29 May 2010

Dolphins of Greece volunteers, 21-28 May 2010

Ahhhhh, there were things that made me leery of this project… cooking… and bunkbeds among them. But hey, I didn’t cook, and the beds were just fine. But I knew when we arrived at the rendezvous and I sat watching the gulf that all would be more than fine (especially since the rain stopped about that time...not to be seen again while we’ve been here).

I have immensely enjoyed each of the Earthwatch projects I’ve been part of and Dolphins of Greece is no exception… might even now head the list as favourite. Have learned so much more than I expected thanks to our knowledgeable, amusing (and sometimes smart aleck?) PI, Joan (and trusty sidekick, Iva). I fear I will never feel the same about eating fish again, which is undoubtedly a good thing, and I suspect some friends at home may become a bit tired of my passing along what I’ve learned.

Best of all, of course, were the dolphins themselves, how kind of them to gather a large contingent to come greet us our first morning on the gulf—what a show! And then to provide another astonishing performance on our last day seemed a marvelous bonus. In between, they let us be with them, showed us something different each day and gave us practice in dealing with that lovely netpad (our hand-held computer), and remembering to be LOUD when hollering out that a dolphin was out at 4 o'clock and 30 meters, or was that 80 meters, maybe 150? How could anyone spend time with these lovely beings and not want to do whatever little bit she could to help research that might some day help them?

The company was excellent and the food was yummy. I, a confirmed cat person, even thought Posi was delightful. The only complaint I could think of about this entire experience is that IT’S TOO DARNED SHORT! I am a bit bereft realizing that there will be no wind-blown ride onto the gulf in the morning, but the memories (and about a bazillion photos—thanks for being patient with me and my camera) will last a very long time. And really, Joan, when I win the lottery, I’ll be back. Be prepared.

Marcia (USA)


What a great experience! I had never been in Greece before or on an Earthwatch expedition. Really would recommend it to anyone. I sure hope that the dolphins will be here in 10 years, and will do what I can to encourage marine conservation. I liked the small group we had of 3 volunteers and two research staff. I liked being involved in so many aspects of the research effort and the research staff really made me feel like I was contributing to the overall picture. I had trouble determining distance especially in meters, but it worked out. This experience with Earthwatch was excellent. Hope to do more expeditions in the future. Would love to take a niece or nephew on a trip. I encouraged some co-workers to try something like this so I hope that they will and that they will spread the word to conserve our wonderful marine environment.

Dolly (USA)


I think our team was most fortunate in having lovely May weather - cool in the mornings and evenings and warm at mid day. We did not have a single day without dolphins and saw almost every behaviour. It was not until our last day that I actually saw the white belly of a dolphin during surface feeding behaviour, which we were able to observe from just five meters. We spotted two Dalmatian pelicans during our runs and were able to observe one for quite a while, flying just above the surface of the water. The time with the dolphins was most precious but I really enjoyed learning to crop and match the photographs too. Joan was very generous with his time in making sure we understood all aspects of the research. He is not only a dedicated scientist and excellent teacher but a great cook! Iva was very instrumental in being sure we understood everything and were comfortable during our stay. I was especially pleased to learn that this Earthwatch project has an active outreach component, working with local people and especially school children. I look forward to sharing the materials developed for children with my Canadian grandchildren. I thought I was fairly knowledgeable about marine conservation but I really have a new fund of knowledge to share about what we as consumers and citizens need to do to save the seas and our wonderful aquatic friends. Marcia and I have survived 5 previous Earthwatch trips together but having Dolly as our coworker made this trip a delight. Thanks to all of you for a wonderful experience. Yes, even Posy was a good companion.

Nancy (USA)

21 May 2010

Great start for Team 4

Today we welcomed our fourth team of volunteers of the season. After a brief introductory session to our research protocols, methods and safety procedures, I left Mary, Marcia, Nancy and Iva (our research-assistant) in the volunteer’s loft, getting familiar with the hand-held computer we use onboard to collect data on dolphin behaviour. I went out to the balcony to check on Poseidon (our dog) and think about the different ways of improving my P.I. skills - i.e. I was actually having a cigarette ;-), when a large flock of seagulls called my attention. After a few seconds of observation I spotted a group of 3-4 dolphins surface-feeding right below the frenzy of seabirds, half a mile away from Vonitsa’s seafront. I rung the alarm and we all flew off to the small pier right in front of our field base to observe our first sighting together. We stayed there until they stopped feeding, progressively moving out from sight. We could not ask for a better start or for a better welcome for our new group of Earthwatchers!


13 May 2010

A great experience

I have loved dolphins since I was ten. To participate in the Dolphins of Greece expedition as a research assistant is a dream come true for me. When I arrived to Vonitsa a month ago I was anxious to face the challenge. During my first sighting I was so nervous! A couple of days later I was the first to spot the dolphins and progressively, I started to feel more comfortable with the data collection and with the application of the different research protocols. I suddenly felt that I was enjoying it very much. I will always remember that moment when I felt that ‘yes, this is what I really want to do’. Since then, I have spent many amazing moments with the dolphins of the Amvrakikos Gulf.

I have also enjoyed sharing this experience with our volunteers. I met many interesting people who, as I do, believe in the principle that as individuals we can do a lot for the environment and for the conservation of nature. I am eager to get back home and share my experiences with family and friends.

I am full of enthusiasm and I am looking forwards to come back in June and do my best to help with the work carried out by Tethys. Joan has taught me a lot. However, there are so many things still to be learnt!

Anikó Szegedi (Panni)
Research assistant from Hungary

12 May 2010

Dolphins of Greece volunteers, 5-12 May 2010

This week leaves me feeling privileged, humbled and challenged.

I consider myself privileged to have been introduced to the Amvrakikos Gulf and to the dolphins by somebody who knows them so well and who is dedicating his life and energy to monitoring them and working for the preservation and restoration of their environment. Thank you, Joan. I also feel extremely privileged to have been able to participate in meaningful and rigorous research and to have been able to contribute, albeit on the most simple of tasks, with Joan and Panni as they start another season of intense work.

Much of the time when we saw dolphins, I could not speak – I was completely overcome by these beautiful, healthy, magnificent animals. My feelings were a mixture of overwhelming awe, respect, marvel and total calmness, which was not what I expected. Watching the dolphins in their environment without our presence affecting them - to observe them feeding, socialising {sometimes intimately!}, travelling, communicating – was incredible – one runs out of superlatives, but I felt totally humbled and totally blessed. I love all aspects of this place, the sky, how the mountains change from hour to hour and day to day, the islands, the water, the dolphins, the flocks of solitary {!!} pelicans, the bats flitting around at dusk – just the peace, and the knowledge that the dolphins are still out there and, hopefully, with the work of Tethys and dedicated men and women, like Joan and Panni, will thrive here for many decades.

We have seen dolphins every day and, even just sighting them was perfect for me. But, as the week has progressed, we have witnessed more and more incredible examples of how wild dolphins behave. Over the last three days I feel Amvrakikos has yielded more of itself to us – the unconventionally beautiful pelicans, the beautiful, sleek grey forms of the dolphins out on the horizon and so close to the boat. Seeing them socialising, mating, moving out of the water to look at us, leaping and, today, feeding and then relaxing has been a very precious gift to me.

I also feel challenged by knowing that the balance here is so fragile, that this place is so unique and that the simplest of my choices - ‘what shall we have for tea tonight’ - may have a direct impact on what happens here and elsewhere in the world. Joan said we cannot take on the whole world and you have to decide what you really believe in and follow it through – to ‘focus’. This week I realise, with a degree of shame, that I may ‘talk the talk’, but could certainly ‘walk the walk’ with more conviction and dedication than I have done. Joan’s focus and dedication is an inspiration and so, as well as being completely overwhelmed by the dolphins themselves, to spend time alongside somebody with such deep commitment and personal passion, has been a very humbling experience. Thank you, Joan.

In more practical terms, I can fault nothing. For me the balance between work and relaxation time is good and it was good to feel that the exercises we were doing in the afternoon were ‘real’ and not just ‘dummies’ for ‘the volunteers’ to play with. I am sorry I was so inept with the palmtop on the first day – I shall bring my monocle next time!! The lectures, talks and videos are very informative, very comprehensive and I thought provided a perfect platform for further reading, discussions, questions etc. The field station is very comfortable – much more so than I expected - and beautifully arranged – thank you Joan for all those trips to Ikea and for letting us into your beautiful home. Sharing the cooking is a brilliant idea and we have eaten so well this week – once again, far beyond what I expected. Panni is an absolute poppet and her gentle touches on my shoulder and guidance with the palmtop, on which groups of dolphins to concentrate on and sweetness around the house have really helped dispel my nervousness (I really didn’t want to be ‘the Weakest Link’. Joan, I thank you for all you have taught me this week and for explaining everything so thoroughly and willingly. Yes, you are exacting, but extremely professional and your professionalism and demand for accuracy and high quality gives weight and absolute credence to your work, which is such an excellent example to us volunteers

Thank you Joan and Panni for sharing your space for the week, and of course, thank you to Posi for providing some canine company, evening acoustics and much amusement!! Joan, Panni and my dear co-volunteer, Nina, are very special people and this has been a very happy week – for the things I have seen and been part of, the company and friendships formed and being part of something bigger, and hopefully longer-lasting than myself. I’m really happy that Nina and I are continuing our Grecian ‘odissey’, which means we can continue to talk about this amazing week and I think both of us will leave a bit of ourselves here anyway…

Karen Musk (UK)


“Splashes on the horizon,

Tails in the air.

Peace, with dolphins breathing.”

This has been my first volunteering experience in conservation, and it has been so much more than I ever expected it to be. This is something I have wanted to do for years and in finally plucking up the courage to go for it, I leave with far more than some pretty photos, a sun tan and a tick in a box! I leave with an appreciation of the delicate interplay between individuals within a highly social community, between a species and their environment, and between mankind’s economic agendas and the impact of these on fragile ecosystems. I also take with me new friendships: Karen, Joan and Panni, this team has felt more like a funny little family than anything else! I very much look forward to these friendships developing.

Life at the Vonitsa research station on this expedition has struck the perfect balance between practical fieldwork and project support, educational and relevant discussions, free time, delicious meals and warm conversation around the dinner table (with just the right amount of micky-taking)! Joan, you have created a lovely home for us here – thank you for sharing this space and your time with us so openly. Bear-like in the mornings (heehee), you foster a warm and positive atmosphere within the team by simply being yourself: we have laughed so much (about things that I dare not elaborate on here..!) and talked about so many things. Your enthusiasm, commitment and knowledge of this field is as broad as it is infectious – I defy anyone to not take away a more responsible attitude to the treatment of marine life, nor a deep interest in the life of cetaceans (or a taste for the capuccino freddo!!)! Panni, you are such a warm, open and caring girl – thank you for setting the scene for the lovely atmosphere that has developed over the week. You have been so good in training us with the palmtop and with processing the photos to be able to identify individuals – it seems you’ve been doing this for years, you are a very good and patient teacher. Your enthusiasm for learning new things and taking this forward into your career is commendable and I wish you all the best for your future endeavours (and I mean it about getting in touch if you need help with applications etc!). Posi – thank you for your unswerving enthusiasm (for food and walks) and for providing such material for laughter..! (although I don’t thank you Joan for using this material just when I’d always taken a mouthful of food! Cheeky!)

Our days on board ‘The Baby’ have been exquisite: we have been so lucky with our sightings, seeing such a range of behaviours demonstrated and by so many individuals. The allocation and organisation of training, responsibilities and activities within the team out on the boat have been impecable: proof of the long term experience the project managers have. All procedures are well practiced and organised in a safe, inclusive (and fun!) manner. I feel like I have significantly broadened my knowledge of research techniques for this type of work, and I plan to take these forward in my own career now. And Joan, I am sorry about getting so excited about the sightings that I end up all over the boat, especially with my head in the frame... oops!!

The last two sightings have been, well, too rich for these few words to fully illustrate. Being in the middle of the beautifully smooth Amvrakikos Gulf waters, surrounded by dolphins: we have witnessed intimate social behaviour, the affection between familiar individuals; we have watched dolphins use their bodies to corral fish to the surface to feed, seen mothers with their young so close by; we have seen playful breaching in breath-taking displays. We have come to recognise individuals, and have seen how these are like old friends to our captain! And all the while it has felt a privilege to be there, to be accepted by these facinating creatures – and especially at times to be the subject of playful curiosity!

Today, when Joan switched the boat engine off and we were alone with the sounds of the Gulf, we had a time that I will never forget. Hearing nothing but the breath of our group of resting dolphins, the ripple of the water as they surfaced and the gentle lap of the waters against the hull of the boat, I realised that I was in their world, and that I was there only because they allowed it. It was an honour.

Nina (UK)

09 May 2010

Unforgettable "Dalmatian" experience

This morning, after following a group of bottlenose dolphins for about an hour and a half we encountered a large group of Dalmatian pelicans Pelecanus crispus. In total, we estimated 24 individuals. Slowly approaching them with our research boat they allowed us to observe them from just a few meters away.

Dalmatian pelicans are large and elegant waterbirds which wingspan can easily reach about 3 m. In the past they were widely distributed throughout Europe and Asia. During the last century, however, their population dropped drastically and occurrence in Europe is now limited. The species is classified as Vulnerable in the IUCN Red List.

The islets in the lagoons Tsoukalio and Logarou in the northern Amvrakikos Gulf is one of the few European sites where they are regularly nesting.

Today we enjoyed the largest congregation of these magnificent animals registered since we started working in the Gulf, i.e. since 2001. Watching their majestic wings spreading right in front of us for takeoff left us all wide-eyed and speechless. Unforgettable!


02 May 2010

Dolphins of Greece volunteers, 26 April - 3 May 2010

In these eight days you have given me so much to thank you for. Thank you for the eagerness with which you shared information about not only dolphins, but the state of the oceans as a whole. Thank you for your openness and clear interest in the questions and views of others and of course thank you for the chance to come so close to dolphins in the wild, this meant more to me then I can express with words. But most of all thank you for not pushing me off the boat for insubordination!

Genevieve (USA)


This experience was so educational and informative! What a wonderful opportunity to visit a veritable paradise, meet interestig people, learn, and do good work. I kept voluminous notes on all the documentaries and presentations Joan shared with us. I am not sure how I will use them to help spread the word about how we must all work to save our precious animals and environment, but with his approval I will find a way. A vegetarian and animal rights defender for decades, this experience not only deepened my resolve to continue to influence others whenever possible and appropriate, but it also heightened my sense of urgency about informing and educating the public and our policy makers. Returning to an intense learning environment for eight days after many years of a mentally unchallenging lifestyle was just the right jolt I needed to begin exercising my brain cells more often. Even the library of paperbacks and hardcover books here offered both leisure time pleasure and more learning opportunities. An overall good experience!

Joan and Ely (USA)