29 September 2009

Dolphins of Greece volunteers, 21-29 September 2009

This morning we woke up ready to make the most of our last day at sea, and after poor weather kept us moored in the house for two days prior, we were ready for it. I hummed the song Something Only We Know to myself, the song from Keane’s album The Iron Sea, which was popularized in the movie He’s Just Not That Into You. As the boat shuttled out past the marina this morning, we headed toward the open gulf in search of dolphins, one last sighting, one last day to help with the conservation efforts of Tethys Institute and our research leader, Joan Gonzalvo. I looked down at the water beside me, to the left side of the rubber inflated boat. The clarity of the water became more opaque as we headed further out, but was still translucent enough to allow sightings of dolphins bowriding, a ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ scenario that I was lucky enough to witness on our most recent sighting. It wouldn’t occur today, but I kept my eyes peeled, in case. I also kept an eye further out, where the sea appeared as a dark teal that deepened in color as the depth of the water increased. Ahead of the bow, the dark water wrinkled just enough for small waves to sift up and back into the water again, hosting small spots of sunlight that sparkled like diamonds laid upon a velvet cloth. The sun beckoned freckles forth from the pale skin of my nose and I basked in the warmth, as I kept my eyes trained on the water. ‘Just one’, I thought, ‘we just need one sighting and the rest will follow’. Finally, Joan shouted out, ‘One o’clock! Far out!’ And the boat throttled faster toward the direction of his outstrectched hand. We continually thereafter spotted a small group, maybe between four and six dolphins. By now, we had been through the routine of spotting and counting these animals, but the sightings were just as awe-inspiring, watching sleek slate grey beasts rise and fall soundlessly out of the iron sea.

Toward the end of the day, I glanced over my shoulder at our boat’s stern – the water beyond us had taken on an icy blue appearance that seemed as flat as glass below the mountains of the region, giant monoliths that faded into the mist like shadows. I shook myself from the mesmerizing sight. Someone had spotted our guy, one single solitary dolphin traveling alone, with no telltale marks yet, but the ability to capture our hearts. I snapped several photos with my personal camera, unable to tell from the glare whether it was a good shot or not. Luckily I did end up with one good shot of the cetacean emerging from the sea – one single solitary shot - but a million memories will linger in my mind. From trying out my greetings in Greek with the locals to snapping photos of the grapes hanging off their trellises; avoiding jelly fish at the beach with purple centers that remind me of brains; traveling to Lefkada and Poros for day trips; cooking together and sharing meals; this has been a well thought out and wonderful trip. On this eighth day, I didn’t spot any sea turtles, but rumor has it, they’re around. When end of the work day was near, we witnessed a pelican to the far right by a small rust colored island covered with a dusting of nubby logan green bushes. This was a nice bonus. Finally we turned the boat south and headed back to Vonitsa, tired and mentally fatigued, but content. By now, we’d witnessed mothers and their calves, groups of dolphins feeding and leaping, often swimming so close together in small groups of two or three that from a distance they almost appeared to be the same animal. From time to time members of our team glanced at each other, exchanging smiles, watching the dolphins living peacefully and seemingly unperturbed, with no need to put on a show for us - this was the real thing. It was something only we knew.

I’ll never forget this experience, these people and the wonderful Greek people of Vonitsa. Joan, you were right – and every mishap that happened to me along the way was worth it. I’ll second the opinion of past volunteers- the videos impacted me tremendously and I’ve already begun to share the Whaletrackers links with friends and family. To Earthwatch, Tethys, and my teammates: Thanks for everything. One of my favorite responsibilities was jumping from the boat to shore with the ropes. Thanks for letting me. PS –I had the best seat in the house at the bow of the boat!

Ashley (USA)


This was truly the experience of a lifetime. I was the lucky winner of a drawing at my company, Petro-Diamond, for an Earthwatch expedition. I chose “The Dolphins of Greece” for a few reasons, the first was... I wanted to see Greece. I did not see myself coming to Greece on a vacation, so I wanted to take the opportunity to visit this beautiful land. The second reason was because I have always found dolphins to be interesting, more interesting than the other creatures of the sea, almost like they have a kinship with humans somehow. I have been forever changed in my appreciation for these beautiful animals. Joan and Aina were so patient with the team the first day at sea out of Vonitsa, we were a bit overwhelmed with the number of dolphins all around us. It was such a wonderful sight!! Dolphins everywhere... literally everywhere that you looked. It was difficult to stay focused on the project at hand and not be in awe of what was in front of you. Once we were back at the house, we began the cropping, grouping and matching... so many differences in a dorsal fin, who knew? Well, I know now.

I will forever view the sea differently and have a deep appreciation for sealife and especially the beautiful dolphins. The meals together were a highlight, planning and prepareing and cleaning up after them, all of it was a delight. I would like to thank Joan and Aina for the hospitality that they showed us during our stay (Posi was a great addition to the group considering I miss my dogs that are at home in Cali). Joan was truly entertaining (funny and straight-up... love that) and a good sport to host us for most of our expedition without an assistant. Also, thank you to Earthwatch for giving me the opportunity to have this experience. Lastly, thank you to my team... I truly felt that we worked well as a group in the boat and back at the house! Thank goodness that we had playing cards, and David to teach us every game known to man!!

Stephanie (USA)

19 September 2009

Dolphins of Greece volunteers 11-19 September 2009

As the last day of the expedition comes to an end, I am able to reflect on all the information I have learned and gathered from watching the documentaries, presentations, and dolphin sightings this past week. Although I have some previous knowledge about overfishing and dolphins, coming on the project has reminded me how naive the rest of the world actually is and the need to spread more conservation awareness. Perhaps people just need more hands on experience to realize the danger humans pose to wildlife and the need to help them. Thanks to Joan and Aina for being patient with us and for helping us learn more about dolphins while having fun with us. Maybe, one day, we will randomly meet again somewhere, whether it is the water or in another country! Organizations like Earthwatch give us a wonderful eye-opening experience and hopefully, more people will be able to join projects like this one. Thanks!

Ashley (USA)


The last day has arrived and we are getting ready to depart. The Dolphins of Greece Expedition has met all my expectations and more! The sightings of the dolphins were spectacular and Joan and Aina were great teachers. Their strongest aspect was showing their enthusiasm and dedication to the research and imparting their knowledge on us. What I will take out of this experience is the education. The videos had such an impact; they bring the criticality of the environmental aspects and the impact of the choices we make. Understanding the critical linkages to the environment and the future of all marine mammals and fish were eye opening. I know that my personal choices will be reinforced. I will also search out for opportunities to help others bridge that knowledge to bring about change, which will be my ultimate challenge. Thank you again for the great experience. The only thing I would change is altering my approach to my turn at cooking. Fine restaurants or doing all the dishes for the week would be great incentives and a lot more pleasurable for everyone. Thanks!

Marge (USA)


This having been my first environmental expedition and first time to Greece, there was a lot to take in and experience. Outside of the opportunity this provided to observe the unique characteristics of Greek and Spanish...sorry, “Catalan” cultures, I came away with a deeper insight and greater appreciation for the men and women that dedicate their lives to bring about environmental awareness and global change. Not to mention further fuelling my desire to remain involved in conservation endeavors, while exploring the rest of the globe.

Mike (USA)

10 September 2009

Old friends sighted around Kalamos

A few days ago, two V.I.D. (Very Important Dolphins) were encountered around the island Kalamos: Pira and Spiti, both bottlenose dolphins, seen together in a group of 11 individuals.

In 2006 Pira, a male, had a piece of yellow fishing net stuck in his blowhole, but by July 2009 he had managed to extrude the net from the blowhole. During the September sighting, Pira went to bowride in front of our research boat and Joan Gonzalvo took some nice photos of the blowhole, confirming that the net went away without causing any visible problem.

Spiti is the most popular dolphin among volunteers who had a chance to see this dolphins around Kalamos, thanks to his distinctive non-fin. Spiti's dorsal fin has been cut-off (possibly by a longline or a boat propeller) in 2003. Despite the dramatic amputation, Spiti recovered well and pigmentation went back to the original dark grey color.

Silvia Bonizzoni

Top photo: Pira bowriding our research boat
Bottom photo: Spiti with his missing dorsal fin

09 September 2009

Dolphins of Greece volunteers 1-9 September 2009

Everyone comes here for different reasons and with different expectations. I came on short notice, with little fanfare or personal preparation, but with the expectation that I have been given a rare opportunity to contribute to something greater than myself, and I leave hoping that I have not let anyone down. Seeing dolphins in their natural habitat, assisting with the research, learning and understanding more the impact of our seafood consumption and consumerism globally can be very eye opening, and challenging. This is the type of experience that has the potential to change your life, in little and in big ways. We were a small team, two volunteers and two researchers, I want to say that Joan and Aina were very patient with us, and worked very hard to ensure that the two of us had a memorable experience from start to finish. They both took good nature jokes made by me and my volunteer partner and laughed through many meals while maintaining the position of leader/teacher and kept us focused and on track to make our contribution to this fabulous research project.

Marsha, USA

Learning about the environmental challenges of the Amvrakikos Gulf has been an educational experience. Learning about dolphins has been not just educational, but exciting! While I am not a scientist and have limited skills, it is a good feeling to be able to contribute to scientific research in some small way and to help prepare a conservation management plan for these precious resources. Joan and Aina are very dedicated, knowledgeable, patient and kind. They made my time here a rewarding experience and had endless patience with my fumbling ways and many questions. They are both good instructors and committed biologists and understand how to motivate volunteers. Their good nature and sense of humour led to many good times together. They also enhanced our exploration of the areas tourists by giving us good suggestions of food, tavernas and local places to visit. The dolphin project can open one’s eyes in many ways and I hope many others have an experience as fulfilling as mine. Thank you Joan, Aina, Earthwatch and partner Marsha for a terrific experience.

Glenda, USA

Oh Tursiops truncatus so dear

A small poem written by Earthwatch volunteer Glenda Booth after her dolphin experience in Vonitsa, Greece (September 8th, 2009).

There once was a man named Joan,

Who rose when still the dew on,

‘Cause dolphins he chased,
Round the sea in a race,
As intently his gum he chewed on.

There once was a girl named Aina,
As pretty as Princess Diana,
She worked like a slave,

Till she fell in her grave,

‘Cause dolphins to her were not minor.

The team sails out at sunrise,

Half awake and with so blurry eyes,

On a search far and near,

For sea creatures so dear,

And with nary a hope for a prize.

The sun it beats down very hot,

The boat heaves and flops quite a lot,

We can hardly hold on,

We cringe and we moan,

But they push us until we drop.

Our captain he yells and he screams,

As we think of wine and ice cream,
“Look one to three,

And not at your knee,

You’ve missed 20 dolphins I’ve seen!”

“Sit down, stand up”, he commands,

“look here, look there, all around.

Don’t pull any stunts,

Do it all, all at once,
And don’t behave like a clown”.

Six dolphins, they jump at seven,
And six more, they dive at eleven,
Their fins have some nicks,

As if beaten by sticks,

I know we will see them in heaven.

They demand reliable data,

Like how and when did he mate her?

How long was the dive?
Their calves, four or five?

Is his fin like a flattened potato?

Our lovely assistant is cool,

She knows and obeys every rule.

She ties all the ropes

And tugs all the floats, A
nd ensures that we are not fools.

We drag our butts home all hot,

We yearn to escape the despot,
“Oh no, onward team!

There’s more in our scheme,

For now we must dot and crop!”

Oh Tursiops truncatus so dear,

For you we will give many years,

And sacrifice all,

To answer the call

When Joan and Aina want us near.

Glenda Booth

02 September 2009

Ionian Dolphin Project web update

The web site section of the Ionian Dolphin Project has been updated to include work conducted until July 2009.

Check it out!



The Ionian Dolphin Project is a long-term research and conservation programme conducted by the Tethys Research Institute in the Ionian Sea.

In 1991 the Tethys Research Institute started a study around the island of Kalamos, in the Inner Ionian Sea Archipelago (a Natura 2000 area). Initially meant to be a long-term investigation on the ecology and behaviour of common dolphins in a central Mediterranean hotspot, the study documented their sharp decline. Common dolphins declined dramatically from about 150 to 15 animals between 1995 and 2007. Actions by Tethys aim to facilitate their recovery. Bottlenose dolphins are found in the same area in relatively small numbers, but have stable trends and were studied intensively over the past decade. Ongoing monitoring allows to detect changes in population status and propose timely management measures.

In 2001 Tethys started a study in the Amvrakikos Gulf, where bottlenose dolphins are the only cetacean species encountered. This study showed that about 150 dolphins live in the Gulf. These dolphins are members of a resident community showing unique behaviour and ecology. The Gulf - which is part of a larger National Park - is also inhabited by loggerhead sea turtles Caretta caretta and has a rich bird fauna including rare species. Research carried out by Tethys is documenting how the local dolphin community interacts with its environment and how human activities - particularly fishing and pollution - may influence its conservation status.

In 2009 Tethys started a new study in the Gulf of Corinth to investigate the ecology and status of three cetacean species: bottlenose dolphins, striped dolphins and short-beaked common dolphins. Although the number of striped dolphins living in the Gulf is still unknown, concerns over their status are raised by their likely small population size, high degree of geographic isolation, reproductive closeness and limited extent of occurrence. Striped dolphins in the Gulf are often associated with a few common dolphins and inbreeding between the two species may occur. Bottlenose dolphins also live in the Gulf at low densities.

Research by Tethys is providing support to management efforts in the eastern Ionian Sea, through actions including:

- continued monitoring of dolphin groups through field research methods including boat surveys and individual photo-identification, to detect population trends, identify critical habitat, and gain further insight into ways of mitigating the present threats;

- research on factors threatening the local ecosystem, particularly with regard to the impact of fishing;

- public awareness initiatives (e.g. involvement of a large number of volunteers, “Dolphin Days” and other events organized locally, public presentations, lectures at local schools, video productions);

- contacts and meetings with the local Authorities and fishermen organisations, aimed to a) raise awareness on the need to establish measures to protect dolphins and implement the existing regulations (e.g. with regard to illegal fishing activities); and b) identify ways to compensate any losses for fishermen or promote a progressive re-conversion of their activities;

- dissemination of information in the scientific literature and provision of sound data and management proposals to international agreements and bodies concerned with the protection of marine biodiversity.