distribute. Teachers were impressed by the advanced vocabulary students used to explain complicated concepts. We were impressed by their excitement to learn, the bonding that developed between the two groups of students and their collaboration in this endeavor, and by their deeper understanding of the importance of preserving the ocean ecosystem and all that lives in it and depends on it.

Amy and Marcia, USA


In August 2008 Amy and Marcia participated as volunteers in the Dolphins of Greece expedition. From the first instant of their arrival they were eager to learn and to gather as much information as possible to take back with them to their classrooms. What they have managed to accomplish with their students is impressive and should be an example to be followed by many. Well done girls!


Susie in regalia

Tethys collaborator Zsuzsanna Pereszlényi received her MSc in Biology during an official cerimony at the University of Pécs, Hungary, after having also passed a most challenging State Exam.

Susie graduated with a thesis titled "Feeding behaviour of common bottlenose dolphins Tursiops truncatus in the Amvrakikos Gulf, Greece".


Photo: Susie in regalia at her MSc cerimony